After using the opening weekend of free agency to considerably bolster their defensive front seven, the Buffalo Bills have now turned their attention to other matters. Though most of the attention has been placed on the Bryant Johnson watch, the most intriguing free agent that the Bills have hosted over the past two days is former Chargers safety Marlon McCree.
McCree, who will turn 31 in less than two weeks, was released by the Chargers as they rid themselves of his large salary. McCree is expected to visit Denver today, and yesterday stated that he'll choose between Buffalo and Denver by the end of the week. He also mentioned, in meeting with the Buffalo press, that he believes he's better suited to playing strong safety.
Which begs the question: what exactly are the Bills trying to accomplish in their defensive backfield?
Heading into this off-season, I had nary a concern about Buffalo's depth at safety. I liked the team's "starters" in Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson (though Simpson may have to fight for his job); I also liked the fact that George Wilson played so admirably while he was in the lineup. Heck, I even liked free agent Bryan Scott, a Bill last year whom many were interested in seeing re-signed. Add second-year man John Wendling, who is poised to take over the team's role of "special teams" ace, and the Bills had a nice mix of youth, veteran, leadership and skill. And we haven't even mentioned Jim Leonhard's name, another free agent whom the coaching staff likes.
The interest in McCree, therefore, caught me off guard a bit. McCree started his career in Jacksonville, where his position coach was none other than current Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. As it stands right now, the Bills have four safeties under contract (Whitner, Simpson, Wilson, Wendling), while Scott and Leonhard sit on the open market. Given the inexperience of Wilson and especially Wendling, and Simpson's concerning ankle injury, I started to come around on the interest in McCree. Next question: where would he fit in?
If the Bills have proven anything under Dick Jauron, they've proven that they use their safeties in unique ways. Both Whitner and Leonhard have been used as nickel backs. Whitner has seen time all over the field. With a lack of depth, the team can't achieve that type of versatility. Adding McCree would certainly get them there.
If I were running the show? If McCree signs here, he's the starting strong safety. He's the type of player who doesn't do one thing great, but does everything well with no weaknesses. He's a sure tackler and can pack a wallop as well. He's good on the blitz. He's not big (5'11", 202), but he plays big. Heading toward the later stages of his career (he's not quite there yet), he's probably not as reliable in the back end of the defense as he is in the box, redirecting traffic and stuffing the run.
I have long maintained, and my views haven't changed, that Donte Whitner should be playing free safety. In two years as Buffalo's starting strong safety, Whitner has shown that he can't make plays nearly consistently enough. What he does in the box is great - he's excellent in short zone coverage, and though he takes an occasional bad angle, he's generally excellent in run support as well. We just need more big plays from the former top ten pick, and it's becoming clear that he can't do that in the box. He's got elite coverage skills for a safety, and he's great at closing on the ball. Let him play coming forward and make a few more interceptions. Having a starting safety tandem of McCree and Whitner would allow the team to (finally) interchange the safety positions and increase playmaking exponentially. Simpson, Wilson and Wendling would give the team excellent depth.
The Bills have built outstanding depth at linebacker and defensive tackle. They have three solid defensive ends. Their front seven, by and large, is loaded with versatile talent. In the Cover-2 defense, when your front seven is good, your back seven needs to close the deal by making plays. We have a couple of play-making corners in Terrence McGee and Jabari Greer (with more help likely to come). This defense needs to force turnovers. That has to be the number one goal for our defensive backs: get the ball. Adding McCree isn't just about building depth. It's about making plays. So I'll throw this out into the either: signing Marlon McCree would be just as big as trading for Marcus Stroud. Perhaps not from the view of public perception; if you're talking X's and O's, however, McCree's value increases.