Inside Bills Report

The Buffalo Bills are keeping a close eye on the Maurice Clarett situation. <P> No, they don't plan on drafting a running back again, not after shocking onlookers last year with the selection of an injured Willis McGahee in the first round. Buffalo does, however, need a top-shelf wide receiver and that's where Clarett comes in.

   Clarett, Ohio State's controversial sophomore, successfully 
challenged that the NFL's eligibility rule that prohibits a player from 
entering the draft until he's been out of high school for three years 
violates anti-trust laws.
   A three-member panel of U.S. District judges in New York will hear 
the league's appeal on Monday and their decision, due by next Friday, 
will affect not only Clarett but star wide receiver Mike Williams of USC
 and seven others.
   Williams set a USC record with 30 touchdowns in just two seasons to 
go with 12 100-yard games. The Bills, who pick 13th overall and need 
another game-breaking receiver, have studied the 6-4, 233-pounder 
thoroughly, even attending his pro day, but it was to cover their bases.
   If it was up to president and general manager Tom Donahoe, he'd just 
as soon not have to deal with players that young. He fears many young 
players will jeopardize their college careers, and the door could swing 
wide open to where NFL teams will have to start scouting high school 
players.
   "I'm not smart enough to answer for a judge or how a judge will rule 
on it, I just don't think it's a good thing for the league and I don't 
think it's a good thing for young people who are impressionable and 
easily influenced because somebody will get to them and convince them 
that they're going to be a high pick when maybe that's not the reality,"
 Donahoe says.
   "There's going to be some real tragic stories of kids who think they're
 good enough to come into this league (losing their college eligibility)."
   A player can enter the NFL Draft once and retain his college 
eligibility providing he has not obtained an agent or signed any 
endorsement deals.
   Clarett and Williams have hired agents.
   Williams, 20, is clearly the exception to the rule in Donahoe's eyes.
   He said the physical nature of football makes it not only unsafe but 
unrealistic for most 18, 19 and 20-year olds to think they can play at 
the NFL level. There are plenty of instances of high school phenoms 
making a successful leap to the NBA (LeBron James this year) and NHL. 
   "The thing you have to keep in mind is that football is such a 
different game than basketball, or baseball or hockey," Donahoe said.  "We
 have a lot fifth-year, red-shirt seniors who come into our league who 
are physically and mentally not ready for the NFL. You don't even want 
to think about a high school kid and his ability. Would there be an 
exception here and there? There always is. Herschel Walker may be one, 
Randy White. But how many of those guys are there in the whole history 
of football?"
   DRAFT STRATEGY -- The Bills haven't been shy about saying they intend
 to draft a quarterback to develop behind Drew Bledsoe, whose contract 
may necessitate his release if he doesn't have a Pro Bowl-caliber season
 in 2004.
   But president and general manager Tom Donahoe and chief assistant Tom
 Modrak never lock in on names or deviate much from their value board on
 draft day. And invariably, their values on players are never quite the 
same as those of other teams or the many draftniks who come out of the 
woodwork each April.
   While everyone can agree the latest Manning, Ole Miss' Eli, is a top 
five pick and will be long gone by the time Buffalo selects No. 13, it's
 possible Miami, Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger or North Carolina State's 
Philip Rivers, this year's other two highly regarded passers, will swim 
past its net.
   Then what? Could the Bills really pass on a talent like that?
   "You probably couldn't, you probably couldn't do that with any player,"
 Donahoe said. "The question is, you're not going to get in our minds, 
like I'm not going to get in yours. What you think is a franchise (quarterback),
 we might not think is a franchise."
   The Bills do like Rivers but if they don't have him among their 13 
best players, they will stay the course and address three other areas of
 need: wide receiver, defensive end and defensive tackle.
   The moves of two teams could impact Buffalo. If Cleveland and 
Jacksonville, which need receivers, instead elect to take the two top 
pass-rushing ends available (Ohio State's Will Smith and USC's Kenechi Udeze), then a blue-chip wideout like USC's Mike Williams (if eligible) 
and Texas' Roy Williams could be squeezed down.
   Buffalo likes Smith more than Udeze and would opt for him if 
available to shore up its inconsistent pass rush and protect itself from
 losing leading sacker Aaron Schobel, whose contract expires after this 
season.
   One position not getting much play but remains a likely scenario for 
the Bills is defensive tackle. Sam Adams has perhaps only one or two 
years left and Pat Williams' contract is up.
   There are two superior defensive tackles in Tommie Harris and Vince Wilfork. Houston is expected take one at No. 10, meaning one should be 
there for the Bills three spots later.
   As his pick approaches, Donahoe will explore a trade down option if 
he feels he can still get a player he likes while adding an extra pick 
or two. In 2001, he traded down with Tampa Bay from 14 to 21 and 
received the Bucs' second rounder, 51st overall. The moved allowed 
Donahoe to land cornerback Nate Clements and running back Travis Henry. 
Each is a star-caliber starter.
   Projecting where Tulane QB J.P. Losman, whose toughness and 
leadership Donahoe likes, will be in the second round could dictate his 
moves. Losman was scheduled to visit the Bills at some point before the 
draft.
   "In my history with Tom (Modrak), I think we've proven we don't have 
reservations about doing anything," said Donahoe, who worked with Modrak
 in building the Pittsburgh Steelers into a perennial playoff team. "If 
we think it's something that makes sense and it's best for our team, we're
 going to do it."
   Like using the 23rd overall pick on injured Miami running back Willis McGahee last season. McGahee is fully recovered and while he didn't 
play a down in 2003, he gives Buffalo what in essence is an extra first-round
 pick this year.
