On April 10th of 2016, 3-time Pro Bowl strong safety Donte Whitner posted an Instagram picture of a plane ticket to the Los Angeles International Airport, indicating a visit to the Los Angeles Rams football team.
A Whitner signing would be a confusing move for the Rams, who recently lost starting free safety Rodney McLeod to the Philadelphia Eagles. Whereas McLeod was a bona fide coverage safety during his tenure in St. Louis (who was the 10th ranked safety in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus), Donte “Hitner”—well, likes to hit.
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That’s not a bad thing by any means, as Whitner has been an efficient hard-hitting tackler for the Buffalo Bills, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Cleveland Browns with a total of 856 tackles and 11 forced fumbles over his ten-year career. Last year, in only fourteen games, Whitner compiled 81 total tackles with 1.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble. He even graded as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked safety among 88 qualifiers.
However, his lack of elite coverage skills makes this potential Rams move a head-scratcher, especially considering the team already has run-supporting safeties in T.J. McDonald and Maurice Alexander. The team needs a center fielder, and current Rams safeties Cody Davis and Christian Bryant (practice squad) would fit the mold better. Hell, even cornerback Lamarcus Joyner would be solid back there.
So what do the Los Angeles Rams see in Donte Whitner at this point of free agency?
It is very possible that the Rams decide to move T.J. McDonald to free safety if they sign Donte Whitner, but McDonald is still developing in terms of coverage. They could even bring in Whitner as a veteran presence to back up and teach McDonald, but his price and desire to start make this scenario unlikely.
Perhaps the best option for this potential relationship between the Rams and Whitner is to place the 30-year old veteran in a hybrid in-the-box safety/linebacker role a la Mark Barron back in the 2014-15 NFL season with the St. Louis Rams.
Gregg Williams—the defensive coordinator and former bounty kingpin of the Los Angeles Rams—had a lot of fun with Mark Barron when the team signed the 2012 seventh overall pick two years ago. Once thought to be an all-around safety who displayed his exceptional mix of coverage and run support skills as a defensive star at the University of Alabama, Williams changed Barron’s position to give him more tackling opportunities amongst the front seven of the Rams’ defense.
After a fairly successful debut season with the Rams where he recorded 23 total tackles and 3 sacks, Barron went on to have his best season as a professional in the 2015-16 season. After weak-side linebacker Alec Ogletree went down in a Week 4 Arizona Cardinals match-up, Barron was deemed the “next man up” and absolutely excelled at the new position alongside mike linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Playing in all sixteen games and starting in twelve, Barron led the team with 116 total tackles last year. This led the Rams to give him a hefty $45 million contract over 5 years with $20 million guaranteed. Overpaid? Probably, but it was the only way Gregg Williams was bringing his talented young linebacker along with him to Southern California.
Now with Mark Barron officially moved to the starting weak-side linebacker position and Alec Ogletree taking command at the mike linebacker position, the defense lacks the utility player it had in Barron two years ago. Could the Rams’ brass sign Donte Whitner to bring back a Barron-like enforcer at a hybrid safety/linebacker position?
It would definitely be the ideal scenario if Whitner wears the horns this upcoming season. He has struggled coverage-wise in his two seasons with the Cleveland Browns and might thrive in a role that emphasizes run support.
Williams could even call exotic blitz plays for Whitner to complement a proven defensive line, as Barron recorded 3.0 sacks in his first nine games as a hybrid with the St. Louis Rams in 2014. Although Whitner has only sacked the quarterback 3.0 times in his whole career, Barron himself only compiled two sacks before joining the Rams. In other words, we won’t realize Whitner’s potential as a pass rusher until he is put into the position to do so.
Donte Whitner is also a great leader with an infectious attitude, something the Rams really need with the departure of both James Laurinaitis and Chris Long. Although we’d like to see Alec Ogletree step into a leadership role, it’s nice to have a veteran presence on a relatively young team.
But in the end, would signing Donte Whitner really be worth it for the Los Angeles Rams? For the right price, it might be worth it.
Yes, it would be nice to have a veteran enforcer in the box for this defense, but we also have to consider the amount of rookie contracts expiring after the team’s first season in Los Angeles (e.g. Tavon Austin, Trumaine Johnson, and Michael Brockers). If Whitner’s contract could potentially prevent the Rams from retaining some of its talented players in the future, Fisher and Snead should definitely avoid picking up the infamous Donte “Hitner”.
Best case “dream” scenario: Whitner signs for cheap due since several teams have signed safeties already—which makes Whitner that much more bitter about the Cleveland Browns releasing him so late in the free agency process—thrives as the Rams new strong safety alongside T.J. McDonald who comfortably slides into the free safety position (Yes, a little too good to be true).
Worst case scenario: Whitner signs an expensive contract with the Rams and ends up failing in any exotic position the Rams try to put him in. Ultimately, the Rams are unable to sign Tavon Austin in next year’s offseason and their awful 32nd ranked offense finds a way to become even more terrible even with the presence of Todd Gurley (Yes, we’re talking about the Rams but let’s not be too pessimistic).
My prediction: The Rams attempt to sign Donte Whitner to a fair deal, and manage to bring him on board as a hybrid safety/linebacker. He has a fairly successful season and gives fans some big hits for end-of-the-year highlight videos which mostly comprise of Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin at the moment (Yes, that’s pretty much the entire Rams offense).
A Nick Foles trade would make a Whitner signing more reasonable, as the quarterback is set to hit the salary cap for $8.75 million in the 2016-17 NFL season. Not only would such a trade free up cap space, but it would be the first step to erasing the Nick Foles fiasco from our memory. But even if Whitner is signed, the team still needs to find a free safety to fill the vacancy created by Rodney McLeod’s departure.
Ultimately, Donte Whitner would be a luxury—not a necessity—for the Los Angeles Rams defense.
What do YOU think? Should the Los Angeles Rams sign Donte Whitner, the three-time Pro Bowler, or let him sign with another team? Should I avoid having a month-long writing hiatus again due to school and writer’s block? Leave a comment below!