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Cleveland Browns Sign SS Donte Whitner, Replacing SS T.J. Ward

The Browns have replaced SS T.J. Ward with a local kid, SS Donte Whitner, as one of their first big free agent signings.

SS Donte Whitner, right (No. 31), tackles a Browns player as a member of the 49ers.
SS Donte Whitner, right (No. 31), tackles a Browns player as a member of the 49ers.
Ezra Shaw

Plenty of names were connected to the Cleveland Browns early on the first day of free agency, but the first big name to ink a contract with the team is SS Donte Whitner. The rumors surrounding Whitner began on Monday and continued to heat up Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer reported that Whitner would sign a contract with his hometown team shortly after 4:00 PM ET, which is when free agency officially started. At about 4:01 PM, Adam Schefter tweeted that it was a done deal for Whitner:

Sadly, the signing of Whitner also signifies the end of T.J. Ward's run with the team. Ward and Whitner both play the same position. Pro Football Focus had Ward ranked as the No. 2 free agent safety available, with Whitner not too far behind as the No. 3 free agent safety available:

Summary: It feels like Whitner has been around forever, but he will be just 29 years old at the start of the 2014 season and is an extremely talented player. He has been up and down the past few seasons, tallying positive grades in 2011 (+11.4) and 2013 (+11.5), but slight negatives in 2010 (-0.7) and 2012 (-1.7). Most of the focus will be on his 2013 season in which he was very good across the board. Whitner finished sixth in overall safety grade and fifth in coverage where he had six passes defensed, second most among safeties, despite being thrown at just 48 times.

PFF also discussed the differences in style of play between Ward and Whitner:

While they both might play the same position, they are two different players. Ward is a stronger presence in the box, while you get more range from Whitner who upped his game in coverage considerably this year. By way of comparison Ward spent 65.7% of run snaps in the box this year while Whitner was at 21.4%.

The 49ers reportedly wanted to bring Whitner back, but this is a rare case of a player actually desiring to play for his hometown team. Whitner was born in Cleveland, OH, played high school at Glenville, and then attended Ohio State. He was drafted by the Bills with the 8th overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, playing there from 2006-2010. Browns head coach Mike Pettine was the Jets' defensive coordinator during that time, so he should have some familiarity with Whitner's play.

UPDATE: Whitner tweeted the following a few hours after the Browns signed him:

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