Where he fits in: Donte Whitner

An experienced veteran leader. An aggressive tackle machine. Those are a couple of one-line descriptions that dot Donte Whitner's resume, and they belong to a player that would fit in nicely with practically any NFL team. That's certainly the case with the 49ers, who won't have to do any experimenting with their newest free-agent find to see where he belongs in their revamped defense.

Whitner has as defined a role as any newcomer in San Francisco's defensive lineup, which will feature new starters at five positions. Whitner already appears to be an ideal fit for his position as the starting strong safety, where he brings the skills and hard-nosed mentality necessary to make an impact in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 system.

Whitner got a taste of a similar 3-4 defense last year when the Buffalo Bills converted to that scheme, and he found himself right at home hawking ball carriers near the line of scrimmage while also mixing it up on passing downs with a variety of disguised coverages.

Those are the kinds of things the 49ers need from the strong safety in Fangio's system, and that's why they gave Whitner a three-year, $11.75 million deal to join them and fill that role.

"He's an experienced guy who's been there before," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Saturday on the day Whitner arrived for his first practice with the team. "He'll be in there competing with Reggie (Smith) and the rest of our guys at the safety position, so I'm excited to watch that competition go down."

Harbaugh should be excited, because Whitner is all about competition and establishing himself with the 49ers as a big-play performer. After a solid start to his career in Buffalo – where he averaged 90 tackles per year in his first five seasons – Whitner took his game to the next level last season when he led all NFL defensive backs with a career-high 140 tackles.

That's an astonishing number for a DB, but Whitner will have a lot of the same opportunities to produce in San Francisco's system as he did with the Bills last year.

"When we made the switch to the 3-4 defense (last year), it allowed me to do some of the things that I wasn't able to do in the Tampa 2 (defensive scheme)," Whitner said. "The Tampa 2 is basically guys start dropping, and if the ball doesn't come your way, you don't have a chance to make a play. In a 3-4 defense, there's not really a gap that you have. It's letting guys be football players."

The Niners likely will allow Whitner that freedom within their system, which presents coverage responsibilities for Whitner but at the same time looks to confuse opposing offenses as to what the strong safety will do on any particular play.

"In this 3-4, there's a lot of disguise built into the defense," Whitner said. "Anybody who knows about defensive football and playing the good quarterbacks in the NFL (knows) you can't allow them to read your mail or you'll lose every time. So, even if the players aren't really focused on disguise, it's already built into the defense throughout with the calls.

"I think it will be built in for me to do a lot of different things in this defense, throughout the calls and to show somewhere and end up somewhere else. That's how the good football teams do it, by confusing quarterbacks and confusing offensive lines. And that's what we look forward to doing here, so I'm looking forward to being able to disguise the blitz and really fool with quarterbacks."

Whitner also will likely be responsible for making the defensive calls for the rest of the secondary, like he did in Buffalo, and he's particularly looking forward to building a chemistry with Reggie Smith as the team's new safety tandem, which will have different responsibilities for the 49ers than safety tandems in the past. Smith, who started the final seven games at strong safety last season, has moved to free safety to replace Dashon Goldson, the team's top safety of the past two years who was not re-signed.

"I do think it's a good complement," Whitner said. "Reggie can make plays and he really knows what he's doing out there. You have two different skill sets, and especially in this type of defense – the 3-4 where you want to come after guys – you have to have guys with two different skill sets.

"You have to have a guy who likes to cover and get to the middle of the field and get his hands on the football, and you have to have a guy who can roam around and really understand the game, and make plays with his eyes, help the guys around him and just do anything. I think that's the mold I'm going to be in this year."

Last but not least, Whitner also fits in as a leader of the team's young secondary. He'll be a veteran presence others look to, and Whitner already is thinking about specific situations where his experience will come in handy to help the players around him.

"Once you get the (defensive) call from the sidelines, there's a number of calls built into the defense that you have to spread out to the guys," Whitner said. "Getting the call is very important, but the calls within the calls are very, very important because something can change based on a guy's movement, or a formation shift. And if one guy is thinking one thing, and the safety is thinking another, somebody's getting the wrong signal on that, and then somebody's going to blow a coverage."

As he fits in as one of the most dynamic new pieces of San Francisco's defense, Whitner will do everything he can to make sure that happens as seldom as possible.


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