   "As far as the strategy, a lot of times you don't know until it 
starts and you get into it," Donahoe said. "There will be plenty of 
speculation out there, as far as who's doing what, who likes whom. The 
one thing we found out years ago in regards to the draft is that nobody 
tells the truth, so it really doesn't make a difference what anybody 
says.
   "People like to play their cards close to the vest. If it's to our 
advantage to trade up, we'll look at that, if it's to our advantage to 
trade back, we'll do that as well. I don't know that we ever go into a 
draft and say, 'This is the plan' other than the fact we want to add 
some good football players to our team."
   TEAM NEEDS going into the draft -- Quarterback, wide receiver, 
defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end.
   QB -- Drew Bledsoe's poor play in 2003 and his $7 million option 
bonus due in November have put his future in a cloud. Even if Bledsoe 
revives himself under the tutelage of a new offensive-minded coaching 
staff, Buffalo has to plan for the future. Putting off landing a young 
QB to develop can't wait any longer. Jim Kelly was the last QB the team 
took in the first round and that was back in 1983.
   WR -- The trio of Pro Bowler Eric Moulds, Josh Reed and Bobby Shaw 
isn't exactly chopped liver, but with Buffalo failing to score an 
offensive TD six times last season, it's obvious the team needs more 
firepower. The 2004 receiving class is tall, fast and physical and 
Buffalo would be foolish not to land at least two wideouts from this 
group, particularly if the coaching staff hopes to salvage Bledsoe.
   DE -- The Bills continue to prop up Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, 
their last two second-round picks, as the answer at left end opposite 
Aaron Schobel. But while Schobel had 11.5 sacks last season, Denney and 
Kelsay had 3.5 combined. Passing on Ohio State's Will Smith or USC's 
Kenechi Udeze if one is there at No. 13 would be hard to justify for a 
team that has led the NFL in fewest takeaways two years running.
   DT -- Sam Adams and Pat Williams form a hefty 1-2 punch and Buffalo's
 run defense improved dramatically last season. But they are on the 
wrong side of 30 and Williams' contract is up. Free agent Oliver Gibson 
is a short-term answer.
   TE -- Coach Mike Mularkey needs two tight ends to make many of his 
running schemes work and the team is short here after cutting veteran 
Dave Moore. Mark Campbell (34 catches, 1 TD) came on and should see more
 balls if Buffalo straightens out its offense and third-year pro Ryan Neufeld will get a shot to nail down the No. 2 spot. But this position 
needs some upgrading.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
   --If the Bills do use their first-round pick on a QB, it won't be 
overkill. Since the first AFL-NFL combined draft in 1967, they've 
drafted only one in the first round, Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.
   --GM Tom Donahoe gained a lot of appreciation for draft guru Mel 
Kiper during his one season working as an analyst for ESPN. But he added
 Kiper and others are handicapped in their personnel work. "There are so
 many factors entering into it," he said. "You take a draft guru, and I 
have a lot of respect for Mel Kiper and guys who do that, but there's 
only so much they know. They don't have the advantages we have. The 
three big ones are psychological testing, interviews, medical 
information. Those are three big factors in every player as we try to 
draw a picture."
   --Donahoe, who helped build a series of playoff teams and one AFC 
champion during eight years as Pittsburgh's director of football 
operations before coming to Buffalo, swears he doesn't have a draft 
philosophy. He does have a rule of thumb, though: If two players have 
equal talent, pick the one who has more toughness. "Over the years, when
 you look at the players you've been around, probably the one thing that's
 determined who has played longer and who has played at a better level 
is toughness," he said. "I don't know how you get away from it. It's 
even more important than athletic ability or anything else. The guy has 
to have the right mental and physical toughness to survive in this 
league."
   --GM Tom Donahoe's three drafts with Buffalo have produced eight 
starters and 21 of 30 picks that are still on the roster (.700). "Nobody
 bats 1.000 doing this but you better bat more than .400, and if you do 
that, it's a pretty good average," he said.
    --The Bills 2004 schedule isn't kind. Seven opponents had losing 
records in 2003 and there are only four playoffs teams to contend with (New
 England twice, Baltimore, St. Louis, Seattle). However, the Bills play 
five of their final eight games on the road. Twice they travel to the 
West Coast and twice they face back-to-back road trips. That will make a
 playoff push very difficult.
   QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're all guilty of it. We overanalyze guys. I talked
 to one GM this weekend and they've looked at it so many ways, their 
team, they're convinced this isn't a good draft. You can do that. You 
can talk yourself out of good players just by analyzing the guy too much.
 There's a fine line between how much is enough and how much is too much."
 -- Bills GM Tom Donahoe.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
   The Bills' desire to see what the draft yields for them at tight has 
cost them the services of three veteran free agents.
   This week, ex-Falcon Brian Kozlowski, who signed with Washington, 
joined ex-Steeler Mark Bruener (Houston) and ex-Ram, Raider and 
Buccaneer Roland Williams (Oakland) as players who visited the Bills as 
hot prospects then received the cold shoulder from the club.
   None was willing to wait until after the draft to see if Buffalo 
would sign them and nobody could blame them for securing their futures 
with other teams.
   The Bills have no experienced depth behind starter Mark Campbell, but
 the draft could add a very good prospect or two. Buffalo will start its
 hunt in the second round at the earliest and should have a shot at 
Georgia's Ben Watson (6-3, 258). Another name to watch is Arkansas' 
Jason Peters, who goes a mammoth 6-4, 336. He's the kind of mauler new 
coach Mike Mularkey wants for the running game and Peters can move it - 
he clocked 4.9 at the combine - much to the delight of GM Tom Donahoe.
   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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