TWO YEARS LATER: Monumental Pick Revisited

Two years ago, the Buffalo Bills took Ohio State's Donte Whitner eighth overall in the draft, and the safety has certainly delivered. But the "what could have been" dilemma may rage forever, considering the players available to Buffalo at the pick. BFR's Tyler Dunne and Marc Heintzman debate...

BUFFALO MISSED OUT ON A FRANCHISE CORNERSTONE

By Tyler Dunne, BFR Publisher

Let's get one thing clear.

Donte Whitner is a linchpin in the defensive backfield – a modern-day Henry Jones. Probably better. The Bills know what they're getting week-in and week-out with Whitner. Limited blown coverages. Stout run support. The occasional big play.

That's all you can ask for, really. Even the harshest critics of the Whitner draft pick haven't been able to think – much less mutter – the word "bust."

But why settle for chicken tenders when you can have prime rib?

Two years ago, Buffalo had a full menu of options at the eighth overall pick in the NFL Draft. Two potential-franchise quarterbacks, two top-tier defensive tackles (Buffalo's biggest need), a slew of running backs and a handful of other defensive studs all stared at former-G.M Marv Levy.

Five years from now, he'll wish he chanced the prime rib, instead of Whitner. The rifle-armed gunslinger from Vanderbilt is on the verge of breaking into the upper-echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Three picks after the Bills nearly whipped Mel Kiper Jr. into a nuthouse by taking Whitner, Denver took Jay Cutler.


Jay Cutler throws on the run at Kansas City
Getty Images

It took Denver eight years to settle its quarterback situation after a Hall-of-Famer retired, and heck, stopgap Jake Plummer took them within one game of the Super Bowl.

It's been 11 years for Buffalo…and counting.

Trent Edwards has shown early signs of encouragement, but the verdict's still out. Buffalo's offensive woes of the past two seasons (ranked 30th both years) could have been cured with Cutler and further benefited with a WR pick in the second. Say…Greg Jennings, instead of trading up for John McCargo? Okay, okay. I won't play the Retrospect 20/20 game. It's too easy. But picking Cutler ahead of Whitner was easier, and Buffalo will regret not pulling the trigger on another franchise quarterback investment.

Fact is, Buffalo was infatuated with J.P. Losman too long. False hope cost the Bills Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler and Brady Quinn, and it's Cutler they'll regret the most.

In his first full season as a NFL starter (starting from day one) Cutler is decisively ahead of his peers. Here's a quick look at how each of the quarterbacks picked in the top 15 in the past five years have fared in their first legitimate season as a starter:

1. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh): 2,621 yards, 17 TD, 11 Int., 98.1 rating

2.Philip Rivers (San Diego): 3,388 yards, 22 TD, 9 Int., 92.0

3.Jay Cutler (Denver): 3,497 yards, 63.6 com., 20 TD, 14 Int., 88.1

4. Carson Palmer (Cincinnati): 2,897 yards, 18 TD, 18 Int., 77.3

5. Eli Manning (New York): 3,762 yards, 24 TD, 17 Int., 75.9

6. Alex Smith (San Francisco): 2,890 yards, 16 TD, 16 Int., 74.8

7. Matt Leinart (Arizona): 2,547 yards, 11 TD, 12 Int., 74.0

8. Byron Leftwich (Jacksonville): 2,819 yards, 14 TD, 16 Int., 73.0

9. Vince Young (Tennessee): 2,199 yards, 12 TD, 13 Int., 66.7

10. David Carr (Houston): 2,592 yards, 9 TD, 15 Int., 62.8

11. Joey Harrington (Detroit): 2,294 yards, 12 TD, 16 Int., 59.9

Cutler is clearly bucking the learning curve to Rivers, Manning, Roethlisberger and Palmer proportions. But considering his elite physical tools, that slingshot of a rocket arm and well-reputed mental toughness, Cutler has the potential to grow beyond this trio too. If Denver continues to surround him with weapons, look out.

