Inside Bills Report

Nobody will know for certain if running Willis McGahee is ready for the rigors of the NFL until he puts on the pads and takes that first hit. <BR> But all signs are encouraging that the first-round pick in 2003, who spent the majority of his rookie year rehabilitating a brutal knee injury suffered in college, will be a big-time contributor this fall.

In Buffalo's recent minicamp for veterans, McGahee showed great burst after taking handoffs. He cut hard, ran harder and caught passes out of the backfield. He didn't even wear a brace.

"I'm a little rusty but that's to be expected," he said. "But I'm healthy and that's the important thing. I'm going to go out there and give it all I've got. There's no limit to what I can do right now."

The McGahee factor made taking the Bills head coaching job all the more intriguing for Mike Mularkey, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator. Knowing McGahee's history, Mularkey has developed a personal policy to not ask him how he's feeling. "To me, you can make (players) too conscious of (an injury)," he said. "I personally don't ask him how he's feeling, I let the trainers tell me. We're trying to get him confident and it looks like he's ready."

How much McGahee plays this season isn't only dependent on his health, of course. There is the matter of dynamic fourth-year pro Travis Henry, who is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and was the team's MVP last season.

Rather than let a controversy simmer, Mularkey has already come out and said he will depend heavily on both players and will devise plays that utilize each player's strengths. There are several formations where both Henry and McGahee line up in the same backfield.

"I've got a name for it, so it must exist," Mularkey said of that personnel grouping. "You've got two guys who can do both, catch the ball and run the ball. That will give some teams some problems. ... When you've got quality backs like that, you've got to get them on the field somehow."

Mularkey did it with success in Pittsburgh with Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue.

"If it can work, I want to make it work," Henry said. "It's scary to have both of us in the same backfield together."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Buffalo has interviewed 15 free agents this of-season but signed just three: tackle Chris Villarrial, cornerback Troy Vincent and DT Oliver Gibson. The team is still searching for a veteran backup quarterback, fullback, tight end and corner.

--Owner Ralph Wilson wanted a three-year extension of instant replay but went along with the five years that owners overwhelmingly approved at league meetings in Palm Beach. "I'd just as soon have gone with three years but five years is OK," Wilson said. "There are so many changes in technology. Too many people felt that in five years something better might come along."

--Ex-Bills greats Chris Spielman and Joe DeLamielleure are among the newest members of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. Spielman, a native of Ohio who starred at Ohio State, was forgiven by Michigan sports fans after a stellar career for the Detroit Lions. Joe D, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, played at Michigan State.

--Buffalo has 10 new assistant coaches, but most of the defensive staff returns intact, including coordinator Jerry Gray. That's good news for young pros like CB Nate Clements, who enters his fourth season in the same system. That system produced the NFL's No. 2-ranked unit last fall. "I was hoping they would keep some of the core coaches on defense from last year, just based on the performance we had," Clements said. "I'm definitely excited that we don't have to learn another system."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're optimistic about Drew, to be honest, particularly with the new staff. Look at the abilities of the new coaches and what they've done with quarterbacks in their history. Mike Mularkey and Tom Clements did a great job with Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox in Pittsburgh, and Sam Wyche has a history of doing an outstanding job with quarterbacks. So we're encouraged. We think we can get the offense back on track and we think we're very fortunate to have a quarterback of Drew's caliber to help us do that." -- GM Tom Donahoe, giving another vote of confident to Drew Bledsoe.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Among Buffalo's allotted players to NFL Europe is QB Greg Zolman, Vanderbilt's all-time passer who's with his fifth NFL team since 2002. That fact should not reflect poorly on Zolman, who has had the misfortune - or fortune, depending on how you view it - to play on teams stacked at the position. In his brief time in the league, Zolman has played behind Peyton Manning (Indianapolis), Brett Favre (Green Bay), Brad Johnson (Tampa Bay) and Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger (St. Louis). Now he's behind Drew Bledsoe.

"I've learned a lot from seeing different styles of each of them," Zolman said. "The way Brett Favre goes about a day and the way Peyton Manning goes about a day, are completely different, but they are both successful. I think it's been beneficial. I just hope Buffalo gives me the chance to stick around for the season and help their team anyway I can."

Zolman will backup former Dallas Cowboys starter Chad Hutchinson on the Rhein Fire but he has been told by Rhein's coaches that he'll see a good chunk of playing time. Zolman, 6-2, 220, has good tools and could potentially push for the No. 3 QB job in Buffalo. He, Bledsoe and Travis Brown are the only quarterbacks on the roster currently, but Buffalo will add another veteran through free agency and another young player through the draft.

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; 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: None.

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

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: RB Joe Burns; DE Keith McKenzie; LB Dominique Stevenson; OG Marques Sullivan; C Ross Tucker.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: DT Oliver Gibson; OG Chris Villarrial; CB Troy Vincent.

PLAYERS LOST: OG Ruben Brown; FB Sam Gash; TE Dave Moore; RB Sammy Morris; LB DaShon Polk; CB Dainon Sidney; QB Alex Van Pelt; CB Antoine Winfield.

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.


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