BEREA: Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil knows the identity he wants his unit to possess and has already carved out a role for strong safety Donte Whitner, a Cleveland native.

“We want to intimidate people,” O’Neil said Wednesday after the team’s fifth practice of organized team activities. “That’s what we want to be on defense, so I think that Donte is going to be one part of the defense that helps us do that. Every great defense in the NFL has an enforcer. He’s ours.”

Whitner has no problem embracing the title.

“I believe that’s my game, that’s what I like to do,” Whitner said of O’Neil’s description. “That’s what defensive football is about.”

Whitner made his name dishing out nasty hits at strong safety with the San Francisco 49ers and believes the middle of the field belongs to him, a philosophy he revealed during an interview for a future episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

“It’s not a place where guys should want to go, and it’s not a place guys are going to go on this defense,” Whitner said.

Whitner believes the defense should strike fear into offenses, forcing opponents to think twice before coming over the middle and helping to create turnovers.

“I’ve always been like this, from Glenville High School to little-league football,” Whitner said. “It’s part of the game that everybody can’t do and aren’t willing to put their body on the line and sacrifice, and it’s something I enjoy doing.”

O’Neil said Whitner instills toughness in others.

“There aren’t a lot of them left, but Donte is a follow-me-or-else leader, and he’s made our team tougher the day he walked into the building,” O’Neil said.

How does one teach toughness?

“You show it,” Whitner said. “You show it as a standard. Once you develop it as a standard and it’s the way we practice, the way we study, the way we play, then it becomes easy for everybody.”

Whitner credits Brian Dawkins, who played safety primarily for the Philadelphia Eagles during his 16-year career, for serving as an inspiration and mentor along with 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

However, Whitner is playing in an era when player safety represents a primary goal of the NFL and hits that look clean are sometimes drawing penalties.

“Trust me. I know that firsthand. I had [five penalties for hits] last year and I was fined zero dollars,” Whitner said. “We understand that, but football is not an easy game. If you don’t want to get hit, don’t play football, don’t play offense. The Outside the Lines piece is about that and how they are trying to change the game.”

He wants to show his teammates that it’s safe to lay out an offensive player with a legal, big hit despite the possibility of penalties and fines.

“You can’t take the football field worried about that. I pride myself doing it the right way,” Whitner said. “When the NFL looks at the hits on Monday or Tuesday and they come back and say it was not a fine, it was a clean hit, I pride myself on that. We’ll take 15 yards to instill some fear in somebody, but we are going to do it in a legal way.”

Top draft pick hurt

Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, suffered an injured right knee about midway through practice Wednesday and did not return.

Gilbert, though, had the knee wrapped in ice and remained on the field to watch the rest of practice. He also walked around and bent the knee to test it.

“I don’t think it’s anything serious,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said of the injury.

Gilbert took to Twitter to downplay the injury.

“I’m fine. WILL be back in action on friday for our next practice. #DawgPound,” Gilbert tweeted.

The Browns are counting on Gilbert to become a significant contributor in his first NFL season. Gilbert is competing with Buster Skrine for the starting cornerback job opposite Pro Bowler Joe Haden, and O’Neil said Gilbert is “going to get every opportunity to win it.”

So far, O’Neil has been pleased with the Browns’ top draft pick this year.

“He’s got great speed, great athletic ability, has length to recover,” O’Neil said. “I’ve been really impressed with his work habits in the classroom. He’s done a really good job throwing himself into the scheme and trying to learn it. Joe Haden’s done a really nice job kind of big-brothering him and helping him along in the defense. So I’ve been really impressed by him.”

Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said Gilbert is also a candidate to return punts and kickoffs. Wide receivers Travis Benjamin and Earl Bennett as well as cornerback Buster Skrine are also in the mix, Tabor said.

Other injuries

Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby was not at practice Wednesday because he has an undisclosed injury.

“He has something minor injury-wise that he’s been dealing with,” Pettine said. “[He] prefers to deal with it out of town. He should be back, we’re anticipating next week.”

Defensive end Desmond Bryant and offensive right tackle Chris Faulk also were missing, and wide receivers Nate Burleson and Miles Austin were in ball caps watching from the field. Injured players who worked out on the side with athletic trainers were wide Benjamin, Charles Johnson and Taylor Gabriel, defensive end Ahtyba Rubin, running backs Dion Lewis, Isaiah Crowell and Jourdan Brooks, safety Jamoris Slaughter, defensive back K’Waun Williams, linebackers Brandon Magee, Eric Martin and Tank Carder.

Of all the injured players, Pettine said only Benjamin and Johnson are in jeopardy of missing the beginning of training camp in late July.

“Those two would be the only ones that potentially could start on PUP [the physically unable to perform list],” Pettine said. “But at this point, I think it looks pretty good that they’ll both be able to start training camp.”

High hopes

Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo had only five sacks last season as a rookie after being drafted sixth overall. Still, O’Neil believes Mingo’s production is on the verge of increasing.

“I’ve been very happy with what he can do,” O’Neil said. “It’s rare that a guy can have the ability to drop into coverage the way he does but then also have elite pass-rush ability. Now that’s something that obviously he needs to prove on Sundays, but from what we’ve seen from drill work and what we’ve seen out here, we think he’s going to be a dynamic pass rusher in our defense.”

Visit to White House

Offensive lineman Paul McQuistan received a chance to be feted by President Barack Obama and reunite with former teammates last week. McQuistan, whom the Browns signed in March, played for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last season, and the team received an invitation to the White House in accordance with tradition.

“It’s cool. Just a good experience overall,” McQuistan said. “The opportunity to do that, you probably don’t get to do that very often.”

The trip offered a double meaning for the 6-foot-6, 315-pound guard.

“I just took in the view and stuff,” McQuistan said. “It was kind of special getting to go there Memorial Day weekend and everything, and I just took it in a little bit.”

Extra points

All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon continued to practice Wednesday, and he also continued to decline to speak to reporters while reportedly appealing a potential season-long suspension from the NFL stemming from another violation of its substance-abuse policy. However, Gordon’s silence doesn’t pertain to Twitter, considering he posted the following Wednesday afternoon: “Woke up & put in work like I wanna be the best ever. What u do today? #gogetitin.” … Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is scheduled to speak in front of 70 NFL assistant coaches and front-office executives during the NFL Career Development Symposium, which will run Friday-Sunday at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com