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Why the San Francisco 49ers Would Be Smart to Let Donte Whitner Walk

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COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers have some difficult decisions to make this offseason as they attempt to supplant the Seattle Seahawks as Super Bowl champions in 2014. They are going to have to decide on what free agents to retain and what youngsters to lock up on long-term deals. Inevitably, they will lose a player or two to teams who are going to overpay.

We saw this last season when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers inked Dashon Goldson to a whopping five-year, $41.25 million contract. It was further evidenced when the Indianapolis Colts doled out $22 million over four years to Ricky Jean-Francois, per Spotrac.

The odd-man out this offseason may very well be former Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner, who is coming off yet another strong campaign for the team. The veteran finished with over 80 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in a performance that ranked him No. 6 overall among NFL safeties according to Pro Football Focus' official grading metrics.

San Francisco currently sits $2.5 million under the cap, a number that should increase when it likely releases Carlos Rogers and restructures Frank Gore's contract. With Anquan Boldin being a higher priority and ready to hit free agency, the 49ers simply don't have the cash to dole out elite safety money for an aging veteran. This doesn't even take into account extensions that Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati will have to sign in the not-so-distant future.

Whitner will be 29 in July and is likely only going to receive one more long-term deal in his career. It is expected that he will look to break the bank. As one of the top safeties in the league this past season, Whitner's price tag may be out of the 49ers price range.

Looking at the average salaries for the top-five paid safeties in the NFL, Whitner's value is at a minimum of seven million dollars per season. That's not necessarily in line with how San Francisco values safeties in its scheme. Remember, general manager Trent Baalke and Co. let Goldson walk at an average of $8.25 million per season last spring. It's hard to imagine them doling out nearly that amount for a player that wasn't valued nearly as high within the organization as Goldson was.

San Francisco was then able to trade up in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft to select former LSU safety Eric Reid. While many had questions about Reid's ability to make a strong impact as a rookie, he exceeded all expectations in a Pro Bowl campaign. Reid recorded 90 tackles, 12 passes defended, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries as a rookie.

Where some may conclude that Whitner's presence was a primary reason for that, it's important to note that Reid played the more important of the two safety positions, at least from a pass coverage standpoint. Reid was simply a playmaker as a rookie.

The interesting dynamic here is that San Francisco could find a starter-caliber and pro-ready strong safety in a deep 2014 NFL draft class at that position. It has six picks in the first three rounds and will assuredly look to address strong safety, whether Whitner returns or not.

I currently have four strong safeties ranked in my top 100 with Washington State product Deone Bucannon sitting atop the list with a mid second-round grade. At 6'1" and 216, Bucannon has the size and physical ability to play a similar role to what we have seen from Whitner over the past three seasons. Other options include Jimmy Ward, Ahmad Dixon and former Reid teammate at LSU Craig Loston, all of whom could be day-one starters.

Another option, as mentioned around the Interweb, could be moving Chris Culliver to free safety and slotting Reid in at strong safety.

Either way you put it, San Francisco has the options to be able to move on from Whitner without taking much of a hit on the defensive side of the ball. Good teams find a way to move on from pricey veterans and slot in younger, cheaper alternatives into important roles. San Francisco has done this in the past under this regime and will have to continue doing it in order to remain top contenders for the Super Bowl.

Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.

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