ORCHARD PARK — The training wheels are off for Buffalo Bills safeties Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson.

After a 2006 season in which both were thrown into the fire as rookies, the team’s coaching staff believes the duo has its best football ahead.

“Last year, we kind of limited what we did, but now we’re exploring different options with them,” Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. “Now, they understand their craft. They can move within the framework of the defense and give us different looks.”

Whitner — the Bills’ 2006 first-round pick — and Simpson, a fourth-rounder that same year, have spent most of the spring in Orchard Park, working out and attending organized team activities.

That time spent together — both on and off the field — has created a strong chemistry between the two.

“It’s made us very close,” Whitner said. “We go through the same things. If he has a question, he comes to me. If I have a question, I go to him.”

In its basic form, safeties in the Tampa-2 defense, which the Bills run a version of, are responsible for covering deep zones. That’s mostly what Simpson, and to an extent Whitner, did last season. According to Fewell, that won’t always be how it goes in 2007. Whitner, for example, may line up much closer to the line of scrimmage on some plays in an effort to thwart the run.

“They’re just now allowing us to tap their resources,” Fewell said. “We’re a lot more flexible now.”

Simpson is excited about the challenge.

“Playing different positions, you can make more plays,” he said.

On a defense where there are questions as to who will start at cornerback, linebacker and defensive tackle, having the middle of the field anchored by two returning starters gives the team something to build around. Of course, with an expanded role in the defense comes other responsibilities. Filling the leadership void created by the departures of Nate Clements, London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes is at the top of that list.

“We do feel like we’re ready to step up and be leaders,” Whitner sad. “We’re going to stay vocal.”

That’s something Fewell will be looking for come training camp and the preseason.

“He knows what he’s doing back there, now he’s just got to be verbal with what he’s doing,” Fewell said of Whitner.

Contact reporter Jay Skurski at 693-1000, ext. 117.