Free Agent Duel: Whitner vs. Boldin
As we continue our tour of the most difficult free agent conundrums this offseason, we come to yet another contender in the 49ers. San Francisco’s roster has been stacked from top to bottom in recent years. But with big contracts on the horizon for young standouts like Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith, General Manager Trent Baalke will likely have to say goodbye to some quality veterans.
Two such cases are before him now, as both his top receiver of 2013, Anquan Boldin, and the anchor of his secondary, Donte Whitner, are headed towards free agency. Our analysts Pete Damilatis and Gordon McGuinness debate which San Francisco veteran should be the priority.
The Case for Whitner
By Pete Damilatis
All signs point to the 49ers parting ways with Whitner, and I can understand the financials behind the decision. On a team with so much talent and future commitments elsewhere, a Pro Bowl safety seems more like a luxury rather than a necessity. But letting Whitner leave could reveal a weak link on a defense that has been the 49ers’ rock under Jim Harbaugh.
Whitner has always been productive around the line of scrimmage; his +3.9 run defense grade this season ranked him eighth among safeties. But in prior seasons his deficiencies against the pass have been overlooked because of the success of his teammates. In 2012 Whitner was selected to the Pro Bowl despite allowing the most touchdowns in coverage of any safety in the league. His overall coverage grade wasn’t terrible, but his mistakes were often costly for the 49ers.
However, after the 49ers replacing his fellow safety Dashon Goldson with rookie Eric Reid, Whitner stepped up in 2013 and showed a consistency in coverage that we hadn’t seen before:
|Coverage (incl. playoffs)||Catch Rate||Touchdowns Allowed||Opposing QB Rating||PFF Coverage Grade|
Thanks to the fifth-highest coverage grade of any safety combined with his typically solid run defense, Whitner earned a spot on our Second-Team All-Pro squad. His success extended into the postseason, where he surrendered just one reception while picking up an interception and a pass defensed, a year after allowing two touchdowns in the Super Bowl.
Whitner is obviously most famous for his love of contact, going so far as to try to change his name to “Hitner.” That mentality from a safety makes me wary, because oftentimes the desire to make the highlight hit leads to poor technique and shoddy tackling. But this isn’t the case with Whitner, who has been a sure tackler for most of his career. His seven missed tackles this season are a reasonable total, and he allowed just 70 yards after the catch on 25 targets. He needs to do a better job of avoiding penalties (maybe pass on taunting the league office next time?), but he’s otherwise been able to stay aggressive while still playing within himself.
The foundation of the 49ers’ defense lies in its front seven, but San Francisco could find itself with a weak link if Whitner leaves. With Tarrell Brown a free agent and Carlos Rogers a likely cap casualty, the secondary is facing some turnover. As promising as Reid’s rookie season was, his run defense was average and his 13 missed tackles were nearly twice Whitner’s total. Craig Dahl provides a veteran presence, but has never finished a season with a positive grade. Whitner’s play in the box was a big asset for the 49ers in the grind-it-out NFC West, and those divisional matchups look a lot more daunting without him. Though he may be too much of a luxury for the 49ers, it’s unsettling to think of Reid and a rookie draft pick as the San Francisco’s last line of defense.
The Case Against Whitner
By Gordon McGuinness
There’s no denying that Whitner had an excellent 2013 season, and fully deserved all the credit he got. However, is it worthwhile to bring him back in 2014 and beyond? I’m not so sure. His coverage skills did indeed improve this past year, but in the previous five years he has finished with a positive coverage grade just twice, and never better than +3.2. He’s not been terrible in coverage by any means, but with cap space at a premium, he may command more money than is sensible for the 49ers to spend on him.
His reputation as a hard hitter is great and, even in today’s NFL with a greater emphasis on safety, having a physical presence that deters receivers going across the middle is big. It does, however, come with the risk of personal foul penalties, something Whitner already has a name for. Changing his name to “Hitner” does little to help that, and you do wonder if his reputation will lead to more calls in the future.
Ultimately their decision on whether or not to bring him back will come down to how they see his 2013 season. If they see it as his standard going forward, then the smart move is to bring him back, but if they aren’t sure that his play won’t revert to his pre-2013 form, then it might be time to move on.
The Case For Boldin
By Gordon McGuinness
Boldin has carved out a long NFL career despite never having the high-end speed that so many look for in a top wide receiver these days. He’s getting up there in terms of age, and will be 34 not long into the 2014 season, but bringing him back, at least on a short-term deal, should be the 49ers’ top priority. It reportedly is, and after following up his fantastic playoff run with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, he showed the 49ers why they should keep him around with a very solid 2013 season.
It started with a huge showing against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, pulling in 13 receptions for 208 yards, with a touchdown and five missed tackles forced. Plenty would question if he is a true No. 1, but with 85 catches for 1,179 yards in the regular season, he was our ninth-highest graded receiver.
What I love about Boldin is how he is able to use his strength and get himself in position to make a catch, even if he’s not always wide open. It’s easy to point to his lack of speed, but that’s nothing new. He’s never been a speedy guy and it hasn’t stopped him up so far. He’s physical, and doesn’t seem evenly remotely fazed by big hits from opposing defenders, that allows him to get open without needing the wheels.
He had one of my favorite catches of the season, and it came on a reception that went for just seven yards in Week 15 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On 3rd-and-4 with 10:07 left in the third quarter, Kaepernick tried to find him from the slot, with Leonard Johnson in coverage. The pass was far from perfect, arriving about half a yard behind him, but Boldin showed incredible body control to stop and reach back, bringing the ball in with one hand just inches from the ground. That sort of play defines Boldin perfectly in my opinion. The type of player who can bail out a quarterback with a play like that, or by going up and winning the ball, something he did for Kaepernick last year and Joe Flacco before him.
The reasons to not bring him back will be valid, but for a team gearing up for another run at the Lombardi trophy, can they really afford to not have Boldin on their roster?
The Case Against Boldin
By Pete Damilatis
It’s incredibly difficult to poke holes in Boldin’s game. He’s always done the little things right, earning positive grades from us even in seasons when he didn’t have eye-popping receiving yards. The special connection he had with Kaepernick this season earned him his highest receiving total in seven years. Michael Crabtree’s return from injury late in the season didn’t deflate Boldin’s production, but rather rejuvenated it. The only notable knock on Boldin’s on-field performance would be his penalty total, which led all wide receivers for each of the last two seasons. But that’s a small price to pay for all the other ways he contributes to his offense.
The only factor working against Boldin, something which Gordon touched upon, is his age. Looking at recent history, it’s likely that he will want a contract similar to what Reggie Wayne signed at the same age two years ago: a 3-year deal worth $17.5 million. The problem is that only 21 receivers in NFL history have posted a 1,000-yard season at age 34. That number drops to 11 at age 35, and just three at 36 (Jerry Rice, Joey Galloway, and the underrated Jimmy Smith). Boldin certainly looks like the 49ers’ best option for the immediate future, but it’s possible that in three years from now, San Francisco will have wished it invested in the younger Whitner.
If you were the 49ers’ general manager and could keep only one, would you opt for Whitner or Boldin? Make your case in the comments section.