Inside Bills Report

With a lot fewer holes to fill than in the recent past, the Bills figure to be less active when free agency kicks off on March 3. <P> After signing 11 unrestricted free agents last year, general manager Tom Donahoe likes his team's overall talent level and depth and is banking on a coaching change from Gregg Williams to Mike Mularkey to get the Bills to play up to their potential, not another roster overhaul. That doesn't mean the Bills will be bystanders.

A cornerback to replace starter Antoine Winfield (if he signs elsewhere), a guard, wide receiver, defensive end, tight end and backup quarterback are all penciled in on Donahoe's shopping list.

"It's different than last year,'' he said. "We don't have as many holes to fill and we're not in need of bodies for depth on the roster. However, we'll be looking at guys in free agency. We'll be looking ... at any way we feel we can improve our team that makes sense for us. But in terms of numbers, we'll probably not end up being as active as last year.''

The Bills will start free agency with about $7.8 million in cap space but that figure will fluctuate greatly. Off the bat, the team must decide if it wants to retain eight-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown, who is due a $1.8 million roster bonus that will have to be accounted for.

Tenders to restricted and exclusive rights free agents will also carve into the pie. While not severely pinched for cap cash, Buffalo could opt to also release veteran tight end Dave Moore ($800,000 savings) and safety Pierson Prioleau ($1.2 million).

The Bills don't figure to land a big-ticket free agent like linebacker Takeo Spikes of a year ago. Solid interior offensive linemen and tight ends can come relatively cheap.

As for their pass rush, the Bills wound up ninth overall in sacks and despite a popular feeling Buffalo just doesn't put the fear in many opposing quarterbacks, Donahoe wants to be patient with Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, his past two second-round draft picks. He'll likely look for a modestly priced situational pass rusher in the mold of Keith McKenzie.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Due to a combination of his age, contract, a coaching staff change and his controversial ending to last season, eight-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown is in danger of being released by Wednesday, when he's due to receive a $1.8 million roster bonus. Coach Mike Mularkey recently sat down with Brown to discuss his future with the club. Part of the conversation addressed Brown's falling out with the previous coaching staff. Brown was excused from the final game of the season at New England after arriving late for a practice and having a confrontation with offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

Mularkey said he would not prejudge Brown and was focused on determining if the nine-year veteran figures into his plans for the offense.

"I think we need to discuss it further but I didn't want to prejudge him," Mularkey said. "We have evaluations coming in on all the positions and I want to evaluate him as a player first. Obviously, he still can play. We'll see where we are with him with that, the whole line really, then we'll talk more."

--GM Tom Donahoe has worked hard this offseason to dispel the notion he's become a control freak in Buffalo, a reputation that to some extent has been embellished by the media. However, it is now known that Donahoe exercised his influence over new coach Mike Mularkey in the selection of the team's offensive coordinator. Mularkey wanted to hire Steelers tight ends coach Ken Whisenhunt but Donahoe pushed for quarterbacks coach Tom Clements, who got the job to replace Kevin Gilbride. Donahoe looked over the shoulder of former coach Gregg Williams on all of his hires, too. Whisenhunt was promoted to Steelers coordinator by Bill Cowher.

--If you believe reader polls, Bills fans overwhelmingly want their team to find a young quarterback through the draft. An online poll on the team's website asked how the team should obtain such a player, and out of more than 9,000 votes, the tally was the draft (56 percent), a trade (25 percent) and free agency (16 percent).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Some people make snap judgments and I think that early on, you see teams spend money because they want to get what they want or what they think they need. Players get overpaid early by teams who think they (really) need a guy. Teams don't always pay true value. You need to have a plan and be patient to be successful in free agency.'' -- Bills director of pro personnel John Guy.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Bills aren't being bashful about their interest in NC State quarterback Philip Rivers, one of the fastest rising players in the draft. Buffalo is in the market for Drew Bledsoe's eventual successor and taking a quarterback with its 13th pick is being heavily considered.

Top prospects Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger will be off the board early, but Rivers is likely to land in Buffalo's lap if it wants him. The 6-5, 229-pounder passed for 4,490 yards, 34 TDs and just seven interceptions as a senior and led the nation with a 170.5 efficiency rating. He's also durable in the Bledsoe mold, starting 51 straight games. The knock on Rivers is his sidearm delivery, but the Bills don't seem overly concerned.

"He's a little unorthodox with his throwing motion, but he's very effective,'' coach Mike Mularkey said. "He's very accurate. He puts the ball where it needs to be ... and he's been consistent over time. That is what's impressive about the kid.''

Rivers, who expressed excitement about learning under Bledsoe if the Bills drafted him, will hold a private workout session on March 24 at NC State.

"He continues to be well thought of,'' always coy Bills assistant GM Tom Modrak allowed.

NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES:

Defensive end - Bills pass rush was spotty, despite Aaron Schobel's 11.5 sacks, helping to explain their NFL-low 18 takeaways. Team has spent second-round picks on Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay the past two seasons with very little return so far; Offensive guard/center - Bills were bull rushed up the middle far too often last season, failing to provide QB Drew Bledsoe with a pocket to step into. He was sacked NFL-high 49 times. If veteran Ruben Brown is cut, there will be hole to fill at LG. Center Trey Teague is over-manned at times but new staff likes his athleticism and will be looking to build around him; Wide receiver - Bills passing game fell from 5th to 28th after the loss of Peerless Price to Atlanta. The draft is loaded with potential game-breakers.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (6): FB Sam Gash; DE Keith McKenzie; RB Sammy Morris; LB DaShon Polk; CB Dainon Sidney; CB Antoine Winfield.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2): DT Ron Edwards; OG Marques Sullivan.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (3): QB Travis Brown; RB Joe Burns; LB Dominique Stevenson.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: C Ross Tucker.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: None.

PLAYERS LOST: None.

MEDICAL WATCH:

Backup QB Alex Van Pelt had surgery to fix a ligament in his right throwing wrist this month. The recovery period will keep him out of live drills during the spring mini-camps, but Van Pelt is expected to be fully recovered by the start of training camp in the summer.


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