Ray Farmer’s first venture into free agency as a general manager started with a heavy emphasis on defense.
Free agency began Tuesday afternoon, and the Browns were quick to reach agreements with strong safety and Cleveland native Donte Whitner and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. The team also reportedly participated in trade talks to acquire All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis from Tampa Bay.
The Browns entered the offseason with fewer holes on defense than offense, but the early focus of Farmer reflected the background of new coach Mike Pettine. The first notable additions of the new administration also addressed a pair of holes recently created by Farmer.
The Browns didn’t announce the moves because the contracts hadn’t been officially signed.
Whitner, a two-time Pro Bowler who starred at Glenville High School and Ohio State, takes the spot of T.J. Ward, who wasn’t retained and quickly signed with Denver on Tuesday. Dansby replaces D’Qwell Jackson, who was released rather than be paid a $4 million roster bonus.
Jackson and Ward were the team’s leading tacklers in 2013 and are a little younger than their replacements. But Whitner, 28, and Dansby, 32, are coming off productive seasons and bring toughness and physicality.
The difference in dollars between the Ward-Jackson and Whitner-Dansby combinations isn’t substantial, so Farmer and Pettine viewed the additions as an upgrade.
Whitner (5-foot-10, 208 pounds), who’s ecstatic about returning home, is known as a ferocious hitter – similar to Ward, who excels as a run stopper -- and even thought about changing his last name to “Hitner” last year. He’s also considered better in coverage than Ward.
“I must now embark on my intended journey and become a Cleveland Brown,” he tweeted. “A place that’s very dear to my heart! I look forward to winning and building something in Cleveland that WILL NOT be forgotten! I also look forward to helping build back my community and watching it flourish.”
Whitner entered the NFL at 20 years old as the No. 8 overall pick of the Bills. He played five years in Buffalo before spending the last three with San Francisco. The 49ers went to the NFL championship game in all three of his seasons, and he was named to the Pro Bowl the last two years.
Whitner has missed only one game in the last four years. In 16 starts in 2013, he tied a career high with two interceptions and added 12 passes defensed and 73 tackles. He signed a four-year deal reported at $28 million with about $10 million guaranteed.
Whitner is only a year and a half older than Ward, but has played four more seasons.
His first tweet after agreeing to terms was “O-H-.......,” much to the delight of Buckeyes fans across Northeast Ohio.
— DonteHitner (@DonteWhitner) March 11, 2014
“Great to have another hometown guy here to help us win! Congrats @DonteWhitner!” Browns quarterback and North Olmsted native Brian Hoyer tweeted.
Dansby (6-4, 250) is a physical, smart 10-year veteran who still runs well and had 6.5 sacks and 122 tackles last season in a career year with Arizona. Pro Football Focus rated Dansby third in pass coverage at his position, leading inside linebackers with four interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He has 38 sacks and 15 interceptions in his career.
He’s been described as a great leader, and his deal is reportedly worth $24 million, with $10 million due in the first year and $14 million guaranteed. That’s an impressive raise from the one-year, $2.25 million deal he signed a year ago.
“Cleveland got a great player and leader,” tweeted former Browns punter Dave Zastudil, who was teammates with Dansby in Arizona.
Jackson, 30, was due to make $8 million in 2014, including the roster bonus, and $7.7 million in 2015. He signed a four-year, $22 million with the Colts last week.
Ward’s deal with the Broncos is reportedly for four years and $23 million, with $14 million guaranteed.
While it can be debated if the Whitner and Dansby signings were upgrades, the addition of Revis would significantly improve the defense and make headlines across the league. Revis is one of the best corners in the league and would form a Pro Bowl tandem with Joe Haden.
The Buccaneers have reportedly been trying to deal him since the scouting combine last month because he’s due $16 million this season, including a $1.5 million bonus today. A trade was viewed unlikely by Tuesday night because Revis was unwilling to take a pay cut to facilitate a deal.
The Buccaneers are expected to release him today, lowering the Browns’ chances of acquiring him because he would be free to sign with whatever team he chooses. The Browns entered the day about $50 million under the salary cap, but $16 million for Revis appears to be more than they’re willing to spend.
Revis is a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro in seven seasons. He suffered a torn ACL in 2012 but returned to play 16 games with Tampa Bay last year. Pettine was coordinator for four years when Revis starred with the Jets.