Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.
A piece in the alignment that often serves as the last line of defense in football, is the safety position where big plays can always take place. Whether it is an offense hitting a big pass down the seams, or a safety himself making a hit or a play on the ball, the "centerfielders" on defense always have to be on top of their game. As the Buffalo Bills install their 3-4 defense, the coaching staff will be relying on a solid, consistent effort from the safeties.
With Jairus Byrd likely to assume the role of free safety after an impressive rookie season in 2009, the competition will be extremely stiff for the strong safety position. The candidates have been narrowed down to players with not only experience as a safety, but significant time on Buffalo's roster. In the aftermath of OTAs and spring minicamps, the competitors for the strong safety position appear to be Jon Corto, Bryan Scott, George Wilson, and Donte Whitner.
For Corto, the Orchard Park native who has played exclusively at linebacker since joining the Bills in 2008, safety is not a new position. His first two seasons at Sacred Heart University were spent at the safety position before he made the switch to linebacker, where he was named to the All-Northeast Conference first-team in 2006.
In two seasons of limited duty in the linebacking corps in Buffalo, Corto has shown promise, and with the switch to safety in defensive coordinator George Edwards' 3-4 scheme, he'll get another chance at his old position in the backfield.
"I think just getting acclimated to being in more of a backpedal than just a lateral run. Just gauging the speed of the receivers now and learning when to turn your hips and go," he said during rookie minicamp. "Learning those things, I felt better as the day went on. It's something I'll feel more and more comfortable with as we progress here."
After spending time as a linebacker, Corto developed a natural nose for the ball, and showed aggressiveness and pursuit to the ball during the spring practice sessions. Even with the learning curve of now being a central man in pass coverage at the NFL level, he said he is working hard to re-acclimate himself to his former position.
Scott, a natural strong safety, is also making his return to the position after seeing playing time at linebacker due to injuries on the depth chart last season. In only nine games played, Scott recorded 81 tackles, two sacks, and an interception despite missing five games with a high ankle sprain.
Having worn a number of hats in recent years at both safety and linebacker, Scott has been hard at work learning the nuances of the 3-4, putting in the effort similar to that of a newcomer to the NFL.
"I haven't studied this much since my rookie year," he said. "There's a lot that goes into this defense, new terminology, new schemes, new rules, so you really have to be a student of this game and every night going home, studying the playbook, making flash cards, going over it some more, just to make sure that we're proficient once we get to the field."
Scott looked to be right back at home this spring, showing the same closing speed and coverage ability that he has displayed in the past when going up against an opposing team's tight end. While the OTAs were of course non-contact, Scott has shown in the past his ability to lay a big hit on the ball carrier, and that is something that should continue into 2010.
A breakout performer last season was Wilson, a former wide receiver who made the conversion to safety in 2007. Appearing in all 16 games in 2009, he recorded career-highs in starts with 12, tackles with 103, two sacks, and four interceptions.
The former captain of the special teams unit, Wilson is yet another player who has seen action at multiple locations in his professional career. With the switch to the new defensive scheme, Wilson is well aware of the importance of good play from his secondary partners and himself.
"We know as a secondary, if we have a bad day, it's probably going to be a bad day for the whole team. So we play with that pressure on us," he said. "That's what motivates us and drives us each and every day."
Wilson is a player who, as he has adapted to the safety position, has taken on a greater leadership role on the defensive side of the ball. Coupled with his all-around football talent and the soft hands of a former receiver, Wilson is in the mix for the starting job.
The favorite for the position seems to be Whitner, who has been a regular contributor at strong safety since the Bills made him the eighth selection of the 2006 NFL Draft out of Ohio State. In an injury-shortened 2009 campaign, Whitner intercepted two passes, returning one 76 yards for his first NFL touchdown.
As a player with experience in the 4-3, Whitner acknowledged that there is a difference in the move to the 3-4. While it is a change from past years, he said that the most profound switches will be at other positions on the field.
"Our secondary can play whatever coverage in whatever defense," said Whitner.
As a former defensive captain, Whitner has shown his leadership on the field in motivating his teammates, and as is the same for the other veterans, will begin anew under head coach Chan Gailey. Whitner was very versatile in the backfield during OTAs, moving intelligently around the field, proving that he might even be interchangeable at the safety slots.
As the position battles all heat up July 29 at St. John Fisher, the player that proves to be the starting strong safety at the end of training camp will have certainly earned his role. The edge seems to lie with Whitner, but Scott and Wilson have experience at the position in the NFL, and Corto is progressing quickly. The spot should be up for grabs when practice begins in Pittsford.