Chan Gailey's first, and already his boldest, move as new head coach of the Buffalo Bills has been to install a 3-4 defense, led by defensive coordinator George Edwards. While no one's sure exactly what that 3-4 system will look like, it'll be a fairly dramatic change for a Bills team that has run the 4-3 as its base defense since Gregg Williams' arrival as head coach in 2001.
While the majority of that overhaul will take place in the defensive front seven, perhaps Gailey's smartest coaching hire came in the retention of defensive backs coach George Catavolos. Hired by Dick Jauron in 2006, Catavolos has decades of experience coaching in the secondary, and having spent four years in Buffalo already, he'll be keenly aware of exactly what type of talent the team possesses in the defensive backfield.
Buffalo has invested quite a bit into the safety position over the last four years. Of the seven they currently employ, four were Jauron-era draft picks, with one of them turning into perhaps one of the elite young players at his position. After the jump, you'll find our analysis of Buffalo's talented and deep safety position.
What the new regime might be looking for
Does "more of the same" work here? Buffalo's safeties intercepted a whopping zero passes in 2008, as the team managed just 10 in total. A year later, Jairus Byrd nearly eclipsed that total himself (9), while the team hauled in 28 interceptions on the season. Of those 28 picks, 19 of them came from players that we'll feature in this article. I don't think the new coaching staff would be averse to this group combining for 19 interceptions next year.
The Bills currently employ seven players that we consider safeties as the team transitions to the 3-4 defense (with second-year defensive back Cary Harris, a cornerback at USC, the only player that might raise some eyebrows here).
Jairus Byrd. The 2009 second-round pick that everyone loved to hate turned into the player that everyone loved to love. Despite dealing with nagging injuries throughout the year - and yeah, those injury issues are a huge concern as Byrd enters his second season - Byrd put together an unforgettable rookie season in which he intercepted nine passes and was Buffalo's lone Pro Bowl representative (he didn't play after landing on IR). We're not sure if Byrd will ever be considered one of the elite all-around players at his position, but he does possess elite ball skills and, to say the least, a flair for the game-changing play.
Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $1.44M in base salaries.
Donte Whitner. Set a career high in interceptions (2) while missing six games due to various ailments. So he's got that going for him. 2009, however, was somewhat disappointing for Whitner, as his purported move to free safety was nullified by Byrd's emergence, and injuries allowed other players to shine in his spot. Now, he's entering essentially the final year of his rookie contract with only a very weak grip on a starting spot and the prospect of earning the job under a regime that didn't draft him eighth overall. Nothing will be handed to Whitner anymore; perhaps that'll be the catalyst to an excellent 2010 season. Perhaps.
Contract status: 2 years remaining. Owed $4.4M in base salaries. Final year is voidable.
George Wilson. Saw time at free and strong safety as the Bills continued to have injury issues, and had one heck of a season despite doing different things. Nabbed a career-high four interceptions playing next to Byrd at strong safety, and added 103 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and six defended passes. He's a leader for the younger guys in the secondary and on special teams, and is easily one of Buffalo's most valuable reserves anywhere on the roster.
Contract status: Restricted Free Agent
Bryan Scott. Scott showed his true value as a smart veteran by making a nearly seamless switch from starting strong safety to starting outside linebacker last season. He acquitted himself rather well, though obviously, he's at his best at safety. He's a UFA, but the Bills would be wise to bring him back as a third, in-the-box safety option on run downs in the new 3-4.
Contract status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Cary Harris. Started his rookie season on the practice squad after a very quiet pre-season, but eventually migrated to the active roster after the injury bug bit. Saw his first action of the season at free safety, of all places, in the season finale, and picked off Peyton Manning on his first series. That's not bad. His best shot might be as a free safety now that the Tampa 2 is out of the equation.
Contract status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
John Wendling. A sixth-round pick in 2007, the Bills have gotten solid value out of Wendling despite his rarely seeing the field as a defender. He's developed into Buffalo's most valuable special teams player not named Brian Moorman; it will be interesting to see whether or not his credibility is completely retained as the team transitions coordinators, from Bobby April to Bruce DeHaven.
Contract status: 1 year remaining. Owed $550K in base salary.
Todd Johnson. Signed as a street free agent when the team lost several of its specialists to injury. Unlikely to return as anything more than a camp body and specialist, and even that's a stretch given the presence of Wendling.
Contract status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Who stays? Who goes?
Honestly, I think everyone stays aside from Johnson, a street free agent with little value above that label. Byrd and Whitner, when healthy, are an athletic, if small, starting duo. Wilson and Scott should be re-signed, and both are capable as fill-in starters and good on-field leaders. Wendling really is an excellent specialist, and even Harris flashed some play-making ability in the season finale win over Indianapolis, nabbing two interceptions in the (meaningless) victory.
If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
Byrd and Whitner begin the season as starters - unless, of course, this strange rumor that Whitner is headed to D.C.comes to fruition. (Whitner, for the record, has flatly denied that rumor on his Twitter page, though he obviously doesn't have much control over where he plays this year, either.) Wilson and Scott are re-signed because they're dependable, consistent vets with cheap price tags and the ability to wear a lot of hats. Harris is retained as a camp body and given a shot as a ball-hawking safety, and Wendling is given another shot to earn a roster spot based purely on his special teams prowess. Long story short: I anticipate the status quo, and there shouldn't be many problems with that.
Names to keep an eye on
I don't have any external names for you, because I don't think there will be (m)any brought in of note. I'll submit Wilson's name for this chunk of the article, because he really is a solid player. He's a good leader, a great locker room guy, and productive both defensively and on special teams. As a reserve, he has tremendous value, and Buffalo would be foolish to let him walk.
Previous installments of the State of the Bills Roster series: QB, RB, WR, TE, OT, G/C, DE, NT, OLB, ILB, CB.
|WR2||Josh Reed||Steve Johnson||Justin Jenkins|
|LT||Demetrius Bell||Jamon Meredith|
|LG||Andy Levitre*||Kirk Chambers|
|RG||Eric Wood*||Richie Incognito|
|RT||Brad Butler*||Jonathan Scott|
|TE||Shawn Nelson*||Derek Fine||Derek Schouman||Jonathan Stupar|
|WR1||Lee Evans*||James Hardy||Roscoe Parrish|
|QB||Ryan Fitzpatrick*||Trent Edwards||Brian Brohm|
|RB||Fred Jackson*||Marshawn Lynch*|
|NT||Kyle Williams*||Lonnie Harvey|
|RE||Marcus Stroud*||Ryan Denney|
|LILB||Paul Posluszny*||Keith Ellison||Nic Harris|
|ROLB||Aaron Schobel*||Chris Ellis|
|CB2||Terrence McGee*||Reggie Corner||Ellis Lankster|
|SS||Donte Whitner*||Bryan Scott||John Wendling|
|FS||Jairus Byrd*||George Wilson||Cary Harris|
|CB1||Drayton Florence*||Leodis McKelvin*||Ashton Youboty|
Italics = Players that could earn starting spots
Bold = Projected free agent re-signings or tenders
* = Player I consider a mortal lock for the 2010 roster