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Bills need Bledsoe to return to form

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Talk about change ... how about a new head coach plus 10 assistants?
That's the byproduct of failed expectations.

Gregg Williams' lights-out interview with Bills president and general manager
Tom Donahoe in 2001 notwithstanding, his third and final season failed to
deliver on the promise of the previous year.

After going 8-8 in 2002, Buffalo players, virtually in one voice, maintained
that anything less than a division title, or at the very least, a playoff
berth, would be a major disappointment.

What resulted was a 6-10 campaign -- after a 2-0 start -- that featured 18
straight quarters on the road without an offensive touchdown and seven games
where the offense failed to produce a touchdown.

Former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was vilified for stubbornness and
inflexibility, QB Drew Bledsoe endured his worst season since his rookie
year and RB Travis Henry gained over 1,300 yards, though playing most of the
year with torn rib cartilage and almost half of it on a broken leg.

Even the defense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL for fewest yards surrendered, was a
bit of a mirage, generating a franchise-low 18 takeaways.

As a result, Williams' contract wasn't renewed, with Donahoe revisiting his
Pittsburgh connection, hiring Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey
to his first head-coaching job.

Mularkey added seven new offensive assistants, including coordinator Tom
Clements, the Steelers' former QB coach, while retaining defensive
coordinator Jerry Gray and most of the defensive staff.

Also leaving were CB Antoine Winfield, eight-time Pro Bowl OG Ruben Brown, FB
Sam Gash, TE Dave Moore, RB Sammy Morris, LB DaShon Polk and QB Alex Van Pelt either to free agency, the waiver wire or retirement.

However, Buffalo added 33-year-old CB Troy Vincent, OG Chris Villarrial and
FB Daimon Shelton via free agency to replace Winfield, Brown and Gash,
respectively.

Quarterbacks: Bledsoe, still only 32, must prove last season was an aberration. The Bills think Clements can return him to the productive form Bledsoe showed in the first half of '02. Backup Travis Brown is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury suffered in the third preseason game. First-round pick J.P. Losman is out indefinitely after breaking his leg in practice on Aug. 24. Buffalo signed journeyman Shane Matthews to back up Bledsoe while Brown heals. Grade: C-plus.

Running backs: Henry, who has rushed for 23 touchdowns and nearly 2,800
yards the past two seasons, was more than a little miffed when Buffalo
drafted Willis McGahee with its top pick in '03. Henry's the starter, but
McGahee has recovered enough from the knee surgery that kept him out all of
last season to merit some playing time. Both have already indicated if they
don't start, a trade is in order. And while the Bills have downplayed the
controversy -- at times both have been on the field together -- it figures to
fester before season's end. Shelton is strictly a blocker. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: Eric Moulds is still among the league's elite receivers and
should benefit from the presence of rookie Lee Evans. The former Wisconsin
star has the speed to get some of the double coverage off Moulds, as
Peerless Price did two years ago. Thus, Josh Reed returns to the slot
position where he's more comfortable working underneath in traffic. Veteran
Bobby Shaw is the No. 4 wideout. TE Mark Campbell comes off a career-high,
34-reception season while fourth-round draft pick Tim Euhus is bidding to be
No. 2 on the depth chart. Grade: C-plus.

Offensive linemen: The biggest addition might just be a coach, Buffalo
native Jim McNally. McNally worked some miracles with the Bengals, Panthers
and Giants, and now he's trying to upgrade a group that did a horrible job
of protecting Bledsoe last season -- allowing 51 sacks and seven games with
four or more sacks allowed. C Trey Teague, Villarrial and OLT Jonas Jennings
are set. But ORT Mike Williams, in two seasons, has failed to perform to
expectations as a fourth overall pick. Meanwhile, Mike Pucillo, Ross Tucker
and Lawrence Smith all started at the unsettled OLG position in the
preseason. Grade: C.

Defensive linemen: DRE Aaron Schobel has averaged just under nine sacks a
season over his first three years but must step up against the run. DTs Pat
Williams and Sam Adams offer over 650 pounds of run-stuffing defenders
inside, but the DLE position is still to be decided between good friends and
roommates Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, a pair of former second-round draft
choices. They will likely battle for that spot until the opener. This year's
third-round draft pick, Tim Anderson, is in a battle with Ron Edwards,
Justin Bannan and Lauvale Sape for the backup DT spots at what is the Bills'
deepest position. Grade: B.

Linebackers: OLB Takeo Spikes is a Pro Bowl-quality player, and his mates,
MLB London Fletcher and OLB Jeff Posey, are above-average performers. But
that trio, one of the league's better units, is backed up by players whose
forte is special teams. None of the reserves has ever started a single NFL
game. Grade: B.

Defensive backs: CB Nate Clements is an emerging star. Winfield's loss was
offset by the acquisition of Vincent, who has 42 interceptions, 11 forced
fumbles and three recoveries in 12 seasons. By contrast, Winfield, a
punishing hitter, had only one pick last year, a mere six in his five-year
career and only one in his final 37 games. SS Lawyer Milloy suffered a
broken right forearm in the third preseason game. Incumbent Izell Reese and
former SS Coy Wire are battling for the FS job, although Wire could fill in
for Milloy until he returns. CBs Kevin Thomas and Terrence McGee are squared
off for the nickel CB job with the loser becoming the dime back. Grade: B.

Special teams: P Brian Moorman was third in the league in gross punting and
tied for fourth in net average, but PK Rian Lindell struggled last season,
hitting a lowly 3-of-9 field goals from beyond 40 yards. Returner Antonio
Brown had an NFL-worst 4.4-yard average on punts among qualifiers and was
24th (21.8 yards) on kickoffs. Clements could inherit the PR job, and Reed
and McGee are contesting the KR job. One major upgrade is that Mularkey is
not averse to using starters on special teams, an approach which has
improved blocking, tackling and returns. Grade: C.

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