If the free agent visit of Donovin Darius is any indicator, the safety position on Buffalo's roster is yet another area of youth. However, unlike the cornerback position, there is an element of continuity, as the Bills return both of their young starters as well as an underrated reserve. But there's no question - this, experience-wise, is the youngest position on the roster. The starters are second-year players, the top reserve is a third-year guy; there is also a rookie and a converted wideout. Taking that into consideration, it's not a surprise that Darius - a heady veteran - was brought in for a look-see.
In Perry Fewell's Cover-2 base defense, the main responsibility of the two safeties is to be the "2" in that name - this means that they will spend the majority of their time playing deep coverage responsibilities in passing situations. This was how it worked last year, and with a year of experience the two starters should be more effective in those roles. The team does like to bring a safety down to cover slot receivers in special circumstances, and it's likely that we'll see a bit more blitzing from the safety position on pass downs this year as well.
In run situations, the strong safety often lines up in the box - mostly due to the ineffectiveness of Buffalo's front four last season. Even if we had the best defensive line in the league, this wrinkle would still be utilized, just not as often. It's likely that due to the continuity up front, we'll still see a lot of one-deep sets on run downs. That makes the free safety the "last line of defense", so to speak, on the vast majority of opponents' run plays.
20-Donte Whitner: He made a pretty seamless transition from college to the NFL as a "reach" first-round pick. With that said, the team needs much more out of him in Year Two - especially in the "big play" category, where his one rookie interception left much to be desired. He also needs to take better angles on run plays - he was often out of position last season, which led to some big gains on the ground for Buffalo's opponents.
30-Ko Simpson: Held his own as a rookie and actually made a few more big plays than his counterpart Whitner. Yet his upside appears limited - he's not the swiftest or most fluid of athletes, which could make him susceptible to getting beat deep. His recovery speed is lacking as well. The negatives are there, but he does have one thing going for him: he's a bit of a ballhawk. He and Whitner work together well.
42-Jim Leonhard: A lot of Bills fans don't realize how good a football player Jim Leonhard really is. He's not an elite NFL safety; in fact, he's probably not good enough to be a starter for any team. But he is versatile (able to play both positions), smart and tough. Oh, and he's also a special teams warrior. With a little more experience, Leonhard may find himself as the primary backup to both positions here in Buffalo...
29-John Wendling: ... unless, of course, Wendling is as good as advertised. The Wyoming product has heard a lot of praise about his superior athleticism, but there are flaws - mostly due to his lack of big-time college experience. But he is smart (he turned down scholarships to Harvard) and his size could land him some playing time later on in the season. Has the look of an early special teams ace.
15-George Wilson: Of the 53 players I have projected to make this roster, Wilson was the last to make the cut. Why did he get the nod? His two-position versatility, combined with his special teams potential, make him a good fit for this roster. If he can continue to hold his own at safety, he could be the first two-way Bills player in a long time.
Rounding it out: Stacey Thomas, Trevor Hooper, Jon Corto. Thomas could sneak onto the practice squad; Hooper is a smart kid as well. There are few stories as great as Corto's - an Orchard Park native looking to crack his hometown squad. Sadly, that's extremely unlikely.
Outlook: There is talent and there is athleticism. But there are a lot of question marks - especially in terms of overall experience. Safeties are the most crucial element to a successful pass defense in the Cover-2 (in terms of the back seven of the defense), and it's still unclear whether the Whitner/Simpson duo has what it takes to anchor this secondary. One thing is certain: if the Bills are going to stay in contention early this season, these players had better grow up quick.