ASHBURN — Donte Whitner felt disrespected.
A 10-year NFL veteran, Whitner returned to his hometown, Cleveland, and played two seasons with the Browns. In early April, as he prepared for a third, Whitner was unceremoniously dumped.
Cleveland was starting a youth movement and Whitner didn’t fit. So the Browns cut him just days before he was to report for the team’s offseason program. After a long summer trying to find the right fit, Whitner finally found a landing spot with the Redskins, who signed him on Wednesday.
“It’s been a little stressful since April,” Whitner said shortly after his first practice.
But don’t look at Whitner as a savior. Washington called because it was desperate for help at safety after season-ending injuries to DeAngelo Hall (torn ACL, right knee) and David Bruton (concussion). Once one of the NFL’s best at strong safety, a three-time Pro Bowler who helped the San Francisco 49ers to three straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl appearance, Whitner is seen on the downside of a good career. Just don’t tell him that.
“I don’t think I’ve lost anything,” Whitner said. “So I think I can add everything in the world.”
If he sounds angry, most of that is directed at the Browns. Whitner believes the team knew it was headed for a youth movement and that he wasn’t part of its plans. But by waiting until April to cut him they took away his best shot at a free-agent contract elsewhere. By the time he was on the open market NFL teams had been shopping for almost a month. Whitner called it “a vendetta” by someone in the front office.
“I’ve always played the game with a chip on my shoulder, but I think it adds to it. I really do,” Whitner said. “Over the last 10 years playing in the National Football League, knowing where you’re going to play, then you get slapped in the face with a release on like the last day of free agency before you report to offseason training, it’s really a slap in the face. If I was sleepwalking or anything before, I’m definitely woke now and ready to play the game.”
True or not, that’s his perception. Whitner had serious negotiations with the Los Angeles Rams, but wanted to sign a one-year “prove-it” contract. The Rams weren’t interested in that and moved on. The New York Giants brought him in for a visit this week, but by the time they called Whitner was already in Washington and had made his decision. He’s ready to move on.
Always a big hitter dating back to his days at Ohio State, he long ago earned the nickname ‘Hitner’. It’s a style of football that GM Scot McCloughan has advocated, but struggled to bring to Washington since he was hired in January 2015.
“I grew up watching [Whitner],” Redskins linebacker Will Compton said. “He brings a physicality mindset to the defense that’ll be good to have.”
Still, Whitner remained out of a job for a reason. He was not very good with the Browns in 2015. And once a player hits 30 and has a rough year teams will view him with suspicion. Maybe he would have found a fit if Cleveland released him sooner. But that didn’t happen. It took the battered Redskins giving him a chance to get Whitner back in the NFL.
“Obviously, Donte’s résumé speaks for itself,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “He brings some veteran leadership and knowledge of the position and we’re hoping that he can fill in quickly.”
Whether that’s this Sunday against Baltimore remains to be seen. Whitner insisted that “nobody’s reinventing defense.” He planned to stay up into the wee hours Thursday morning learning defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s terminology. He didn’t expect it to take long.
It doesn’t hurt that Whitner played for defensive backs coach Perry Fewell his first few years in the league in Buffalo. Fewell was the defensive coordinator there and an interim head coach, too. They didn’t always have the best relationship, but a mutual respect eventually grew between the two men, Whitner said. Fewell’s presence will help.
Whitner also played with Redskins defensive end Ricky Jean Francois and tight end Vernon Davis in San Francisco. There are at least a few familiar faces to ease a transition on the fly.
“I’m just excited. It’s a talented football team,” Whitner said. “But talent doesn’t get it done. You have to have a special chemistry, a special bond within each and every position room. And you have to bring it all together on Sunday.”
Follow Redskins reporter Brian McNally on Twitter