Sudden impact: Donte Whitner

(Identifying some free agents who could be a solid fit for the Patriots when the 2011 league year begins.)

Player: Donte Whitner (safety, Bills)

Why sign him? A lack of consistency in the back end of the defense has hurt the Patriots in recent seasons. Despite being named to back-to-back Pro Bowls, fifth-year veteran Brandon Meriweather saw his playing time reduced in 2010, in part because of undisciplined play. Meriweather enters the final year of his contract, as does James Sanders, so Whitner would also provide a veteran presence both in the short- and long-term. A first-round pick in 2006, the 25-year-old Whitner doesn't figure to break the bank in free agency. He is coming off a season in which he recorded 140 tackles, seven passes defensed, and one interception.

Is there anybody else? The Patriots could re-sign veteran Jarrad Page, who played in 10 games last season as part of the safety rotation. Other options on the free agent market include Baltimore’s Dawan Landry, Oakland’s Michael Huff, and San Diego’s Eric Weddle.

Key stats:

• Four different safeties started at least one game for the Patriots in 2010 – Meriweather, Patrick Chung, Sanders, and Page.

• The Patriots defense allowed 12.7 yards per pass attempt on throws of 21+ yards in 2010 (ranked 24th in NFL).

• Opposing quarterbacks completed 68.5 percent of their pass attempts inside the numbers against the Patriots defense (ranked 29th in NFL).

• The Patriots defense allowed 7.8 yards per pass attempt on third down (ranked 30th in NFL).

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.