It's tough to trundle through an analysis of the Buffalo Bills' defense at the moment, because we're still not precisely sure what system new coordinator Dave Wannstedt plans on implementing this season. Therefore, we're starting at the back end of the defense and moving forward, allowing more time for some sort of game plan to be made public. (No, we're not counting on it happening, but we can dream, right?)
Let's start at safety, shall we? After the jump, we'll look at the team's five players at the position - and before anyone asks, we're including Bryan Scott in our review of the inside linebackers, because let's face it, that's the position he plays.
Age: 25 (26 in October 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2013. Will make $565K in base salary in final year of rookie deal.
After a statistically impressive rookie season, expectations were quickly tempered for Byrd. Astute observers noted that he was poor against the run as a rookie. Byrd was a better player in his second season despite recording eight fewer interceptions. In 2011, he began to show signs that he's primed to become one of the best free safeties in the league. He is not only much-improved against the run and as a tackler, but is now downright excellent in both areas. He still makes a lot of plays, including three interceptions, three forced fumbles and a touchdown. This is a very good safety, and as he enters a contract year, he's on the verge of becoming a true building block for this defense.
Age: 30 (31 in March 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2014. Will make $3.73M in base salary over final two years of current deal.
Wilson was on track for a career year before a neck injury derailed his season. Much like the Bills as a whole, Wilson was excellent for half a season, then faded as the year wore on (starting with the injury). When he was on his game, he was making big plays against the pass and providing terrific run support. Like Byrd, he is somewhat range-limited in coverage, but makes up for it with good instincts and awareness. He's on the wrong side of 30, but he's got a few good years left in him, and he complements Byrd well.
Age: 23 (24 in November 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2015. Entering year two of a four-year rookie deal.
Easily the Bills' biggest safety, Searcy was predictably mistake-prone when pressed into action as a rookie. He did, however, show well as a tackler, and with experience, his coverage abilities should improve. At some point, he'll be the starting strong safety - and could be on the field well before that in Scott's role if the veteran isn't re-signed.
Age: 23 (24 in April 2012)
Contract: Undisclosed. Signed off of the practice squad in November.
The former Georgia Tech quarterback ran the Wildcat offense for one pre-season game, was promptly moved to safety, spent most of the year on the practice squad, and then was signed to the active roster, playing only in a special teams role. More athlete than safety, Nesbitt will get another look next summer.
Age: 27 (28 in September 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2013. Signed a two-year contract in February 2011.
The Orchard Park native was signed to a two-year contract last February - before the beginning of the lockout - but couldn't play in the first year after landing on IR. Purely a special teams player, Corto will perpetually have an uphill climb to make the roster. It's remarkable he's still around after all these years, and a testament to how highly the team thinks of him.
POSITIONAL OUTLOOK: Byrd headlines a strong group of 2013 unrestricted free agents for the Bills, and aside from Fred Jackson may end up being the team's top priority in getting a deal done once this year's crop of free agents is handled. Ideally, he'll be the free safety for a long time. With Wilson and Searcy, the team has a game plan at strong safety. The real issue here is depth; the team could really use one more body as a fourth safety, considering they're playing one more than half of the snaps at a different position.
FREE AGENCY: None of the players listed here will be affected, but keep an eye on Scott's situation. If he isn't retained, Searcy could take his role in the nickel defense, and then the team would be even wiser to find depth at this position.
2012 NFL DRAFT: The Bills have solid size at this position, with the notable exception being Byrd, who is not an overly fast athlete. Nor are any of the Bills' big safeties. Speed is a problem at this position, so if the Bills use a draft pick on a developmental prospect - a distinct possibility for depth purposes - it wouldn't hurt to find a guy that has a little bit more range.