The Buffalo Bills have started paving the way for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to bring in some of his own.
They did so Monday by releasing two of their veteran leaders on that side of the ball in strong safety George Wilson and linebacker Nick Barnett.
Both players were entering the final year of their contract; by releasing them the Bills saved a combined $6.425 million against the 2013 salary cap.
Both Barnett and Wilson started all 16 games for the Bills in 2012, finishing first and second on the team in tackles, respectively.
“Moves like the ones we’ve made today are never easy, but we have to do what’s best for our team and keep moving forward,” General Manager Buddy Nix said in a news release announcing the moves. “We’ve got some good young players on our roster who we feel are ready to take the next step and they will now have the opportunity to do so. We thank both Nick and George for everything they’ve given the Bills organization and wish them nothing but the best for the future.”
Barnett, who will turn 32 in May, started all 32 games with the Bills in his two seasons with the team after being signed as an unrestricted free agent from Green Bay shortly after the NFL lockout ended in 2011.
On the NFL’s official transactions list, the reason for Barnett’s termination is listed as a failed physical. He appeared on six weekly injury reports during the season – Week Three and Weeks 13-17 – each time for a knee injury. He was listed as probable in each instance, except for Week 15, when he was questionable.
Barnett tweeted the news of his release, saying in part on the social media website: “Thanks to all the great Fans and friends I have met in Western New York. It was Truly a pleasure being apart (sic) of that organization and culture, Very unfortunate we didn’t get the Bills to the playoffs but I know you You guys will have many successful years ahead of you.”
The 10-year veteran made a team-high 112 tackles and two sacks last season playing weakside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt’s base 4-3 scheme.
Wilson is a seven-year veteran who served as a defensive captain and NFL Players Association team representative.
Wilson, who turns 32 next month, made 104 tackles and defended five passes, but failed to record any “big plays,” registering zero sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles. In two close losses – to Tennessee in Week Seven and St. Louis in Week 14 – he dropped would-be interceptions late in the fourth quarter that would have sealed two Buffalo victories.
“Those are the plays you end up replaying in your head over and over again and wishing the ball would have bounced your way,” he said after the loss to the Rams.
Wilson began his NFL career as a wide receiver, but could never get a foothold at the position as he bounced between the practice squad and active roster from 2004-06, appearing in just three games and failing to make even a single reception.
His career took off when he switched to safety prior to the 2007 season. He’s made 55 career starts since that time, registering 410 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 12 interceptions and three forced fumbles. Wilson’s best season came in 2011, when he made 106 tackles, six passes defensed, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in 13 games.
Nicknamed “The Senator” among media members because of his oratory skills, Wilson was one of the Bills’ strongest voices of leadership in the locker room. This past season was the fifth consecutive one he was voted as a team captain, the first four of which came on special teams.
Wilson has also been heavily involved in the Western New York community during his time with the Bills, twice being named the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year (in 2009 and 2011). He’s started his own S.A.F.E.T.Y. Foundation, served as a spokesman for the American Red Cross and worked closely with the NFL’s Play 60 challenge to encourage physical fitness among children, among other community endeavors.
Wilson began splitting time last season with Da’Norris Searcy, who will be entering his third year in 2013. The Bills’ other starting safety, Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, but the team can keep Byrd by using its franchise tag.
Under Pettine and new coach Doug Marrone, the Bills want to reshape a defense that finished 26th in the league in scoring by allowing 27 points per game. Pettine has been part of rebuilding a defense before.
When he followed Rex Ryan to the Jets from Baltimore in 2009, a significant part of their master plan was to sign former Raven defenders who could communicate the system to their new teammates.
The top two targets were linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard, who speak the same language as Pettine. Scott and Leonhard made the on-field calls and explained the adjustments.
Ryan and Pettine also added former Ravens defensive end Marques Douglas and defensive tackle Howard Green in lesser roles.
“They’ve all done a tremendous job of spreading that knowledge and getting those guys to understand the system, the subtleties and nuances of it,” Pettine said during his first Jets season.
Given the Bills’ needs at safety and particularly linebacker, the same plan could be in place here.
Coincidentially, both Scott, who’s expected to be released by New York, and Leonhard, who will be an unrestricted free agent, could be available again. Additionally, both of the Jets’ starting safeties – Yeremiah Bell and Pro Bowler LaRon Landry – are scheduled to become free agents.
“One of the hardest things when you get in a new system is to first to learn the system, but the second part is the language and the communication,” Scott said shortly after signing with the Jets in 2009.
“I think it helps because they can listen to us make the checks and then they can start to get the gist of it.”