October 2, 2014

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Browns Notes: Veteran leader Donte Whitner adds toughness to defense

Safety Donte Whitner participates in a voluntary  mini-camp this month in Berea. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Safety Donte Whitner participates in a voluntary
mini-camp this month in Berea. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

BEREA — Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil loves strong safety Donte Whitner’s intimidation factor. With teammates as well as opponents.

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

Whitner, a Cleveland native, was signed in March as a free agent. He brings the reputation as a big hitter and tried to enhance it by almost changing his name to Hitner.

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

Whitner is entering his ninth season in the NFL. He’s seen the league pay more attention to the health of players while trying to take the big hit out of the game.

“The middle of the football field is a scary place. 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. “Once you put fear into opposing offenses, fear into opposing offensive players, that’s when you start to see a lot of tipped balls and guys not wanting to go into the middle of the football field and you become limited in what you can do as an offense.”

Whitner said he’s able to walk the fine line between big, intimidating hit and illegal hit.

“I had six (unnecessary roughness penalties) last year and I was fined zero dollars,” he 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.

“I pride myself in doing it the right way. 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. We’re not going to lead with the crown of our helmet, we’re going to lead with our shoulder pads, we’re going to wrap, but we are going to hit people. You’re not going to be able to run through this defense.”

Scary moment

Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the No. 8 pick in the draft, limped off the field and had his right knee wrapped in ice by a trainer. He didn’t return to action, but stood, walked, removed the wrap and tested the knee by bending.

“I don’t think it’s anything serious. That was just a bag of ice,” coach Mike Pettine said.

Gilbert later confirmed he’s OK.

“Im fine. WILL be back in action on friday for our next practice. #DawgPound,” he tweeted.

O’Neil has liked what he’s seen of Gilbert.

“Obviously great looking corner, 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.”

Gilbert continued to line up with the second team behind Buster Skrine. But Skrine’s expected to lose the starting spot to Gilbert and slide inside as the nickelback.

“That’ll be on him. He’s going to get every opportunity to win it, but I don’t think that the guys that are playing the position are just going to give it to him,” O’Neil said. “I think Buster Skrine’s doing a great job out here also, so it’s a good situation and we need to have a lot of corners to be successful in this defense.”

Too early to tell

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said it’s too soon in the quarterback competition for him to assess the race. Rookie Johnny Manziel received time with the starters Wednesday as incumbent Brian Hoyer remains limited to only a few reps in 11-on-11 drills to protect his surgically repaired right knee.

“OTAs to me is about getting your feet wet, trying to learn the offense, get your reps,” Shanahan said. “You’re going to have bad reps, which I think are good reps because you learn from bad reps. Then we come back in training camp and see what sticks. To me that’s a little bit more when the true competition starts because it’s a little fairer. They’ve got a better idea of what’s going on.”

Injury report

  • Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby has a minor injury and prefers to deal with it out of town, Pettine said. He’s expected back next week.
  • Seventeen Browns didn’t practice Wednesday, but Pettine said he expects all to be ready, at the latest, for the start of training camp in late July. He said the only possible exceptions are receivers Travis Benjamin and Charles Johnson, who are recovering from torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
  • Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and second-year offensive lineman Chris Faulk weren’t on the field Wednesday.
  • Defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin and running back Dion Lewis joined Benjamin and Johnson as the biggest names riding the stationary bikes instead of practicing.
  • Left tackle Joe Thomas didn’t practice, watching from right behind the action. Martin Wallace took his spot with the starters.
  • Defensive lineman Billy Winn had his left knee wrapped during practice and watched the end of the session.
  • Offensive lineman Reid Fragel limped into the locker room during practice.

Extra points

  • Receiver Josh Gordon, who reportedly faces a suspension for a failed drug test, continued to practice and make a number of catches.
  • Second-round rookie Joel Bitonio continued to work as the starter at left guard.
  • Owner Jimmy Haslam will be a speaker in the annual NFL Career Development Symposium this weekend at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Browns general manager Ray Farmer and Pettine were attendees last year in the program to engage aspiring head coach and general manager candidates.
  • More than 35 top rookies will gather in Los Angeles this weekend to learn the business of football at the 20th annual NFLPA Rookie Premiere that will feature a number of business partners. Quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw and running back Terrance West are the Browns scheduled to attend.

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

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