Forget the chronically irritable Javon Walker. His current stable of Brandon Marshall (102 rec., 1325 yards, seven touchdowns in ‘07), Darrell Jackson (three career 1,000-yard seasons), Eddie Royal (the strongest WR at the NFL Combine), Keary Colbert, Brandon Stokely (40-635-5) and tight end Tony Scheffler (49-549-5) will suffice enough to vault Cutler into the upper stratosphere of quarterbacks.

Denver dropped four of its final six games to finish 7-9 and out of the playoffs, but the primary reason was purely out of his hands. Cutler was battling diabetes.

"Those last six or seven games, I was finished," Cutler said to Yahoo! Sports. "I'd go into games tired and didn't really understand why. I lost a lot of zip on my passes. I was missing deep balls and couldn't figure out why they were falling short."

But Cutler has learned to manage the disease. He put the 30 pounds back on that he lost in the second half of last season and is now showing his teammates his toughness through OTAs. Coping with a disease that affects 21 million Americans, Cutler wears a small insulin pump during practice to regulate his blood sugar.

"Guys look at Jay and the way he's handled things and their problems don't seem half as bad," cornerback Champ Bailey said in another article. "I'm amazed at the way he's handled it. I thought he'd be freaking out right now. But he hasn't shown one sign of emotion…He hasn't missed a workout. Jay's a natural leader. He gets it."

Now in his third season under quarterback mastermind Mike Shanahan, Cutler will explode. In their third season under Shanahan, Florida's Wayne Peace set a school record in completion percentage (70.7), John Elway made his first Pro Bowl with Shanahan as the offensive coordinator, Steve Young was named NFL MVP, Super Bowl MVP and was first in the NFL in passer rating, Brian Griese passed for 23 touchdowns, and Plummer led Denver to the AFC title game with a team-record 229 consecutive passes without an interception.

Plucking Whitner eighth overall was a very strong, deliberate choice by Buffalo. The pick signaled a changing of the guard in Buffalo's secondary, as rusty old veterans Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent departed and the shutdown pair of Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield inked mega-contracts elsewhere. Now, the Bills are formulating one of the best, young quartets in the defensive backfield. Whitner, rookie Leodis McKelvin, Terrence McGee and Ko Simpson are all on the upside.

But think big picture.

Cutler is the centerpiece of an entire organization – the top of the pyramid upon which the fabric of a team flows. Brett Favre comparisons run far too rampant every April, and Cutler is far from the three-time MVP. But based purely on arm strength, no quarterback in the NFL is closer to the Packers legend.

The Bills got a glimpse first hand last season. In week one, Cutler threw for 304 yards and one touchdown, while leading the Broncos on a last-minute drive to win. All guts.

For an entire city that has temporarily clutched to Todd Collins, Doug Flutie, Rob Johnson, Drew Bledsoe and J.P. Losman as the franchise savior, Cutler would have been the first to return the favor. His sheer grassroots toughness would have instantly resonated with the fan base.

At Vandy, Cutler suffered through the stacked losses most rookie quarterbacks must endure early in their NFL careers. He was beat down game-after-game and became stronger for it. Nothing razzles him.

Sure, maybe Trent Edwards is that icon. But that's a big "maybe." The domino effect of drafting Cutler almost certainly would have led to more offensive weapons. Levy and the Bills' current front office would have both aggressively pursued top-tier ammunition for Cutler.

Instead, the Bills went the defensive route. Certainly, not a bad option. But if the offense continues to toil in futility, all fans need to do is point to the 2006 draft when a franchise cornerstone fell into the team's lap and Levy looked the other way.

thdunne@gmail.com


Donte Whitner and Jay Cutler
Getty Images

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WHITNER WORTH IT NOW

By Marc Heintzman, BFR Analyst

Donte Whitner is only entering his third season in the NFL, and already he is turning heads with his actions on and off the field. He has already proven that he is the defensive leader for a young Buffalo Bills team that is struggling to end an eight-year playoff drought. Whitner also has established himself as one of the better safeties in the league, and is ready to explode this season.

