August 30, 2014

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Browns: Team has Byrd, Whitner on the radar

San Francisco’s Donte Whitner intercepts a pass in front of Washington’s Pierre Garcon in a game on Nov. 13, 2013. The Browns are reportedly interested in the safety. (MCT PHOTO)

San Francisco’s Donte Whitner intercepts a pass in front of Washington’s Pierre Garcon in a game on Nov. 13, 2013. The Browns are reportedly interested in the safety. (MCT PHOTO)

Cleveland could go safety first when free agency opens today at 4 p.m.

The Browns have a need at the position with T.J. Ward expected to hit the open market, and they’ve been strongly linked to Pro Bowlers Jairus Byrd and Donte Whitner.

Byrd has been connected to the Browns for a while and The Associated Press confirmed the team’s interest Monday. Whitner is a Cleveland native and apparently would welcome a return home.

Dustin Fox, a former teammate of Whitner’s at Ohio State and with the Buffalo Bills, tweeted Monday: “Based on a source close to Donte Whitner, He is likely headed to the #Browns when the signing period begins.” Fox is a talk show host on WKRK 92.3-FM.

The San Francisco Chronicle first reported the Browns, along with the Jets and Bears, expressed the most interest in Whitner over the weekend. The 49ers are still trying to re-sign Whitner, 28, who has spent the last three years in San Francisco.

Whitner, who starred at Glenville High, would have a seamless transition into the community, but Byrd seems like a more natural fit for the Browns’ system after spending last season with new coach Mike Pettine in Buffalo. Byrd, 27, is a three-time Pro Bowler with 22 interceptions in five years and could help teach Pettine’s philosophy in Cleveland.

The Associated Press reported Monday the Browns, Dolphins and Rams were among a number of teams that expressed interest in signing Byrd. The teams contacted Byrd’s representatives after negotiations were allowed to begin Saturday.

Contracts can be signed once the league year begins this afternoon.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reported Byrd was seeking about $9 million a year. He turned down a multiyear deal with the Bills that reportedly would have paid him about $30 over the first three seasons.

Byrd has more range and coverage skills than Whitner and Ward, but isn’t the same type of hitter. Whitner even considered changing his last name to Hitner last year.

But Whitner (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) believes he’s multidimensional and relayed Pro Football Focus’ evaluation of his coverage skills through Twitter. The website ranked him the No. 5 safety in pass coverage, as he surrendered 25 catches on 48 targeted pass plays for 286 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Whitner also used Twitter to object to a list ranking the potential free agents.

“I’m convinced @nfl.com needs better writers… I’m the 48th best free agent available huh? LOL #Hitner,” he tweeted Feb. 28.

“I’m ranked behind guys that didn’t even play in 2014…. You guys haven’t watched the film and defiantly don’t know football! #Hitner,” he added. “And yes I have a CHIP on my shoulder! #Hitner.”

Whitner was drafted No. 8 overall by the Bills in 2006 and stayed there five years. He joined the Niners in 2011 on a three-year, $11.75 million deal and made the Pro Bowl the last two years.

Whitner is heading into his ninth season and would bring leadership to a young Cleveland locker room. He was 20 years old when he was drafted and has started 113 of 116 games with 10 interceptions, eight forced fumbles, 49 passes defensed and 497 tackles.

Byrd earned his third Pro Bowl selection last year despite missing much of the offseason before accepting the one-year, $6.9 million franchise tender in mid-August. He missed the first five games of the season with plantar fasciitis in both feet.

Byrd finished tied for the team lead with four interceptions and added a sack and a forced fumble. The second-round draft pick out of Oregon in 2009 has 22 interceptions, 33 passes defensed, 11 forced fumbles and 256 tackles in 73 career games, including 67 starts.

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.