Akron Beacon Journal
When Cleveland native Donte Whitner watched his hometown NFL team from afar during the past several seasons, he thought something was missing.
Call it an edge. Call it an intimidating presence. Call it a killer instinct.
Whitner believes he and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby will help the Browns discover the missing ingredient and harness it.
“The mindset that we’re going to bring to this football team, the toughness, the physical nature that we’ll bring, I don’t believe that was here,” Whitner, a two-time Pro Bowl strong safety, said Wednesday as he and Dansby were introduced to the media after signing with the Browns as unrestricted free agents. “Somebody’s going to get hit. You’re going to have a feared defensive unit out there. And if you have a feared defensive unit, guys that don’t give up the big play, that tackle well, get off the field on third down, get after the quarterback, you always have a chance to win the football game.”
The Browns had the league’s ninth-ranked defense (332.4 yards allowed per game) last season. But under the guidance of former defensive coordinator Ray Horton, the defense also routinely folded in crunch time. The Browns lost five games last season in which they led or were tied in the fourth quarter and finished with a record of 4-12. Ten defeats in the final 11 games and seven in a row to end the season contributed to the firing of first-year head coach Rob Chudzinski and his staff.
Now coach Mike Pettine is in charge, and he’s preaching the importance of his players bloodying their noses to achieve success in the AFC North.
The Browns believe Whitner and Dansby will be vital to carrying out that mission.
After spending the past three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Whitner received a four-year, $28 million contract to replace T.J. Ward, who became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Denver Broncos. Dansby, a member of the Arizona Cardinals last season, signed a four-year, $24 million deal, which includes $14 million guaranteed, to fill in for D’Qwell Jackson, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts after being cut last month.
Whitner said Ward, who played in his first Pro Bowl this past January, left behind “big shoes to fill.” Dansby acknowledged Jackson, who was a defensive captain and the Browns’ undisputed leader, had a “strong reputation” and a “stellar career” in Cleveland.
Still, Whitner, 28, and Dansby, 32, are confident they’ll not only prove to be upgrades, but also valuable leaders in their own right. Each of them has appeared in a Super Bowl.
“Whenever you come from a winning organization and you come to a team that hasn’t really had that winning success as of late, you really have to change the culture,” said Whitner, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2006 who made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons and appeared in the NFC Championship Game with the 49ers the past three years. “You have to change the mindset, and you have to change the feel within the locker room.”
A product of Glenville High School and Ohio State University, Whitner knows better than most new arrivals how much the Browns have struggled throughout their expansion era.
“It’s a very special moment,” said Whitner, adding he’s happy to be home because he has two children, ages 6 and 7, living in the area. “It’s not often that you get to play high school, college and the National Football League in the same state, and now I have this opportunity. I know the history of this city. I know the history of this football team. I know it recently hasn’t been good, but I know with a lot of hard work, a lot of good leadership and a lot of good football, physical football, we can change this thing around.”
Dansby vowed to lead by making the players around him better. A 10-year veteran, he’s coming off his best season, as evidenced by the career-high 114 tackles, including 6 sacks, he compiled to go along with personal bests in passes defensed (19) and interceptions (four).