Thursday, October 23, 2008

Buffalo stampede: Bills on move with rising star at safety

October 21, 2008

By Rick Gosselin

There is a film clip on YouTube of Buffalo's selection of Ohio State safety Donte Whitner with the eighth overall pick of the 2006 NFL draft.

Whitner keeps that clip on his home computer – plus his Web site, MySpace page and blog, for that matter – to remind him of how humble his NFL beginnings were.

Whitner was perceived as a draft-day reach by media pundits and fans. The YouTube clip shows a fan screaming after the selection, "Who?" The pick also was roundly booed at NFL Draft Central in New York that day.

"I remember how I felt," Whitner said. "I remember how much it hurt. I always keep that in mind. I use that to motivate me and drive me. As hard as I worked to prepare for the combine and draft so I could get drafted that high … then to get booed really hurt."

Whitner was an All-Big Ten safety at Ohio State. The Bills drafted him because he fit a need for them in the changing nature of the NFL – he was a coverage safety. At 5-10, 208 pounds, he wasn't the prototypical thumper at the position. But the undersized Whitner could line up in the slot and cover a third receiver.

"You can't find too many strong safeties in the NFL who do that," Bills backup safety Bryan Scott said. "That's how versatile he is."

Whitner has started since Day 1 with the Bills. He posted 100 tackles each of his first two seasons, earning a spot on the NFL All-Rookie team in 2006.

"I remember Oakland was praised for taking [Texas safety] Michael Huff [with the seventh overall pick]," recalled Whitner of his draft.

Huff was finally benched by the Raiders last weekend.

"I remember the fans and the media saying the Bills should have taken [USC quarterback] Matt Leinart," Whitner said.

Leinart has started only 16 games in his three NFL seasons at Arizona and sits the bench these days as the aging arm of Kurt Warner has taken the Cardinals to the top of the NFC West.

"Fans and media should give it two or three years to see how a draft pick works out before they pass judgment," Whitner said. "Think of how disappointed the Buffalo fans and organization would be if I didn't work out.

"I bet they like that 5-1 right now."

The Bills lead the AFC East with that 5-1 record and rank 10th in the NFL in defense, eighth in pass defense. Whitner has been a big part of Buffalo's turnaround this season with his team runner-up 31 tackles.

The Bills may have reached for Whitner in April 2006 – but they were reaching for a player who has proven worthy of that eighth overall selection. That's the bottom line on draft day – pick players who can make you a better football team, regardless what round. Whitner has done that.

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