Inside Bills Report

The Bills died by the pass under former coach Gregg Williams, who gave mostly lip service to running the football. So far at least, Mike Mularkey is a whole lot different. <P> After cutting eight-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown, who despite his credentials was prone to penalties and emotional outbursts, Mularkey replaced him with Chicago Bears free agent Chris Villarrial, a 318-pound road-grader known for his error-free play, toughness and consistency.

Rarely has Villarrial been beaten, which couldn't be said about Brown.

Villarrial, an eight-year veteran who started 109 games for the Bears, will play right guard and team with 370-pound tackle Mike Williams, giving Buffalo potentially the best right-handed side in the NFL.

In addition to Villarrial, the Bills quietly added 262-pound ex-Bears fullback Daimon Shelton, and are likely to sign veteran 260-pound tight end Mark Bruener, who played in Pittsburgh for Mularkey.

That's a massive strong side formation for 5-foot-9 power back Travis Henry to work behind.

"I'm excited about it," Villarrial said. "The running game is what I like, getting in there and mixing it up. Travis is a downhill, power runner and we're going to do some power blocking schemes. I think it's going to be a great fit."

Villarrial signed a four-year, $11.85 million deal and represents the kind of cap-smart, value player president and GM Tom Donahoe is seeking more of.

Toss in toughness and sheer size, and Villarrial helps address a lot of Mularkey's goals for the Bills, who gave up an NFL-high 51 sacks last season in large part because the pocket-passing Drew Bledsoe had no pocket to step in to.

"He fits the mold of what we're trying to put together here," Mularkey said of Villarrial.

"Obviously, at that position right now, teams defensively are putting their big horses in there and trying to get a push up the middle, which is disruptive to quarterbacks. You're trying to match up with what some defenses are doing. And being able to move like he does, he can get up into the second level and really be effective as a puller. He's a good athlete for his size."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Visiting the Bills so far was RB/FB Patrick Pass of New England. He was mostly a special teams player, averaging 23.1 yards per kickoff return for the Super Bowl champs.

--WR Eric Moulds was recently asked what he'd like to see the Bills do in free agency. "At the receiver position, we need to get another guy with speed," he said. Moulds and Peerless Price (Atlanta) formed one of the NFL's top tandems in 2002, combining for 194 catches and 2,544 yards. Without Price, Moulds caught just 64 passes for 780 yards and one TD last season. A bad groin contributed to his woes. The Bills are likely to address their needs at wide receiver in the draft, which is extremely deep at the position. Moulds is hungry to win. "People have that expectation from being in Buffalo of going to four Super Bowls," he said. "As a player, you want to continue the tradition. You feel like it's your responsibility to keep things going and the last few years, we haven't done that."

--As a new coach, Mike Mularkey gets extra mini-camp time with his players and he'll stage six organized team sessions this off-season. The first is March 24-26 for all veterans under contract, followed by a rookie orientation camp April 30-May 2.

--There are plenty of big-name pass rushers on the market, including ex-Bill fan favorite Marcellus Wiley, cut by San Diego, but Buffalo isn't likely to spend any significant money in this area. GM Tom Donahoe said he's willing to be patient with Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, his last two second-round picks, even though Denney had just 3.5 sacks his first year starting and Kelsay had none coming off the bench as a rookie. Three-year pro Aaron Schobel had a career-best 11.5. "We feel it's a good group," Donahoe said. "We'd like to have it be more experienced because Schobel is the old man in his fourth year. But we like the group. Now they've got to improve and get better. Am I saying we wouldn't look at a pass rusher? No, I'm not saying that but we feel better about that group than maybe some of the people (media) in this room do."

--Call it the Indiana University mafia. Newly signed guard Chris Villarrial and Bills general managers Tom Donahoe and Tom Modrak are alumni of the Pennsylvania school.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Of course, that's little Barney Rubble, that's my guy. Me and Tom, we go back. I know the job he did in Pittsburgh, and I know the job he did when he came to Philadelphia. I have a lot of respect for Tom." -- Free agent cornerback Troy Vincent on Bills assistant GM Tom Modrak, formerly of the Steelers and Eagles.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Bills cut 12-year veteran tight end Dave Moore to save about $800,000 in cap space and wanted to bring him back for the veteran minimum. However, he opted to rejoin the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's created the need for another tight end to complement starter Mark Campbell and backup Ryan Neufeld.

The obvious candidate is nine-year pro Mark Bruener, who played for coach Mike Mularkey and GM Tom Donahoe in Pittsburgh. The 260-pound Bruener has averaged just 15 catches per season but he helped establish some solid running attacks with the Steelers. Knee and shoulder problems hurt him in 2001 and 2002 and last season he fell to No. 3 on the depth chart, losing his starting job, ironically, to ex-Bill Jay Riemersma, who Donahoe never cared for.

The Minnesota Vikings canceled a visit with Bruener and the Bills could be his only option. He was due to earn $2.4 million with the Steelers.

"I'm feeling great. I didn't have any problems last season," Bruener said of his health.

What can he bring to the Bills?

"I think I can bring some leadership, some knowledge in regard to what it's like to play on successful teams," said Bruener, who played on four playoff clubs. "I can bring some talent...and overall just a good attitude. I'm really the consummate team player. If I'm fortunate to end up here, it'll be my goal to help this team any way I can."

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 (NFL-high 49 sacks) with a pocket to step in to. The signing of steady Chris Villarrial was a good first step to play right guard and the Bills may look to add center Chris Bober of the New York Giants next; 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 (4): FB Sam Gash; DE Keith McKenzie; RB Sammy Morris; LB DaShon Polk.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2): QB Travis Brown; DT Ron Edwards.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (2): RB Joe Burns; LB Dominique Stevenson.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OG Marques Sullivan; C Ross Tucker.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: OG Chris Villarrial.

PLAYERS LOST: OG Ruben Brown; TE Dave Moore; CB Dainon Sidney; CB Antoine Winfield.

MEDICAL WATCH: RB Willis McGahee had a recent visit with Bills trainers and doctors and got a green light to take part in all offseason workouts. The team's No. 1 pick last season, coming off major knee surgery, practiced on a limited basis for half of the 2003 season. "We expect that when the off-season program stars at end of this month, he'll be full go," GM Tom Donahoe said. "His rehab is essentially over and he's working out and getting ready to play."


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