It was one of the most brutal moments of the NFC Division playoffs for the New Orleans Saints on January 14, 2012 — with the “kill shot” being the heartbreaker of a touchdown by San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.
But before the heartbreaker was the head cracking hit by safety Donte Whitner on then-Saints running back Pierre Thomas, barely six minutes into the first quarter.
With the Saints on the 49ers 6 1/2 yard line and poised to score, quarterback Drew Brees had scrambled to find Thomas near the goal line, and dumped a pass off to the running back known for dishing out some punishment of his own against defenders.
But this time as Thomas turned upfield, he was met by Whitner — who laid a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit that caused Thomas to get knocked out cold and fumble the ball, which the 49ers recovered; setting the tone for the rest of the game.
Nov 2, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon (8) is hit as he throws by Cleveland Browns strong safety Donte Whitner (31) during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
Whitner parlayed that hit along with others he’s doled out in his career since joining the league in 2006, into a big contract with the Cleveland Browns in 2014; for four years, $28 million with $11 million guaranteed.
His reputation got so associated with those big hits that he actually tried to legally change his name to “Hitner” but has yet to fully follow through with it currently.
Well, the Browns new coaching staff spearheaded by head coach Hue Jackson handed out a hit of their own yesterday, when it was announced that they had released the three-time Pro Bowl safety.
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Whitner was less than pleased by the release mainly because he felt that the Browns, who are jettisoning players left and right, should have made the move prior to free agency to allow him to market himself more.
For Whitner, the free agency market may not be totally dry but is very stagnant right now as teams are shifting focus towards the upcoming draft.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has said previously that the team could be looking to add a safety to their roster, and Whitner could be a likely candidate after losing Rafael Bush to the Detroit Lions in free agency.
I had discussed in a precious article about the Saints needing to add a safety, more preferably a veteran; seeing as how they don’t have much past free safety Jarius Byrd or strong safety Kenny Vaccaro except Jamarca Sanford, who really was relegated to backup duties.
Nov 5, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson (20) takes the field prior to the game against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Right now the only other free agent options out there are Cincinnati Bengals safety Reggie Nelson and Walter Thurmond of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Nelson despite being a huge playmaker remains unsigned and Thurmond, although offered up to $4 million a year by some teams, is rumored to be mulling retirement.
Whitner could be a good addition to the Saints for the right price and those last two need to be key if the Saints want to sign him.
After getting such a huge contract from the Browns he might feel that his “Hitner” reputation will garner him the same amount of money for his services but that shouldn’t be the case considering after grading out well in in 2013 and 2014, his 2015 year took a slight slump.
Having him in the secondary would allow defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to play Vaccaro closer to the line like they’ve done in the past or put Whitner in that position although his coverage has graded out better than in the run.
The reality of the Saints getting Whitner is likely very slim considering their current salary cap space($3,604,470 per the NFLPA) and that they are also set to meet with running back Tim Hightower this week to attempt to re-sign him.
This would leave the Saints with little to work with to sign either and I just have the feeling that Whitner will want starter money instead of role-player money from a team.
More than likely the Saints will take a “pass” instead of a “hit” from their former nemesis as far as free agency goes.