In 2008, the defensive unit that the Buffalo Bills put on the field intercepted 10 passes in 16 games. The team's leading interceptor, cornerback Terrence McGee, picked off just three passes. Of that dismal total of 10 picks, seven came from the team's cornerbacks (with Jabari Greer and then-rookie Leodis McKelvin splitting the difference), and three came from linebackers. Buffalo's safeties intercepted exactly zero passes in 2008.
Last season, the Buffalo Bills intercepted 28 passes, good for the second-highest total in the NFL behind Green Bay's 30. (They rose 25 spots in the rankings from '08 to '09, folks.) The team's leading interceptor, then-rookie part-time starting free safety Jairus Byrd, intercepted nine passes, which very nearly won him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Buffalo got similar INT production out of its corners (five) and linebackers (four), and even got a couple of interceptions from its defensive line. After a woeful 2008, Buffalo's safety group intercepted 17 passes in 2009.
Which group of safeties will we see in Buffalo in 2010? Will we see the group that put up a big ol' fat goose egg like in 2008, or will we see the dynamic, functionally talented, deep, play-making group that was one of the NFL's best safety rotations last season? With four safeties (two of them free safeties that won't appear in this analysis) that can legitimately lay claim to starting roles, barring poor health, we're betting on the latter. Our analysis of Buffalo's strong safeties is after the jump.
Though the Bills are transitioning to the 3-4 defense, the responsibilities of the team's defensive backs aren't going to change much, and with good reason. Buffalo's secondary is very good at what it collectively does. Where the free safety position will still be a centerfield position, one in which players will be deep in coverage and asked to read and react, the strong safety position will have slightly more emphasis on run support. Both safety spots will be used heavily in coverage - that's what safeties are for, after all - but unlike free safety, which I consider almost a one-dimensional position, Buffalo's strong safeties must be equally adept at defending the run and the pass.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
43 - Bryan Scott. The veteran safety was everywhere between banged up and weak-side linebacker in 2009, but performed consistently anyway, which led to his re-signing this past March. He's a one-dimensional player at this point, far more comfortable the closer he is to the line of scrimmage, and given Buffalo's run game woes, he'll be a valuable contributor in that capacity. Scott's got a knack for being in the right place at the right time as a run defender, and is one of the surest tacklers on the team.
20 - Donte Whitner. Perhaps one of this team's most polarizing figures, Whitner is coming off a confusing season in which he set a career high in interceptions (two), but also set career lows both in games played (10) and tackles (57). Indeed, by year's end, Whitner struggled to see field time in key situations - that is, until Jairus Byrd's season-ending injury forced him back into the lineup. Still, Whitner is by far the most physically talented safety on the roster, and as he's entering what is essentially a contract year, I think it's very fair to expect big things from Whitner this season.
33 - Jon Corto. The Orchard Park native has spent his entire pro career at linebacker, which he played in Perry Fewell's 4-3 scheme. Under the new regime, Corto will be sliding back to strong safety, as he's no longer a size fit for Buffalo's linebacker position. Pay no mind to how Corto fits in at safety, because ideally, he'll never play there; Corto has been one of this team's best specialists for the last two seasons, and if he makes the team, it'll be because of his play in that role, not his new one.
36 - Dominique Harris. Insofar as undrafted free agent signings go, Harris' was an important one, as he adds some much-needed size to a relatively small, finesse Bills safety position. He's a bit limited athletically, but like Scott is a tough defender in the box. He has enough utility and upside to stick around on the practice squad, but it should be noted that competition for practice squad spots will be rather steep this year.
Whitner is technically under contract for two more seasons, but with 2011 being a voidable year on his deal, this could very well end up being Whitner's final season in Buffalo. Scott was signed to a two-year deal this past March. Corto got a one-year tender offer, and will be a restricted free agent next spring. Harris likely signed a two- or three-year undrafted free agent deal.
Whitner will enter the season as the starter at strong safety, for one very simple reason: he's the best combination of pass and run defender the team has on the roster. What Whitner will no longer be is the every-down safety he was earlier in his career; the Bills are loaded at this position, and they'll use their depth to their advantage. Scott will see time as a run defender, where he excels. George Wilson will get some reps at strong safety on obvious passing downs, as he's more of a play-maker than Whitner is. As for Corto and Harris, their best shot at sticking is as specialists.
Under Dick Jauron and Bobby April, the Bills would often keep players on their roster that could strictly help them out on special teams. Transitioning to a 3-4 defense, where reserve linebackers become the core of the special teams units, I sincerely doubt that any one player sticks on this roster strictly as a special teams player. Therefore, I'm guessing that Corto's days as a Bill are drawing to a close, great story and all. Harris has a shot to stick on the practice squad, but it's unlikely he makes the final roster. And, obviously, Whitner and Scott are locks to make the final 53.