In the first hours of free agency the Buffalo Bills didn't bother calling Donte Whitner. This meant, for the first time in his career, George Wilson entered training camp as a projected starter.
The Bills are placing a lot of faith in Wilson, who has made the transition from fringe NFL wide receiver to starting strong safety in four seasons.
Tired of the chaos that unfolded week after week with easy yards and touchdowns piling up, the Bills are retooling their defense. Players like Whitner, whose unremarkable Bills career ended via free agency when he signed with the San Francisco 49ers, became expendable. It's Wilson's time now.
"I just go out there and try and make my own name as opposed to try and emulate or imitate someone else," said Wilson, 30. "For the most part, I haven't done it to the point where I'm a recognizable name in most personnel meetings but hopefully with this opportunity this year, I can put myself and the rest of my teammates on the radar and just be able to make plays when I get those opportunities."
It's hard to imagine that switching from Whitner to Wilson can change everything. The additions of Marcell Dareus, Shawne Merriman and Nick Barnett will help as will a return to health by Terrence McGee and a return to form by Jairus Byrd, who made a lot of big plays as a rookie two seasons ago.
The Bills believe Wilson will help against the run and scamper back into the secondary to bat away passes or tackle a receiver lunging for a first down. Wilson's numbers are expected to be similar, if not better, than his 2009 stats, when he started 12 games at free safety and recorded a career-best 103 tackles with four interceptions and six pass deflections.
"He's very smart," Bills secondary coach George Catavolos said. "He's always in the right spot, so we're very pleased to have him. He's worked hard at the safety position to perfect his skills. It's hard to change positions, but he did it, and he's studied. There's nobody who works any harder than George."
Wilson is now one of the team's leaders. His message to the defense is to stop the run consistently, increase takeaways and minimize big plays.
"Our communication has to be better so everyone knows where to be aligned, the fits and proper adjustments based on the offensive formation and what they give us," Wilson said. "Everyone has to be on the same page and trust that guys are going to be in their gaps and fit up the run the right way."
From the other side of the ball, Wilson's teammates see a difference.
"It's his confidence," Bills receiver David Nelson said. "I think he's trying to make that jump to being an every down defensive back. As a receiving group, we've noticed that he's been all around the field and understands the defense better."
Whitner gave the Bills five solid years but they were looking for more that when they drafted him No. 8 overall in 2006. He left with just five career interceptions, didn't create a lot of big plays and failed to live up to expectations. Enter Wilson, who perhaps made the biggest defensive play in 2010.
The Bills were down, 31-28, at Cincinnati when Wilson intercepted Carson Palmer in the end zone and returned it 56 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown. Down by 17 points at the half, the Bills won, 49-31, in their biggest comeback in 13 years.
"The Cincinnati play you can tell by his experience and him studying the film where they wanted to go," Catavolos said. "He baited them by coming inside but he knew he was going to break outside and got a big pick. That was a big part of turning that game around."
But Wilson must show he can produce on every down while adjusting from free to strong safety. Whitner had his shortcomings but not against the run, where he was physical and punishing. Most of Wilson's starts have been at free safety and he has to prove he can handle run-force duties.
"I just try and be my own man and I don't sit here and try to compare myself to other guys," Wilson said. "With me coming from the offensive side of the ball I have a unique perspective where I know how an offense wants to attack any given coverage, how they try and manipulate the defense with shifts and motions. I'm ready for my new role."