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The Curious Case of Donte Whitner and Bills safeties

I have been blogging here at Buffalo Rumblings for well over two years now. We've had a lot of ups and downs in our 26-month run, and we've had some wildly popular stories as well as some dreary ones. Perhaps our most well-known feature here in our brief history was our January 31, 2009 story on Buffalo Bills safety Donte Whitner.

The premise of that article was a simple one: take a look at every safety drafted in the first round over the past decade, measure each player's impact as tangibly as possible, and see how Buffalo's No. 8 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft measured up. The results? Well, not good. In terms of "big plays" - a term we used loosely to cover statistical categories such as interceptions, forced and recovered fumbles, safeties, sacks, defended passes and touchdowns - Whitner ranked fourteenth of the sixteen first-round safeties drafted since 1999.

I still believe to this day that nothing in that little analysis we put together falls under the "unfair" category. Numbers are numbers. We have referred to Whitner as a franchise cornerstone and Buffalo's most valuable defensive back in the past, too. If those, too, are unfair, then Buffalo's secondary - along with our nascent reputation - is in serious trouble.

Yet our little analysis seeped into the mainstream just enough that Whitner's lack of big plays - which we freely admit has been hampered by his circumstances with the team - became a huge talking point early this off-season. Now, the topic of Whitner has resurfaced - and, naturally, we feel it's important to address it as it comes up.

Whitner ready to be safety in numbers -
We are in no way sure if the following excerpt from venerable Bills journalist Chris Brown was aimed at us - and we'll likely never know for sure. But it sure seems to pertain directly to us, and even if that was not the intent, we'll roll with it, considering the relevance to our previous discussions. It's June, and training camp doesn't start for another 40 days. Something has to pass the time. (Emphasis is ours.)

Whether it was strong safety, cornerback, nickel corner or free safety, Whitner was everywhere. And while there’s no debating how much Buffalo’s coaching staff values the ultra-versatile safety, there are outside observers that believe a top 10 pick should have more big plays than Whitner has had over his first three NFL seasons.

Even if Brown wasn't pointing directly at us... well, that still describes us pretty snugly.

What the outside observers fail to realize is in Buffalo’s defensive scheme Whitner has played strong safety more than any other position in the defensive backfield. As the role of that position is drawn up, opportunities to make plays on the ball are extremely limited.

Noted. This is precisely why we have written that Whitner should play free safety on a permanent basis for the better part of two years. The fact that Whitner has been forced into playing nickel coverage duties thanks to an abundance of injuries at cornerback has certainly hampered his ability to make more game-changing plays, as well, if only because he can't settle in at one position. (Though we will also point out that the sack, forced fumble and two defended passes that Ashton Youboty put up in just five games' worth of nickel duty in 2008 equals a third of Whitner's career production at several positions.)

Encouragingly, however, word surfaced - from Whitner himself - that the fourth-year pro would be making a full-time switch to free safety for the 2009 season. That was before the Bills used a second-round pick on Oregon DB Jairus Byrd, a player the Bills are expected to move to - you guessed it - free safety. Where does that leave Whitner? From Brown's article...

"Whatever they ask me to do I do to the best of my ability," Whitner said. "We’ll see. I’m going into my fourth year and will get the opportunity to play free safety. But I probably won’t even stay at free safety because they drafted Jairus Byrd. They want him to play some free safety. Coach Fewell likes me at both, but they like him at free so we’ll see. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to play there and get the job done."

Byrd, who snagged 17 interceptions in three years as a starting cornerback for the Ducks, is viewed as a more natural ballhawk than Whitner. Even though he has missed all of Buffalo's veteran OTAs and the mandatory mini-camp thanks to a late exam schedule, Byrd is expected to get every opportunity to nail down a starting job as quickly as he can. Keep in mind that as an Ohio State alum, Whitner, too, missed Buffalo's off-season activities in 2006. He was a full-time starter at strong safety by Week 2 of his rookie season.

Clearly, Byrd nailing down a starting job is far from a lock. The only safety assured of starting on opening day, barring injury, is Whitner - and let us be perfectly clear here. Whitner is a huge asset to the Bills simply because he can capably don several different hats. That's invaluable for a young defense, especially since the versatility is coming from a young player. (Though he is entering his fourth NFL season, Whitner will not turn 24 until the eve of this year's open of training camp.) Whitner will be starting for Buffalo, but it's uncertain at this point whether he'll be playing free safety next to veteran strong safety Bryan Scott, or if he'll retain his strong safety position, allowing Byrd to slide in at free safety.

Two more things are certain. Whitner probably won't exclusively play one position. Due to that fact, it is difficult to hope for an increase in his "big play" production. If his moving around positionally, and not playing the one spot that would put him in position to have a bigger impact (free safety) on a permanent basis has hampered him, little will change. Perhaps that's what Buffalo wants; perhaps they're happy with Whitner as he is and for what he currently offers the defense. That's fine - we're excited to see what happens whether he's playing free safety (next to Scott), or strong safety next to the promising rookie. But that doesn't mean we can't poll our little community about the safety position, either.