First, here are the numbers on Bethea. Player performance grades come from Pro Football Focus; salary information from Spotrac.com; all averages and rankings are position specific; and a player’s contract quality is the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average.
Age: 29 (30 on July 27th)
Old Team: Indianapolis Colts
Old Contract: 4 years/$26 million, $6.5 million average (9th highest of 85 safeties)
2013 PFF Grade: -2.9 (52nd)
2013 Contract Quality: -2.08 (81st)
New Team: San Francisco 49ers
New Contract: 4 years/$23 million, $5.75 million average (projected 12th highest)
Last season, Bethea’s below-average on-field contributions were worth about two million. It is worth mentioning that his performance was not just below the league average, but below his personal career average. In 2007 (his second year in the NFL) he was PFF’s seventh highest graded safety (6.4 grade) of the 80 who played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps; in 2008 he was 17th (5.7) of 83; in 2009 25th (3.5) of 88; in 2010 16th (7.2) of 85; in 2011 21st (3.7) of 87; and in 2012 69th (-4.2) of 88. These numbers suggest his play has fallen off, but they do not say why.
Perhaps Bethea lost a step as he neared 30; perhaps he did not fit as well in Coach Pagano’s system. Regardless, his decline in play does not necessarily mean he has lost a lot of his value. Through his previous contract Bethea’s on-field worth averaged roughly $4 million. The Colts paid him $6.5 million, and the 49ers just decided to pay him $5.75 million on the other side of 30. Why would they do that?
A recent article by 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco hints at the answer. Maiocco’s post, “Bethea provides ‘smart, steady’ leadership in 49ers secondary“, notes that in addition to eight years of NFL experience:
“Bethea is viewed as a ‘good locker room guy’ and great in the community.”
General manager Trent Baalke has demonstrated a reluctance to chase the high-priced free agent who may disrupt team chemistry. Baalke’s signing of Bethea not only underscores Baalke’s philosophy, but indicates just how much the 49ers value teamwork, isolated from talent. Bethea’s professional demeanor and strong character are seemingly worth $2-4 million or so, at least to some NFL front offices.
As always, it is likely other considerations play into his value. With two prior Pro Bowl appearances Bethea may emerge as a fan favorite, or at least a recognizable presence in the defensive backfield. And, though his talent may be slipping, Bethea has not had injury problems. Nor has he stooped to committing penalties; Maiocco reports that he was not called for a single infraction last season. That, at least, would be a welcome change from Whitner, who was whistled eight times.
The bottom line for Whitner ended up being the $7 million a year the Cleveland Browns were willing to give him. The 49ers, meanwhile, will be paying his replacement more than $1 million fewer each season. Perhaps best of all, 49ers games will finally be rid of out-of-date stories discussing a potential name change to Donte Hitner. Oh, and we have another million and change for a few years to maybe work out a deal with Colin Kaepernick. And if the intangibles of an NFL safety cost into the millions, surely a team needs every cent for a quarterback’s.