It's a decision that likely will not be made until a couple of preseason games are already in the books later this summer. But even if he is assigned to play one primary position in 2009 Donte Whitner knows there will likely be other roles for him to fill as well in Buffalo's defense.
Since Whitner was chosen eighth overall in 2006, he's been a jack-of-all-trades in Buffalo's secondary. In 2008 there almost weren't enough pegs on the rack for all the hats he had to wear once injuries struck the Bills' secondary.
Whether it was strong safety, cornerback, nickel corner or free safety, Whitner was everywhere. And while there's no debating how much Buffalo's coaching staff values the ultra-versatile safety, there are outside observers that believe a top 10 pick should have more big plays than Whitner has had over his first three NFL seasons.
What the outside observers fail to realize is in Buffalo's defensive scheme Whitner has played strong safety more than any other position in the defensive backfield. As the role of that position is drawn up, opportunities to make plays on the ball are extremely limited.
Proof of that is borne out in his pass defense statistics which lists just six pass breakups in his first three seasons with two interceptions.
"I wouldn't say I didn't have any big plays," said Whitner. "I've had big plays as a strong safety, whether it be tackles for loss or anything in the box, but I haven't been able to play in the middle of the field as much as I would like."
But that could all change if the 2009 campaign begins the way 2008 ended, with Whitner at free safety and Bryan Scott at strong safety.
"The combo with me and Bryan (Scott) is a unique combo," said Whitner. "Last year we did it towards the end of the season, but I was still playing nickel. We've been on the field together, we have good communication with each other out there, it's just fun."
It was thought by most that the Bills were satisfied with the performance of Scott and Whitner as a tandem, and with more pressing needs positionally among the front seven that the safety tandem would have full year to work together.
All that changed when Buffalo drafted Oregon defensive back Jairus Byrd, who is expected to challenge for the starting free safety role.
Byrd however, is behind after his school's late final exam schedule prohibited from participating in any of the Bills OTAs and minicamp. That left Whitner to play free safety with the number one defense throughout the spring workouts.
"I'm going to have the opportunity to make some plays at free safety," Whitner said. "When you're playing strong safety and you're down in the box, you're really almost a tackler, the eighth guy in the box to shore up the front so no long runs break out of there. Now I have the opportunity to roam back there, get some big hits, interceptions, all of the different things that show up on the stat sheet, so I'm looking forward to it."
Whitner however, is mindful that Byrd is a serious threat to him manning free safety full time. Known to be a quick study with strong ball skills and instincts, Byrd could be on the field sooner rather than later, which would again have Whitner serving the team in multi-faceted capacity.
"Whatever they ask me to do I do to the best of my ability," Whitner said. "We'll see. I'm going into my fourth year and will get the opportunity to play free safety. But I probably won't even stay at free safety because they drafted Jairus Byrd. They want him to play some free safety. Coach Fewell likes me at both, but they like him at free so we'll see. Hopefully I'll get the opportunity to play there and get the job done."