Ask any national analyst what the Cleveland Browns biggest strength is on their roster, and without flinching they’ll say the secondary.
It would be hard to find a unit more close-knit than the defensive backs. Players routinely post pictures on Instagram with the entire unit, using the hashtag LOTL – standing for Lockdown On The Lake.
But when the Browns head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer were evaluating the status of the roster, their philosophy became the same: let’s make our secondary so strong, it will make other teams fear throwing the football against us.
One guy on the free agent market came to mind immediately. Pettine had connections in San Francisco, and they all had glowing things to say about safety
Whitner has already built a strong reputation on the field as being a communicator. Whitner will be the first to run and slap a teammates butt after a fantastic play. But he’ll also be the first to tell a fellow player when he’s made a mistake.
Pettine sees the brilliance in Whitner’s gift of the gab and calls it a “skill.” Whether he intends to or not, Whitner’s on the field challenges of his teammates have made the Browns want further success. Simply put: players don’t want to frustrate Donte.
“That type of leadership where guys are playing because part of the reason is they don’t want to let that guy down, and if you have a guy with that type of leadership ability I think it can be special,” said Pettine of Whitner.
“That’s the way I’ve always played the game of football,” said Whitner recently. “Half the battle is communicating with teammates. That’s how improvements are made, right on the fly in practice.”
The Browns didn’t stop with just Whitner, though. Many around the league were stunned when the Browns selected cornerback
Gilbert’s preseason struggles have been documented. But Joe Haden was also quick to point out he got “burnt up” in his first preseason by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
The Browns are going to count on playing Gilbert quite often against the Steelers. Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil knows the NFL transition, especially at the cornerback position, is rarely ever one that occurs without bumps and bruises.
“I think a lot of those moments were things he can learn from,” said O’Neil. “Yeah, we wanted to see how he would react in certain situations. I think he did a great job. Playing corner is probably the hardest position to play in this league outside of playing quarterback. It’s a process, and I’m happy with where he’s at right now.”
If the additions of Whitner and Gilbert weren’t enough to sell you on the Browns’ approach to building the roster, than keeping 12 defensive backs did.
Time will only tell, but on paper, Cleveland’s upgrades in both star power and depth in the secondary will give opposing offenses problems all season long in 2014.