Donte Whitner has been a very good player since he was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the eighth overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.
Now it’s time for Whitner to take his game to the next level and go from good player to one of the NFL’s elite safeties, and start living up to his lofty draft status.
I recently read an article by Chris Brown on buffalobills.com entitled “Whitner ready to be safety in numbers.”
First, let me say a couple of things. I worked for Patriots.com from 2005-2008, so I know what it’s like to write for an in-house, team-run web site. Roughly 99 percent of the stories written are going to have a positive spin. I get that.
Even so, Chris Brown does a tremendous job of getting around those kinds of guidelines as he managed to cover the Bills as well as any reporter on the beat. I have the utmost respect for him as a journalist, and I also really like Whitner as a player.
As I embark on my job with CBSSports.com I can only hope to cover the Bills as well as Brown. He is the measuring stick in Buffalo.
His comments just made me think, so I decided to write a story off of them. This is by no means a personal attack on him. I just wanted to make that clear.
There were a couple of things Brown wrote that I have to strongly disagree with regarding Whitner’s lack of making big plays throughout his NFL career so far.
Here is an excerpt from Brown’s story:
“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.”
As most Bills fans are well aware of, Whitner has been criticized for not making many game-changing plays during his first three NFL seasons, despite being drafted in the Top 10, a rare occurrence for a safety.
In 43 career games, Whitner has just one sack, two interceptions and seven passes defensed. Brown can sugar coat it any way he wants but those numbers just aren't good enough.
I don’t care if Whitner is player strong safety or not, he should be around the ball more often making big plays.
Unless the Bills scheme has the strong safety standing on the sidelines, there is no excuse for a player with Whitner’s talent not to be making more big plays, regardless of what defensive system he’s playing in.
The Bills didn’t draft Whitner that high just to be “versatile.” They drafted him that high to be a game-changer on defense and so far, he hasn’t lived up to those expectations.
Whitner has been a solid player, he just hasn’t been a superstar. What good is being “versatile” if that versatility doesn’t lead to production on the field?
The other hole I see in Brown’s argument is that the strong safety position prevents a player from ever making big plays.
While it’s true free safeties play the deep centerfield and that helps them grab more interceptions on misfires down the field, it’s not like strong safeties are never in position to make plays.
Rodney Harrison played strong safety. Troy Polamalu plays strong safety. Bob Sanders plays strong safety. Brian Dawkins plays strong safety. Adrian Wilson plays strong safety.
These are some of the biggest defensive playmakers in the NFL and they all play the exact same position as Whitner.
I understand different teams run different schemes and I agree with Brown that stats don't always tell the entire story, especially in today's fantasy football driven world.
I certainly wouldn't classify myself as stat geek or a numbers guy but one sack, two interceptions and seven passes defensed in three years for a player who is supposed to be a top-flight NFL safety is inexcusable.
So you can break it down and make all the excuses you want for Whitner but at the end of the day the numbers speak for themselves. The production and big plays just aren’t there.
Like I said, I think Whitner is a very good player and he brings a lot to the Bills defense that don't show up in the stat line. But he needs to step up his game this season and start creating some of those Ed Reed-type of big plays.
One major weakness Buffalo’s defense had last season was causing turnovers and getting off the field. Think about the best defenses in the league like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. How much easier is it for those offenses when the defense helps set them up with good field position on a regular basis?
The Bills offense gets that kind of help from their special teams but rarely from the defense. That needs to change if Buffalo plans on ending its decade long postseason drought, and Whitner must lead the way.
Great players find ways to make plays. You can’t call Donte Whitner a great player until he starts changing the game on the field.
Chris Brown and others can say we don’t “understand” what he’s doing out there, but I understand that he isn’t causing any turnovers, and I understand when a team selects a safety with the eighth overall pick, that’s precisely what they are paying him to do.
It comes down to this and there really isn’t any way of getting around it: Defensive players who are always around the football making plays do so because they have a feel for the game and play with great instincts.
Defensive players who never seems to be around the ball and don’t make a lot of plays usually don’t have great instincts.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask any coach in the NFL and to a man they will pretty much tell you the same thing. I know Bill Belichick will, and the last time I checked he knew a thing or two about defensive football players.
Whitner is going to have to start making more of an impact on the field or he’s going to get a reputation with coaches around the NFL as a player who doesn’t react well to the ball, and opposing teams will look to exploit him. You can bet on that.
The Bills have been mediocre for long enough. When you look at Whitner’s play, it’s been OK, but OK can’t be good enough in Buffalo anymore.
This season players like Whitner need to go out and set an example with their play on the field, starting with that first Monday night game against the Patriots.
The time has come for Whitner to step up and be the kind of player the Bills fans and coaching staff believe he can be. Whitner needs to take his game from solid leader to Pro Bowl safety.
If he does, the days of 7-9 could finally be a distant memory in Buffalo.