Does Scott still have a role to play? (photo source)
Now that the 2009 NFL Draft is in the books and off-season player acquisition will crawl at a snail's pace, Buffalo Rumblings has begun re-examining the Buffalo Bills' revamped roster. We continue off our 'State of the Roster' series this morning with a look at the safety position. Previous installments: QB, OT, DE.
No Buffalo Bills safety has intercepted a pass since Week 14 of the 2007 season, when Donte Whitner picked off a wounded duck from then-Dolphins QB Cleo Lemon in a late-season 38-17 drubbing of Miami.
Let that sink in, folks. The Bills have now played nineteen consecutive games without getting a single game-changing interception from any of their five safeties - a position at which depth has been relatively consistent for the injury-plagued Bills. You were actually surprised when the Bills selected Oregon DB Jairus Byrd this season to provide a boost to the playmaking potential of this group? You probably should not have been.
One can always make the argument that 'no pass rush' automatically equals 'no interceptions', particularly in the case of safeties. And, no interceptions aside, Buffalo does have quality players at this position. But the selection of Byrd serves as a warning to the rest of the players at the position: 'good' and 'consistent' aren't enough. Things need to change. The selection also, however, clouds the team's plans at the position.
STARTER: Donte Whitner
Whitner has had an interesting off-season. Rumors spread quickly at the end of the '08 season and throughout this off-season that the Bills were planning on using Whitner at free safety permanently - rumors he himself helped along. Now, however, the Bills have brought the pick-happy Byrd on board, with that move having two implications: Whitner may not be a lock to play free safety, and the selection is an indictment of his lack of big plays. Whitner is what he is - an extremely versatile player, a fiery competitor and a leader. But he doesn't make plays - and the team needs plays from this position. Whitner looks like he'll be picking up his old role (strong safety, nickel back, rover, whatever you want to call it) in 2009.
Buffalo brought this kid in to make big plays, and he's not going to do that from the bench. He may not "start" - not in name, anyways - but Byrd will play a lot immediately. He'll start by season's end if things go well. Teamed with Whitner, Byrd gives the Bills two safeties that are ideal fits in the Tampa 2 - fast, athletic and able to move down and cover receivers in the slot. If Byrd can contribute right away, this highly average position turns into a team strength for Buffalo.
STARTER: Bryan Scott
It's difficult for a player to be under-appreciated and over-appreciated simultaneously, but Scott is in that territory. Like most of his running mates at the position, Scott doesn't deliver big plays on a routine basis. He's not a great safety; like Whitner, he's a heady, steady performer. He's a bit overrated, if you're asking me - I don't think he's starting safety material at the NFL level. But he can be an excellent asset playing the right role, and it appears he's destined for said role this season. Scott's a hard hitter and a superb tackler, and he acts as an extra linebacker on multi-wide receiver running plays. He also has the size that Whitner and Byrd lack in matching up with tight ends. There are skills and measurables he possesses that the other safeties simply don't bring to the table. In that role, his value to Buffalo skyrockets.
A special teams captain, Wilson is versatile - able to play both safety spots relatively well - and the converted receiver possesses solid ball skills as well. Wilson's role is defined - special teams ace and valuable reserve safety. He's a virtual lock to make the team, and he's a good player to have around.
Though he may be worth millions, that luxury may not last much longer for Ko. Entering his fourth season in the league, Simpson has weathered an up-and-down start to his career - he was a starter for the bulk of his rookie season, missed all of 2007 with an ankle injury, and saw Scott take his starting role on a permanent basis last year. He's not a great athlete and a poor fit in this defensive scheme. Particularly if Byrd has a strong pre-season - but perhaps even if the rookie doesn't - Simpson is a strong candidate to get a pink slip before the September 14 opener.
Buffalo kept five safeties last season for the sole purpose of keeping Wendling on the team. He's one of only a handful of players that participates on every special teams unit. He's a favorite of coordinator Bobby April. He's just as strong of a lock to make this team as Whitner, Byrd and Scott are.
Contract situations: Outside of Byrd - who will likely sign a four-year deal at some point - all of these guys have expiring contracts within the next two seasons. Wilson and Simpson are in the final years of their respective deals. Whitner, Scott and Wendling are free agents after the 2010 season. From this angle, drafting Byrd was a smart move as well.
I was not a fan of this position prior to the draft. I consider this position the strength of the defense with Byrd on board - even before he's played an NFL down. Whitner's a good player that can match up well in virtually any situation. Byrd will be the same type of player, sacrificing some of Whitner's athleticism for legitimate playmaking skills. Scott is a great situational defender that is excellent against the run and can match up with tight ends thanks to his size. Wilson and Wendling are solid reserves that can help the team in other ways. This position is all set - keeping five seems likely - and if Byrd develops well and the team's pass rush improves even incrementally, we may see the overall production of this group increase as well.