It's probably safe to say that few expected Donte Whitner to have as much success as he did when he joined the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. He was aging and had seemingly hit his ceiling, but he wound up making his first and second Pro Bowls with the franchise, and parlayed that into a lucrative free agent deal with the Cleveland Browns in 2014.
Expectations, from there, were fairly low, as they were before and just after Whitner arrived in San Francisco. Replacing him was going to be tough, and when the 49ers went out and signed Antoine Bethea, another veteran with a history of strong play but who had slowed down in recent years, many weren't happy with the move.
Bethea didn't bring the same intensity to the game that Whitner did, and that was Whitner's biggest asset in San Francisco's secondary. Every snap, Whitner looked like he was fired out of the barrel of a gun, but Bethea never possessed that quality.
Of course, we were wrong once again. Bethea put up 86 tackles, a sack and snared four interceptions, tying his career single season high, and was credited with 10 pass deflections. He was a leader on defense and he played as hard as Whitner ever did. Most importantly, he gained expectations, heavy expectations coming into 2015, a season many thought lost.
Well ... the season was lost, but Bethea was not a part of that. In the early goings of the season, I noticed a handful of players looking sluggish and lost. Free safety Eric Reid was among those players, as well as a few others. But there were three players who brought it on every snap, and they were Quinton Dial, NaVorro Bowman and, of course, Bethea.
He looked like he was playing in the Super Bowl every time he was on the field, even as it became glaringly obvious that the 49ers were not just going to miss the playoffs, but were going to be among the league's worst teams. Bethea never once faltered, and in seven games, he compiled 44 tackles with a sack and two pass deflections.
Edit: I'd like to address some comments about Bethea getting beat early on in the season and I'll agree he wasn't perfect, but I would counter that Reid was a large part of Bethea's shortcomings at that point. I spent a lot of time watching the breakdowns after Bethea went on injured reserve and what I saw on film was a whole lot of Bowman and Bethea cleaning up other peoples' mistakes, and because they were in view in pursuit, they always took the blame.
Unfortunately, he had to stop at seven games due to a season-ending injury. He was well on his way to another Pro Bowl berth, but Jaquiski Tartt had to step in and take over. To his credit, Tartt was solid in relief of Bethea, but personally, I'm looking forward to seeing what Bethea can do on a potentially rejuvenated 49ers team in 2016.
Bethea is under contract through 2017, and at 31 years of age, he doesn't necessarily have another payday after that. The big concern now is whether or not Bethea's injury will affect his play next season. Bethea has been very durable in his career, missing a handful of games in his first two seasons before seven consecutive seasons of not missing any games.
Given his high level of play, I doubt Bethea is going to slow down as a result of his age, at least this coming season. He's a valuable asset to the 49ers and fortunately, Reid picked up his play as the season progressed at the other safety spot. I'd expect Bethea to have another excellent season with the 49ers in 2016, and if there is any success to be had, he'll be a big part of it.
I'm taking a quick look at some of the integral players on the 49ers roster, slowly but surely. Check out the post I did on linebacker NaVorro Bowman here.