Measuring Donte Whitner's minimal impact


Whitner not measuring up to peers (buffalobills.com)

This past Monday, we took a look back at quarterbacks drafted over the past decade (1999-2008) in an effort to measure the value and possible potential of QB Trent Edwards. The verdict? Great value with room for improvement. It was an interesting exercise that highlighted just how many bad picks there have been at the quarterback position over the past ten years - and Edwards wasn't one of them.

Once that project was put together, I said "Hey, Brian, wouldn't it be interesting to compare Donte Whitner's performance to other first-round safeties over the past decade? It sure would, Brian. Shall we do it? Let's!" (At this point, I got scared, because I'd now joined Will Leitch and Mike Florio in the group of folks who refer to themselves in the multiple persons. But then, I was talking to myself, so maybe it works. At any rate, that's an elite group that I want no part of.)

So I ran the numbers. Let's just say that upon completion, that "interesting" term that ran through my head was replaced with more varied terms along the lines of "awful", "damning" and "unsurprising". How bland has Donte Whitner's play been? The numbers speak for themselves.

First thing's first
This post is not meant to be another launching point for the "Why didn't we draft Haloti Ngata in 2006?!" brigade, though it undoubtedly will be added to the already impressive stash of ammo the masses have been firing with for three years. Hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to the NFL Draft. As you'll see momentarily, there have been some elite and ridiculously productive safeties to come out of the draft in the past decade alone - so drafting a safety early in the draft isn't as dumb a move as many make it seem. But those same numbers, as I said, are damning when it comes to Whitner's production. It's production that I'm concerned with, not "coulda woulda shoulda", and I'll let the numbers prove Whitner's alarming lack of production.

Safeties trendy in recent years
It's important to note that this type of study is skewed, because for the longest time, safeties weren't regarded as first-round prospects - much like centers generally aren't these days. Over the past ten drafts, only 16 safeties have been taken in the first round. Half of those have been in the past three years alone.

Here's the list of 16 safeties drafted in the first round since 1999, with team drafting and overall selection noted as well:

1999: Antuan Edwards, GB (25)
2000: Rashard Anderson, CAR (23)
2001: Adam Archuleta, STL (20); Derrick Gibson, OAK (28)
2002: Roy L. Williams, DAL (8); Ed Reed, BAL (24)
2003: Troy Polamalu, PIT (16)
2004: Sean Taylor, WAS (5)
2005: no safeties drafted in Round 1
2006: Michael Huff, OAK (7); Donte Whitner, BUF (8); Jason Allen, MIA (16)
2007: LaRon Landry, WAS (6); Michael Griffin, TEN (19); Reggie Nelson, JAX (21); Brandon Meriweather, NE (24)
2008: Kenny Phillips, NYG (31)

And, without further ado, here are those damning numbers. Players are ranked by big plays; essentially, I added up interceptions, fumble recoveries and touchdowns, then ranked by that total. Seemed fairest to me in terms of measuring true impact. The results...

Round 1 Safeties 1999-2008
Player-Year G (GS) TK INT FR TD
E. Reed, BAL (2002) 48 (47) 234 21 4 3
R. Williams, DAL (2002) 48 (48) 267 9 4 2
M. Griffin, TEN (2007) 31 (25) 121 10 1 1
T. Polamalu, PIT (2003) 48 (32) 227 7 2 2
S. Taylor, WAS (2004) 46 (44) 264 7 1 1
A. Edwards, GB (1999) 31 (4) 57 6 1 1
R. Nelson, JAX (2007) 29 (28) 114 7 0 0
A. Archuleta, STL (2001) 42 (41) 251 2 3 1
J. Allen, MIA (2006) 45 (22) 104 5 1 0
L. Landry, WAS (2007) 32 (32) 160 2 3 0
R. Anderson, CAR (2000) 27 (9) 59 1 3 1
B. Meriweather, NE (2007) 32 (10) 106 4 0 0
D. Gibson, OAK (2001) 47 (25) 144 3 1 0
D. Whitner, BUF (2006) 43 (42) 255 2 0 0
M. Huff, OAK (2006) 44 (32) 187 1 1 0
K. Phillips, NYG (2008) 16 (0) 62 1 0 0

Lovely, right? Whitner ranks #14 of the 16 safeties drafted over the past ten years. One of the guys behind him is Kenny Phillips, who is just coming off of a rookie year in New York in which he didn't register his first career start - yet he still has half as many interceptions as Whitner has recorded in three years.

Look, I knew it was bad. I knew that Whitner's impact had been miniscule through his first three seasons. But as prepared as I was for the awfulness of this exercise, I was not prepared to call Whitner the second-worst safety drafted in the first round over the past decade. (Phillips deserves a pass, as he'll be fine now that he's a full-time starter for the Giants.) Whitner only avoids being the worst because the guy drafted immediately before him, Oakland's Michael Huff, has been slightly worse. No-names like Rashard Anderson - who spent a whopping two years in the NFL - made more plays than Whitner. This is quite easily the most vomit-inducing exercise I've done in the 21 months I've spent here at Buffalo Rumblings.

It's time to set aside the "leadership", "character" and "potential" terms when talking about Whitner. I don't care that only two safeties (Williams and the late Taylor) had more tackles over their first three years than Whitner. Any average safety that gets significant playing time, particularly in a Cover 2-based defense, can rack up tackles. I suppose that there is still potential for Whitner to get better. But when you consider the fact that only three safeties - Taylor, Landry and Huff - were drafted higher in the pecking order than Whitner, his lack of impact hits its most overwhelming level. Think we don't need to pursue a play-making safety? Think again, folks.

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