BEREA — The Browns didn’t express any interest in Cleveland native Donte Whitner during his first venture into free agency.
Three years and two Pro Bowl selections later, the hard-hitting strong safety was at the top of their wish list.
Whitner formally signed a four-year contract worth $28 million with the Browns on Wednesday, bringing the Glenville High School graduate and Ohio State product home for his ninth NFL season.
“It’s not often that you get to play high school, college and the National Football League in the same state,” the 5-foot-10, 208-pounder said. “Everybody is pretty much excited about this. I probably have 115 text messages that I haven’t answered yet — and it’s still blowing up.
“Before this time, I haven’t really heard anything from the Cleveland Browns. But everything happens for a reason and I’m happy to be here now.”
Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and cornerback Isaiah Trufant also inked their free agent contracts on the snowy afternoon, allowing them to join Whitner on the dais for an introductory news conference.
For Whitner, being fitted with a No. 31 Cleveland jersey was the realization of a lifelong dream. He spent his first five seasons with the Bills after being the eighth pick in the 2006 draft, then the last three years with the 49ers.
The 28-year-old proudly posed for pictures with his new uniform, but admitted it was not an easy decision to leave the 49ers after three straight trips to the NFC championship game and an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII.
“When you build relationships with so many people and win so many football games, it’s bittersweet, but now you have to move on,” said Whitner, who collected 103 tackles and two interceptions last season. “It’s a business in the National Football League. I’m ready to take off on this new journey and win some football games in Cleveland.”
Whitner earned Pro Bowl selections in the last two seasons, increasing his career totals to 782 tackles and 10 interceptions over 116 games. A $7 million annual salary was obviously his main motivation for joining the Browns, but he said there were also personal and altruistic aspects to moving east.
“My No. 1 thing was to come back home to really help the city,” he said. “When you talk to inner-city kids and you give your time, it means a lot. Another thing is I have two small children (ages 6 and 7), and now I get an opportunity to spend a lot more time with them.”
Whitner added that he hopes to bring one of his former Tarblooders teammates with him to Cleveland in free agent receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Both played under legendary Glenville coach Ted Ginn Sr., who has battled pancreatic cancer in recent years.
“I know for a fact that Teddy would like to be a Cleveland Brown,” Whitner said. “Truth be told, I sent (Browns general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine) a text message the other day to take a look at him. If everything goes well, maybe he could be here, too.”
Renowned locker room leader Dansby — coming off a career-high 135 tackles and four interceptions with the Cardinals — was given a four-year, $24 million contract.
The 6-4, 250-pounder said he didn’t speak with any other teams after first being contacted by Farmer and Pettine. He has amassed 1,090 tackles, 38 sacks, 17 forced fumbles, 15 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries in 10 seasons — seven with Arizona and three with Miami.
The 32-year-old Dansby was a second-team All-Pro in 2013, when he became the fourth player in NFL history with at least six sacks, four interceptions and two interception returns for touchdowns in a season.
“Things happen for a reason and I think there is something special about this city — I don’t know what it is yet — but that’s the reason I’m here,” said Dansby, who will wear No. 56. “I had to take a leap of faith coming in with Coach Pettine, but it’s been a two-year process between me and him because he wanted me in Buffalo (where Pettine was defensive coordinator). Once I got the call, I was like, ‘I’m on my way.’”
Once Dansby committed to the Browns on Tuesday — the first official day of free agency — three of his new teammates were so excited, they flew with him and Whitner to Cleveland.
Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden even tweeted a picture of Dansby and Whitner in the air, seated beside Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon and outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard.
“It was a sweet moment,” Dansby said, smiling. “It was surreal, like I’m a Brown now. I’m here and I’m going to show out. I’m having fun. I’m loving everything about it.
“I’m embarking on this mission, trying to chase our destiny. I think we’re going to do something real special this season, so I didn’t feel like I had any choice. Believe me, I’m going to make the most of this opportunity. I’m going to maximize.”