Inside Bills Report

After a giant spending spree last season in which Buffalo signed 11 unrestricted free agents, president and general manager Tom Donahoe is clearly tightening the belt.

INSIDE SLANT

Through the first 10 days of free agency, Buffalo had signed just one player (Chicago Bears guard Chris Villarrial), lost two of their own key free agents (cornerback Antoine Winfield and running back Sammy Morris), and released two veteran leaders (Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown and tight end Dave Moore). Buffalo has only brought in six players for visits.

Things could be heating up again, however. Cornerback Troy Vincent, center Chris Bober, quarterback Billy Volek, and tight end Mark Bruener were still on Buffalo's radar screen as Week 2 wrapped up.

Buffalo would love to land Vincent, a five-time Pro Bowler who at age 32 hasn't lost much. He'd replace Winfield and add tons of leadership. However, the Cincinnati Bengals, after clearing $4-5 million in cap space after releasing ex-Bill Jeff Burris, were in the driver's seat for Vincent as the weekend approached. Vincent played for Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier in Philadelphia. Carolina and Kansas City are also in the running for Vincent.

The Bills interviewed Indianapolis' David Macklin, a solid four-year pro out of Penn State, as a backup plan to Vincent, but he was lost to Arizona.

As for Volek, it appears the Bills had gotten in late on the courting of the Tennessee Titans backup, who blitzed them for 295 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-26 loss last December.

Buffalo was scampering to make arrangements to meet up with Volek, possibly sending quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche to Nashville, but Volek had already made two visits to Atlanta, and brought his wife the second time, always a sign of a deal getting close. The Falcons want a good insurance policy after crashing to 5-11 last season after Mike Vick was injured in the preseason.

Volek got his first NFL start against the Bills last December when Steve McNair was out. He broke a rib and lacerated his spleen and did not play the rest of the season, but it was a well-timed showcase of his talents.

The Bills want to add a young quarterback to develop behind Drew Bledsoe. Trade talks with Houston for Drew Henson have gotten nowhere. Were Bledsoe to struggle in 2004 and be cut -- he's due a huge option bonus in November -- Volek could get the starting job he covets.

"Billy played very well and I thought with great courage in the game against Buffalo," agent Ken Staninger said. "Anybody who knew his physical condition and watched him play that day would have to be impressed. I know Billy has a lot of respect for Drew Bledsoe, as I do. We're just looking at all of our options."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--Chicago Bears boss Jerry Angelo on losing RG Chris Villarrial to Buffalo: "Chris did a great job for us but when a player gets out into free agency, you have to be prepared to lose him."
--Free agent TE Mark Bruener is still hoping to be reunited with Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements, his former coaches in Pittsburgh. He's certainly saying all the right things. Asked his opinion of Buffalo, Bruener said: "It starts with a great quarterback and an offensive backfield. It's a strong plus they have talent at wide receiver. This team has lot of different weapons, it's not just one dimensional, and the defense is very sound."
--The Bills may regret not going after rising young receiver Justin McCareins of Tennessee, a restricted free agent the rival New York Jets picked up in a trade for a second-round pick. McCareins averaged 17 yards per catch last season and is a rising deep threat, something Buffalo needs. Now the Bills will have to face him twice a season.
--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.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a unique player. I coached him for two years and loved it. He's one of the best defensive players (period) in the league."
-- Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, the former Bills defensive boss, after being reunited with star cornerback Antoine Winfield.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL The Bills are against college sophomores being eligible for the draft in the wake of the Maurice Clarett ruling, but they do stand to benefit from it.

How so? Because Clarett opened the door for star USC receiver Mike Williams to declare himself eligible as well. Williams is a top-five talent and his entering the draft will squeeze a player out of the top 10 and into Buffalo's lap at No. 13.

It now means a stud wideout such as Washington's Reggie Williams, tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. of Miami or defensive end Will Smith of Ohio State could be there for Buffalo to tab. A nice development indeed.

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; 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 (3): FB Sam Gash; DE Keith McKenzie; 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; RB Sammy Morris; CB Dainon Sidney; CB Antoine Winfield.
MEDICAL WATCH: DE Chris Kelsay has had laser eye surgery this offseason and now won't need to wear contact lenses when he plays; TE Mark Campbell had hernia and elbow surgeries. Both were termed minor and he'll be fine to go when mini-camps kick off.

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