Whitner has been one of the few bright spots on a dismal Bills defense that has ranked near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every defensive category for the past two seasons. He is a very physical player that is tough in coverage and in stopping the run. As a rookie, he was Defensive Rookie of the Month in September 2006. He was also selected to the NFL All-Rookie team. These awards were given to him because of his relentless play, and imposing presence in the defensive backfield.

Last season, Whitner recorded 102 tackles and one interception but his impressive stat comes by way of sheer toughness. He was the only Bills defender to take every snap through week 15, a total of 999 plays. These numbers are by no means monstrous or record-breaking, but he held together a defensive unit that lost player after player to injured reserve. He was called upon to bail out a defensive front that just could not stop the run and this limited his playmaking opportunities.


Donte Whitner (left) has quickly emerged as a leader on Buffalo's defense
Getty Images

This season, look for Whitner to make a lot more plays because the team has upgraded its defense to allow him to move more freely on defense. The additions of Marcus Stroud and Spencer Johnson on the line give the middle a lot more size and will hopefully be a much more effective run-stopping unit. Also, the addition of Kawika Mitchell and the return of Paul Posluszny to the linebacker corps will aid in plugging up the holes. Also, the talk of possibly moving Whitner to free safety, to increase his playmaking potential, could be a way to make Whitner more of a force.

What are most impressive about Whitner are his leadership qualities. He is only 22 years old and he is the clear leader of the Bills' defense, if not the whole team. With many veterans departing the team over the past two years, players like Takeo Spikes and Troy Vincent, Whitner has stepped up to lead a very young team. He is now one of the veterans on the team, and he is certainly acting like it by helping the younger players adapt to play in the NFL.

Leodis McKelvin, this year's first round draft pick for the Bills, is actually living with Whitner as he tries to learn the defensive system and try to transition from playing collegiate to playing professionally. In addition to acting as a teacher and a role model, he has also become one of the team's spokesmen in the offseason. He recently appeared on a slew of sports talk shows on ESPN and ESPN Radio, talking about how the Bills will turn some heads next season.

The critics have been listening as many have the Bills pegged as a surprise team in 2008. It's not just the team that has critics watching, but Whitner himself has been put on a short list to be Pro-Bowler next February.

Whitner has come a long way from the "overrated" title after the 2006 draft. When he was originally selected eighth overall in the 2006 draft, critics were blasting the Bills for selecting him too high, and that he wasn't deserving of being a top-ten selection in the draft. Whitner proved them wrong, as he has more than earned his keep with the Bills in the past two seasons.

However, many are still wondering if the Bills made the right decision by picking him that high. He was picked before Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler, Antonio Cromartie, Joseph Addai and Laurence Maroney. Cromartie and Addai were Pro-Bowlers last year, and Cutler put up impressive numbers in Denver. This being said, I believe they still made the right decision by picking Whitner because it worked for the Bills' situation. The Bills are a small-market team and need to get the most bang for their buck in player contracts. With QBs and RBs commanding huge contracts coming from the first-round, the Bills got more for less in picking Whitner.

Granted, Whitner did require a five-year contract worth $29 million, he has earned it more than Leinart, who has only thrown for 13 touchdowns in the past two seasons, and had a contract worth more than $50 million. Another safety was actually taken before Whitner. Michael Huff was selected seventh overall by the Raiders and has barely made a rumble for the defense in Oakland. Whitner was a great fit for a Bills team that was slowly rebuilding, and not over-paying for anyone.

Donte Whitner is primed to have a great season in 2008, possible one that will land him in the Pro Bowl. His talent and leadership abilities are making him one of the elite safeties in the league. Football writers and critics were laughing at the Bills two years ago when they picked Whitner eighth overall. Now, it's the Bills and Whitner who are laughing, maybe all the way to the playoffs.

mdheintz@syr.edu


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