Now that the dust of the 2011 Draft has settled, it’s time to analyze the current state of Buffalo’s roster. We’ll be taking a look at one position at a time. Today: Safety. (Previous editions: QB, RB, FB, WR, TE, OT,G/C, DL, OLB, ILB, CB, ST)
There’s two big question marks hanging over the Bills at the safety position. First, will the team re-sign starting strong safety Donte Whitner? Whitner hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as the former eighth overall pick in the draft and he has a bit of a “running his mouth” problem (or a “typing dumb things on Twitter problem”). Of course, Whitner is also an above-average safety who is pretty decent against the run…and goodness knows the Bills certainly don’t need to get any worse against the run.
The other big issue is the play of free safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd struggled badly in his second season after a fantastic rookie campaign. Which one of those seasons was the fluke?
If Whitner and Byrd are both either not in Buffalo and not effective, the Bills are suddenly very thin at safety. Let’s take a look at this group.
Players Under Contract (5): Jairus Byrd, George Wilson, Bryan Scott, Da’Norris Searcy, Jon Corto
Possibly Departing Free Agent: Donte Whitner
1) Jairus Byrd
2010: 16 games, 89 tackles (1 for loss), 1 sack, 1 INT (returned for a touchdown), 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
Last season had to be frustrating for Byrd. As a rookie, it seemed like pass after pass floated in his direction as he earned a spot in the Pro Bowl. Byrd had a pronounced sophomore slump, however, not intercepting a single pass until the meaningless season finale against the Jets. He also got burned deep repeatedly and seemed to really struggle with his angles. Just not a great season in any respect.
But let’s be real: there was almost no way Byrd was going to match his absurd 2009 production (9 INT) unless he was the second coming of Ed Reed. It’s tough to pick off passes, especially when 1) QBs know you are very good at it, 2) your teammates generate absolutely no pass rush, 3) the team’s run defense sucks so bad you have to cheat up to try and stop the run all the time.
Byrd’s going to be fine. He’s not a superstar like Reed, but he’s very good. Byrd’s ball skills are elite when he can get near the ball – his sweet tackle that jarred the ball loose from Cleveland’s Peyton Hillis last season comes to mind. Byrd was simply asked to do too much last year. Somehow, the team’s got to find a way to get a pass rush going so Byrd isn’t a sitting duck back there. If the front seven improves, so will Byrd’s production.
2) George Wilson
2010: 16 games, 35 tackles, 2 INT, 1 fumble recovery
Wilson’s one of my favorite Bills. He’s got a great story. An undrafted wide receiver out of Arkansas, Wilson landed on the Lions’ practice squad before getting cut and ending up in Buffalo. He kicked around Buffalo’s practice squad for a few seasons before the coaching staff decided to convert him to safety – not often you see guys switching sides of the ball after a few years in the pros. Somehow, Wilson made it work. In 2007, four years after he left Arkansas, Wilson starting earning regular playing time. He’s been a mainstay ever since. His biggest impact to date has been on special teams, a unit for which he serves as captain. Wilson’s also stepped in at safety as needed, espeically in 2009 when injuries in the secondary were rampant. The Bills rewarded him with a three-year contract this offseason.
The question is, can Wilson step into the starting strong safety role if Whitner doesn’t return? (Obviously, he’ll have to win the job first. Bryan Scott and maybe Da’Norris Searcy will provide stiff competition.) Wilson’s very smart – Buffalo’s rep to the players’ union in fact – and as tough as they come. However, he doesn’t have the greatest physical tools and might get exposed with more extensive playing time. I’d feel way more comfortable with him in a special teams ace/reserve safety role than as the starting strong safety.
3) Bryan Scott
2010: 16 games, 39 tackles (2 for loss), 3 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries
After being cast off by Tennessee after training camp in 2007, the veteran Scott signed with Buffalo and has primarily served as the Bills’ third or fourth safety ever since. All in all, he’s been a nice addition for the Bills. When he’s played, he’s been productive – including picking up 81 tackles and two sacks in just nine games in 2009. Scott”s never going to be a superstar, but he does almost everything decently – he can play zone or bump-and-run in a man-to-man defense, and he’s pretty good against the run. He’s a fairly ideal backup safety.
Scott will probably have a shot at the starting strong safety job if Whitner doesn’t come back. Like with Wilson, I wouldn’t be super excited to see him in that role. He’s okay, but not a great playmaker and he’s somewhat injury prone.
4) Da’Norris Searcy
2010: University of North Carolina
Searcy was kind of a weird pick for the Bills in this draft. The Bills were clearly trying to get more physical and better against the run. However, Searcy’s biggest weakness is run defense, with a few scouts noting that he seems to “shy away from contact.” Gulp.
However, Searcy is very good in pass coverage, particuarly in zone. He had 4 INT in just 10 games in 2010, so he has some playmaking ability. He’s also known for his strength and shouldn’t get outmuscled by too many receivers.
It will be interesting to see exactly how Searcy fits on this team. Third down specialist? I really don’t know. Maybe he’ll find some ability to stop the run and will earn a bunch of playing time. We can only hope.
5) Jon Corto
2010: 11 games, 5 tackles
A native of Orchard Park, Corto made the roster as undrafted rookie out of FCS-school Sacred Heart in 2008 and amazingly has managed to stay on the roster ever since despite really not having a defensive position. He’s been a big contributor to the special teams units. Even though he’s been occasionally pressed into service at linebacker and safety, it’d be best if he remained exclusively a special teams ace.
The Bills re-signed Corto before the lockout, so the new coaching staff must approve of his work. It will be intriguing to see how long he can hang on to a roster spot. I’m rooting for him – he’s certainly overachieved so far.
Possibly Departing Free Agent:
2010: 16 games, 140 tackles (1 for loss), 0.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Here’s the thing with Whitner: he’s good. Very good. He plays hard. He hits. He made a ton of tackles in 2010. He makes plays in the passing game (dropped interceptions nonwithstanding). He’s had trouble with Twitter and the media, but his teammates defend him to the death, so he must be a good locker room guy.
He’s just not Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu. Those guys are elite playmakers who regularly make gamechanging plays. Whitner’s just isn’t on that level.
But he thinks he is. And he wants to be paid like it. And there’s no way that’s happening in Buffalo.
I really hope Buffalo brings him back. But only at a semi-reasonable price. I’m just not sure there’s any way that will happen.