If Donte walks, how does Bob Sanders fit?

With the Donte Whitner contract situation appearing to be headed in the wrong direction, there may be an opening at strong safety.  Bryan Scott is a good run defender and is effective when playing in the box.  However, he’s only average in coverage and can be exposed.  I view him more as a solid backup that can be a playmaker in short-yardage situations.  For those reasons, the Bills should be in the market for an upgrade if Whitner and the Bills cannot hammer out a new extension.

Bob Sanders has been a dominant force when healthy.  That of course, as always in football, is a pretty big “if.”  The diminutive safety (5’8″) has hardly ever stayed healthy since being drafted in 2004.  He has started only 9 games the past three seasons combined.  Don’t let his interception total fool you, though.  The guy is a playmaker.  He is a beast against the run that goes full-speed until the whistle.  He hands out bone-crunching hits and brings the intensity play-in and play-out.  While hasn’t intercepted that many passes, he’s athletic and rangy.  As good as he was in the 4-3 cover two that the Colts ran, I feel he can be even better in a 3-4.  You can put him in the box and line him up all over the field with his instincts and speed.

The problem with Sanders will be structuring a contract that is fair for both sides.  I usually dislike most short-term incentive contracts because they defeat the purpose of taking a gamble on a guy (see Merriman, Shawne).  However, Bob is turning 30 next week and probably has 3-4 seasons max left in him (that’s probably too generous).  I’d be happy with a three-year deal that looks something like this:

[Signing bonus of $1.5 million, amortized over three seasons]

2011: $3.5 million (with a “games started” bonus on a scale; $1 mil for 12-13 games, $2 mil for 14-15, $4 mil for 16)

2012: $2 million (with a $6 million roster bonus; if he was able to regain form in 2011, we would be willing to pick this up)

2013: $4 million (with a $5 million roster bonus; this is pretty much a “deal-inflate” year)

2014: Free Agent

To summarize it, the deal would appear 3 years, $22 million ($12.5 million guaranteed) in news reports.  This makes the agent happy because now he can show-off this deal to other clients.  However, there really is only $1.5 million of guaranteed money in this deal. Sanders has never started more than 15 games in a season and the chances of him hitting that $4 mil bonus is unlikely.  I’m willing to believe that, at most, he’s costing us $6 million in 2011 (if his 16-game bonus is deemed a likely-to-be-earned bonus, that is) with his $3.5 base, $500k part of his signing bonus, and his $2 mil bonus.  The following year we could release him and owe him only the $1 million remaining on his signing bonus if he was injury plagued in ’11.  To think positively, he could play well and pick up his roster bonus, being on the books for $8.5 million in 2012.  Unless he continues playing lights-out football, I would cut him before the 2013 season.  He would already be 32 by that point and his $9.5 million cap hit would not be too appealing.

Worst comes to worst, the deal fails horribly and we’re only on the hook for $1.5 million total.  Not a bad risk-return situation, in my opinion.

This deal would give the Bills a few seasons to develop a younger player and give us the chance to pick up a potentially Pro Bowl-caliber guy in the meantime.  Sanders has the chance the earn a nice looking salary if he can stay healthy and remain productive.

As good as all this sounds, I really want Donte to re-up with us for the long-term.

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