The Browns went heavy on defense in free agency a year ago, and they are beginning the 2014 shopping season the same way.
Just four minutes after the 2014 NFL year began at 4 p.m. ET on March 11, Glenville graduate and Ohio State product Donte Whitner announced he is returning home to play safety for the Browns with the simple tweet: “O-H.” It received more than 600 retweets in two minutes.
Whitner's deal is for four years and $28 million, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. The nine-year veteran, who was only 20 years old when he was drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2006, will replace T.J. Ward and play the back end of the Browns' defense with Tashaun Gipson.
Also on the first day of free agency, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby agreed to a contract to replace D'Qwell Jackson. Dansby's deal is for a reported $24 million for four years. He will earn $10 million in 2014, which is about $1 million less than the Browns would have paid Jackson.
As of 7:30 p.m., the Browns still had not announced either signing. Teams usually wait until all contracts are signed before making an official announcement.
“My time in San Fran will always be cherished!” Whitner tweeted. “I love everything about the place. I left my heart and soul out there each and every week.
“I must now embark on my intended journey and become a Cleveland Brown. A place that's very dear to my heart! I look forward to winning and building something in Cleveland that WILL NOT be forgotten! I also look forward to helping build back my community and watching it flourish.”
The Browns did not stop with Whitner and Dansby. After the initial rush of signings across the league, they presented Bengals restricted free agent wide receiver Andrew Hawkins with a four-year offer sheet, which Hawkins will sign, according to Albert Breer of NFL Network. The Bengals would have seven days to match the offer. The 5-foot-7 Hawkins caught 51 passes in 2012 but only 23 last season.
In other Browns related news, Ward signed a four-year contract for $23 million with the Denver Broncos.
Right guard Shawn Lauvao signed with the Washington Redskins after four years in a Cleveland uniform. The Browns did not try to keep him, but his loss means they have another vacancy to fill.
Meanwhile, rumors on NFL Network persist the Browns are exploring a trade for Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis. Revis has five years remaining on his contract at $16 million a year. If the Browns do make that deal, they will have to invest a large portion of their payroll at cornerback because Joe Haden is in the final year of his contract. His asking price will likely skyrocket if they take on Revis' huge contract.
Normally a team that finishes 4-12, replaces the head coach (Mike Pettine replaced fired Rob Chudzinski) and wipes out the leaders in the front office goes into a rebuilding mode. The Browns are in a rebuild, but they are doing it with more experienced players.
Dansby and Whitner are older than the players they are replacing. Dansby, beginning his 11th season, is 32. Jackson, in his ninth season, is 30 and now playing for the Colts.
Dansby has played outside and inside linebacker during his 10-year career. He played six seasons in Arizona and three in Miami before returning to the Cardinals. Durability is a strength. He has never played fewer than 14 games a season and has started 142 of 152 games. He made 121 tackles last year and intercepted four passes. He returned two of them for touchdowns.
Whitner is 28. Ward, 27, is in his fifth year. Whitner played five seasons with the Bills and three with the 49ers. He started 113 of 116 games and missed only one game in the last four years. He was in on 82 tackles and made two interceptions last season with the 49ers.
Last year, the Browns signed linebacker Paul Kruger, defensive end Desmond Bryant, linebacker Quentin Groves and cornerback Chris Owens in free agency.