We have stated and heard all the criticisms about Donte Whitner: he didn't make enough plays last year; he took bad angles against the run; he was misused in his rookie season. The fact that Whitner was the #8 overall pick only magnifies the playmaking shortcomings he experienced in his rookie season. We've demanded it here before; Whitner needs to be a much bigger playmaking presence in his second season. In my mind, there's an easy way to make this happen: move Whitner to free safety.
Get Whitner Out of the Box
As Chris Brown alluded to in his blog post on Whitner, the safety likely suffered through an unproductive rookie campaign because as the strong safety, he was asked to play close to the line of scrimmage ("in the box") to help shore up a shoddy run defense. It's not that Whitner was bad in this role; it's just that the Bills would be much better off if he did not have to play much run support. By putting in a different strong safety (or, more frequently, a fourth linebacker such as Coy Wire), the Bills will be able to get more size in the box against the run. This also gets Whitner out of the box and back deep, where his coverage skills will be put into much more of a playmaking position. This goes without mentioning that Whitner is a surer tackler as a last line of defense than the team's current starter, Ko Simpson.
The biggest benefit to this move in run formations is that Whitner is a better athlete with superior coverage skills and more range than Simpson, which will help out against play-action fakes. Putting Whitner in this position will maximize his coverage skills and match him up against tight ends and slot wideouts, which is more suited to his strengths.
Versatility Versus the Pass
In defensive pass formations, the Bills would have a lot more flexibility if they played Whitner deep. In 5 and 6 defensive back sets, Whitner can play any position - free safety, strong safety, or even cornerback against slot wide receivers. On pass downs, the Bills should keep Whitner deep, where he can quarterback the defense and make plays coming forward (as he did on his lone interception of the season, off of Tom Brady in Week One). Keeping a more fluid athlete deep will also increase overall coverage effectiveness, allowing the team to send more corners and safeties on blitzes. Cover-2 defenses do depend on quarterback pressure, so having Whitner deep could help out Perry Fewell's blitz packages. Better coverage deep lets you take more chances close to the line, it's as simple as that.
Versatility is the name of the game in the back seven of this defense, and Whitner is a big part of that. The Bills need to realize Whitner's strengths (pass defense) and put him in the best position to succeed. Getting him out of the strong safety position is the best way to do this.
But What About Simpson?
I am a Ko Simpson fan. I think that he's a very good safety. I just think that Whitner is a better safety that needs to be used in the correct fashion; if this means that Simpson is the odd man out, so be it. Ko would be an excellent choice to be a nickel and dime safety (a role that Jim Leonhard filled last season, so that upgrade is obvious), and he'd also be one of the top performers our special teams has seen in a while. Moving Whitner would not signal the end of Simpson's career; in fact, it would probably increase his overall value to the team.
The Ideal Scenario
To me, the best-case scenario would be for the Bills to sign Donovin Darius. That would complete Buffalo's DB flexibility and allow Fewell to better utilize his young talent. Darius has much better size to compete in the box against the run (he's 6'1", 225 to Whitner's 5'10", 208), and he's more of a physical presence to receivers coming across the middle of this zone defense.
The best part of a potential Darius signing would be the development of John Wendling, a player with very similar physical skills that needs time to develop. Wendling an extremely similar athlete to Darius in his prime, and would be the perfect physical, athletic safety to fill this team's strong safety position. Having Darius on board would give Wendling around two years to earn his playing time, and there would be little drop-off in terms of what the position offers once Darius left. The depth at safety would be incredible. When you're using Ko Simpson as a nickel and dime safety, you know your talent is deep.
Better use of personnel. Improved run and pass defense (at least at the theoretical level). Better run/pass matchups. Players in better position to make plays. And most importantly, more production out of Marv Levy's first-ever selection as this team's GM. What's not to like about moving Whitner to free safety?
Update [2007-7-10 19:22:53 by Brian G]: Darius has signed a three-year deal with Oakland, who probably needed the safety help more than this team. It's highly unlikely that Whitner will be switching positions at this point - let's hope that Fewell can find a way to put him in more playmaking positions this season!