In 2008, the defensive unit that the Buffalo Bills put on the field intercepted 10 passes in 16 games. The team's leading interceptor, cornerback Terrence McGee, picked off just three passes. Of that dismal total of 10 picks, seven came from the team's cornerbacks (with Jabari Greer and then-rookie Leodis McKelvin splitting the difference), and three came from linebackers. Buffalo's safeties intercepted exactly zero passes in 2008.
Last season, the Buffalo Bills intercepted 28 passes, good for the second-highest total in the NFL behind Green Bay's 30. (They rose 25 spots in the rankings from '08 to '09, folks.) The team's leading interceptor, then-rookie part-time starting free safety Jairus Byrd, intercepted nine passes, which very nearly won him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Buffalo got similar INT production out of its corners (five) and linebackers (four), and even got a couple of interceptions from its defensive line. After a woeful 2008, Buffalo's safety group intercepted 17 passes in 2009.
Which group of safeties will we see in Buffalo in 2010? Will we see the group that put up a big ol' fat goose egg like in 2008, or will we see the dynamic, functionally talented, deep, play-making group that was one of the NFL's best safety rotations last season? With four safeties (two of them strong safeties that won't appear in this analysis) that can legitimately lay claim to starting roles, barring poor health, we're betting on the latter. Our analysis of Buffalo's free safeties is after the jump.
Though the Bills are transitioning to the 3-4 defense, the responsibilities of the team's defensive backs aren't going to change much, and with good reason. Buffalo's secondary is very good at what it collectively does. The free safety position will still be a centerfield position, one in which players will be deep in coverage and asked to read and react. Run support will not be a big factor at this position.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
37 - George Wilson. After starting his career as an undrafted free agent wide receiver, Wilson was switched to safety by Buffalo's previous coaching staff, and has been something of a revelation at his new position. He's coming off a career year in 2009, one in which he saw starts at both free and strong safety, accumulated 103 tackles, four interceptions, two sacks and a forced fumble, and cemented himself as one of the team's core leaders. Buffalo has on-paper starters at both free and strong safety, but I would not be surprised if Buffalo's coaching staff sneaks Wilson into the starting lineup at strong safety, where he performed admirably last season despite not being a classic in-the-box type of player. You're going to see Wilson on the field a lot in 2010, and that's a great thing for this team, even if he's not a "starter."
31 - Jairus Byrd. There's not much to say about Byrd that hasn't already been gleefully repeated ad nauseum in these parts. Byrd's tremendous nine-interception rookie season should have won him the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Award - particularly after the now-infamous re-vote. Byrd is the prototypical centerfielder; he's not a phenomenal long-range athlete, but he's quick, fast enough, has tremendous instincts and obviously has enviable ball skills. I don't know that I expect Byrd to become something more than what he is now - that is, an all-world safety capable of taking over games and dominating opponents - but he's an excellent football player capable of putting together a Darren Sharper-type career. He just needs to stay healthy to do so.
46 - Brett Johnson. I have no idea where Buffalo thinks they can slide this guy onto the roster, because Johnson wasn't a great collegiate football player, and the Bills' secondary is completely loaded with young, talented players. Johnson looks like a free safety, and his best shot will be as a centerfielder. Despite his uphill climb, Johnson's tremendous athleticism - we're talking 4.3-second 40-yard dash, 42.5-inch vertical jump and 10'9" broad jump athleticism - makes him one of the team's most intriguing UDFA signings this year. But he's definitely more athlete than football player at this point in time.
Entering his second season, Byrd's got three years and $1.44 million remaining on his four-year rookie deal. With another strong season in 2010, Byrd could be in line for an early, lengthy contract extension, particularly if that strong season is also an injury-free season. Wilson signed a one-year, $1.76 million tender offer as a restricted free agent, and reports have indicated that the Bills would like to tie him up long-term. That hasn't happened yet. Johnson is an undrafted free agent, and thus has a short-term, cheap deal; numbers have not been specified in either case.
Byrd's playmaking abilities make him a must-start. He'll open the season as Buffalo's starting free safety, and as the team's most proven playmaker. Keep your fingers crossed that he's able to stay healthy. I'm not sure I'm ready to pencil Wilson into the starting lineup at any position, but this is a guy that has routinely found his way onto the field of play over the past three seasons, and that trend will continue this season - he's just too good a player. I wouldn't be shocked if Wilson is lining up next to Byrd as the starting strong safety on opening day, either. As for Johnson, he won't make the final roster - there's simply too much competition - but a strong pre-season and his athleticism could easily land him a practice squad spot.
Byrd is the starter at free safety, Donte Whitner gets the initial nod at strong safety, and Wilson is the first player on the field in reserve at both positions. Buffalo also has Bryan Scott to insert into the rotation at safety, and the team's top four safeties all have very complementary games, so that the Bills should be able to play match-up football if they wish. But in the end, Chan Gailey strikes me as a "production wins out" type of coach, and if that proves to be true, I think Byrd and Wilson end the 2010 season as the team's unquestioned starters at free and strong safety, respectively.