What was arguably the deepest, most versatile, most productive position on the Buffalo Bills defense in 2007? Most people will tell you that it was the free safety position. Even though the Bills would eventually field three starters at the position (Ko Simpson, George Wilson, Jim Leonhard), the raw numbers produced by the position speak volumes as to how big an impact that strong play at the position can have on Buffalo's defense. Add the numbers of Simpson, Wilson and Leonhard together, and you get a surprising stat line: 88 tackles, 4 interceptions, a fumble recovery, and two defensive touchdowns. Not bad when you consider the three starters are a former fourth round pick, a converted wide receiver and a former undrafted free agent.
Questions (read: good questions) abound at this position heading into 2008. Here's how these three players stack up:
Simpson's status (roster-wise, not physically) is one of the biggest questions that need to be answered heading into the off-season. Will the Bills hand the starting free safety position back to Simpson after he missed all but one tackle of his sophomore season? As a rookie, Simpson started 15 games at free safety next to draft-mate Donte Whitner; that year, he accumulated 77 tackles, a sack, and two interceptions. He's certainly flashed ability - but so has Wilson. Simpson has to be considered the early favorite to re-claim the starting spot in 2008, but it's certainly not a given.
Will Improve in '08 if - he can stay healthy and prove that his injured ankle is fully recovered :: he becomes a far more aggressive, physical tackler than he was as a rookie :: he continues to develop his ball-hawking tendencies
If there was a Bill who had a more surprising 2007 campaign than Wilson, I'd love to hear about him. After barely sticking with the Bills organization for two years as a wide receiver, Wilson made the switch to safety last off-season - and it paid off for him in a big way. While he's not a physical presence, Wilson was a steady performer in the deep secondary, flashing better ball skills than any free safety in recent memory. Like Simpson, Wilson ended the season on IR after several solid starts, in which he scored two of the Bills' three defensive touchdowns.
Will Improve in '08 if - he can stay healthy :: he proves he's got additional value as a special teams performer :: his tackling is more physical and his demeanor is much more assertive
Quick - name the Bills' sixth leading tackler defensively last season. Yes, it was Jim Leonhard, and his 51 stops in 13 games should indicate just how mediocre Buffalo's defense was outside of the free safety position. Leonhard is the ultimate coach's player - he's versatile and hard-working enough to do, with moderate success, whatever you ask of him. Whether or not that ensures him a roster spot next season remains to be seen; I don't think it's a stretch, however, to claim that Leonhard is one of just a handful of Bills (any side of the ball) where you know what you're going to get game in and game out.
Clearly, the Bills have a trio of safeties here that are talented. They've also been, to varying degrees, productive when they've had playing time. The real question, however, is whether any of them deserves to be handed the starting position. Don't expect that to happen. The free safety position has, at this point, the best chance of undergoing an open competition for the starting spot - and all three of these players may get extended looks. The winner starts; the losers may not even get a roster spot.
Possible additions: none.
Possible subtractions: Leonhard.