Armed with $49 million in salary-cap space heading into NFL free agency, the Browns kicked off the signing period Tuesday by agreeing to contract terms with former Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and former San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner, ESPN reported shortly after the market officially opened at 4 p.m.
Dansby received a four-year deal worth $24 million, including $14 million guaranteed, the Arizona Republic reported. He’s scheduled to make $10 million in 2014.
Whitner, a Cleveland native, Ohio State product and two-time Pro Bowler, agreed to a four-year deal worth $28 million, according to ESPN.
The Browns have yet to announce the moves, but Whitner didn’t shy away from tweeting about the news.
“I must now embark on my intended journey and become a Cleveland Brown,” Whitner wrote on Twitter. “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.
“To all my former teammates and coaches. I love you all! I will always cherish you guys! Now with that said … CLEVELAND let’s rise!”
The signings proved new General Manager Ray Farmer and new coach Mike Pettine would be aggressive as expected this offseason. They certainly have a lot more work to do.
But they started by patching two gaping holes. Dansby and Whitner will fill vacancies in the starting lineup created by the departures of inside linebacker and defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson and strong safety T.J. Ward.
The Browns cut Jackson last month after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a restructured contract. Jackson, a second-round draft selection of the Browns in 2006, would have carried a $9.43 million salary-cap figure next season, which included a $4 million roster bonus due Sunday and a $100,000 workout bonus.
The Browns also let Ward hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent after the two sides began discussing a new contract last month at the NFL Scouting Combine but could not strike a deal. The Denver Broncos signed Ward on Tuesday to a four-year deal worth $23 million, including $14 million guaranteed, a league source told the Beacon Journal, speaking on condition of anonymity because the financial terms were not announced.
So Ward will reunite with former Browns General Manager Tom Heckert, who’s now the Broncos’ director of pro personnel. Ward, whom Heckert drafted in the second round in 2010, is coming off his best professional season and played in his first Pro Bowl in January.
“Excited to announce we’ve agreed to terms with strong safety T.J. Ward,” John Elway, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations, wrote on Twitter. “He’ll bring energy and toughness to our secondary.”
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Dansby had 122 tackles, including 6½ sacks, four interceptions, 19 passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last season for the Cardinals. He had more than 100 tackles in each of the past two seasons after falling short of the 100-tackle plateau in his first eight seasons.
In 2004, the Cardinals drafted Dansby in the second round (No. 33 overall). He signed with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent in 2010. Following three seasons with the Dolphins, Dansby re-signed with the Cardinals for one year and spent this past season with them. He has started 127 of the 136 regular-season games in which he has appeared.
The 5-10, 208-pound Whitner had 78 tackles, 12 passes defensed, two interceptions and two forced fumbles with the 49ers last season. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons.
In 2006, the Buffalo Bills drafted Whitner in the first round (eighth overall). He spent five seasons with the Bills before signing with the 49ers as a free agent in 2011. Whitner, a graduate of Glenville High School, has started 113 of the 116 regular-season games in which he has appeared.
Dansby, 32, is actually older than Jackson, 30, who joined the Indianapolis Colts last week by signing a four-year deal worth $22 million, including $11 million guaranteed. Whitner, 28, is also older than Ward, 27.
The Browns should still receive plenty of production from Dansby and Whitner, provided both players can pick up where they left off.
In its overall rankings for 55 inside linebackers, ProFootballFocus.com listed Dansby fifth and Jackson 42nd last season. In coverage, Dansby ranked third and Jackson 26th. Against the run, Dansby was 14th and Jackson 49th.
The Browns could still use another inside linebacker in Pettine’s 3-4, multifront scheme because the other starter from last season, Craig Robertson, struggled mightily. They could sign another one — the Bills’ Arthur Moats is among the inside linebackers still on the market — or address the need in the NFL Draft, which will run May 8-10.
Whitner ranked sixth among 86 safeties in ProFootballFocus.com’s overall rankings last season, and Ward was third. In coverage, Whitner finished fifth and Ward 12th. Against the run, Ward was No. 1 and Whitner finished eighth.
Whitner is expected to be paired with Tashaun Gipson, who served as a full-time starter at free safety last season for the Browns. Pettine wants the safeties in his defense to be interchangeable and capable of playing both spots.
Jackson was the undisputed leader of the Browns, and Ward evolved into a strong voice of the defense.
At this point, it’s impossible to know for sure exactly how Dansby and Whitner will lead in a new locker room, but both of them have something on their resumes that Jackson and Ward don’t: a Super Bowl appearance. Dansby and the Cardinals fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers to wrap up the 2008 season, and Whitner and the 49ers lost to the Baltimore Ravens at the end of the 2012 season.
The Browns expressed interest in Bills three-time Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd, but the New Orleans Saints reached a six-year deal with Byrd reportedly worth $54 million Tuesday night.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.