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The Buffalo Bills will put the most home-grown lineup in the NFL on the field when the regular-season kicks off Sunday.

Seventeen of the Bills' 22 starters are products of the Bills' own college drafts.

No team in the NFL has more, and that's the way Bills general manager John Butler likes it.

"I do believe the foundation of your team is built through the draft," Butler said. "That's the lifeblood of your team."

The two cornerstones of the Bills' organizational philosophy over the past 12 years have been: build from within; keep your own.

The Bills' ability to continue to pump talent into their system through the college draft every April is the biggest reason they have made the playoffs seven of nine seasons in the 1990s.

"The amazing thing about the Bills," says CNN/SI Insider Pat Kirwan, "is that when you look at most teams that went from nothing to something, when they eventually lost their general manager or their top decision-maker, they almost all fell apart. The Bills passed the torch from Bill Polian to John Butler, they have switched coaches, and they have kept drafting and signing good players."

Kirwan, who was a personnel director for the New York Jets from 1990 to '96, thinks the home-grown numbers are a valid indicator of organizational strength.

"Teams with single-digits in terms of draft picks who start -- that's almost always a disaster," he said. "Most are not successful, and the ones that are OK are usually incredibly maxed out in the cap; leveraged with signing bonuses so they have nowhere else to go."

"If you can keep people coming through the draft, it always gives you a chance to have an excellent balance of veteran influence plus talented youth," Butler said. "It's a delicate balance, and you want to keep it right. That way you don't ever look up one day and have an old football team with really no reinforcements."

Growing old fast is a big danger Butler sees in relying too heavily on the free-agency system.

Butler is quick to point out the significant help the team has received from free-agent signees -- players such as Ted Washington, Bryce Paup, Chris Spielman and Sam Gash.

"We have been very fortunate with our free agents," he says.

But the Bills' policy is to be very selective in the free-agent market.

They don't like the danger of overpaying for an unrestricted free agent who does not fit the system of the new club he joins.

"Any time you can re-sign your own, I think you always should try to," Butler said. "When you believe in them and they have performed for you and you know their strengths and weaknesses, why not keep them? It takes money, but you sure know exactly what you're investing in. . . . (In free agency), they may have to step into a different type of scheme, with a different surrounding cast than they may have enjoyed with their former team. And maybe they've got to carry more of a load with their new team."

Other teams, of course, have succeeded by relying less on the draft.

While Denver's best players have come via the draft, the Broncos will have seven unrestricted free agents starting this year. San Francisco has been more active in free agency than the Bills. The Jets have eight street free agents (not the highly sought unrestricted kind) in their starting lineup.

Kirwan thinks more teams have become more judicious in free agency than the first couple years of the system.

"In the early stages of free agency, when people didn't know what to do with the new system, the Bills had Marv Levy and a solid coaching staff, and they weren't getting fired," Kirwan said. "He knew what he wanted, liked his players, and his players fit his system. So the Bills walked right into the right philosophy for free agency.

"I was running the personnel department for the Jets, and in a three-year span, the head coaches names were (Bruce) Coslet, (Pete) Carroll, (Rich) Kotite," Kirwan said. "Every time a new head coach comes in, if there's no security, every head coach wants his own guys. So there's always an overhaul. When your head coach is on solid ground, you continue to grow into what you do well."

A cautious approach to free agency doesn't work for a team that routinely strikes out on its high draft choices.

For instance, the St. Louis Rams' average draft position in the '90s has been eighth. The Cincinnati Bengals' average position has been ninth. Yet both teams have been doormats the past eight years.

The Bills' average draft spot in the '90s is 21.4, second-highest in the league, behind San Francisco.

Yet a main reason the Bills are a playoff contender this season is seven of their last eight top draft choices are in the starting lineup. The Bills have "hit" on their top draft choice eight years in a row.

Their last bust was cornerback J.D. Williams in 1990. Every top pick since -- Henry Jones, John Fina, Thomas Smith, Jeff Burris, Ruben Brown, Eric Moulds, Antowain Smith and Sam Cowart -- has been a success with the team. Only Burris is no longer starting for the Bills. He left via free agency, but he gave the Bills four solid years before departing.

The Bills point to two keys to their draft success: an emphasis on production over potential, and a close relationship between the scouting department and the coaching staff.

"Production is the No. 1 factor," said Dwight Adams, the Bills' director of player personnel. "There are a lot of good athletes who are not good football players. Sometimes people get too enamored with height, weight, speed."

The Bills say their emphasis is on what a player does on the field in the college season, not how he performs in scouting combine workouts after the season.

"The best long jumper in the history of the combine lasted two weeks in the NFL," Adams said. "He was a linebacker out of the state of Texas. The best weight lifter lifted 225 pounds 44 times (at the combine). He played a year."

Adams says the Bills use the annual February scouting combine workouts in Indianapolis primarily for the results of medical tests that are performed on all the players.

Nevertheless, every year there are workout superstars who fail to live up to their combine success.

"We did a study of the top 10 receivers in the AFC and the NFC," Adams says, "and we found out that speed wasn't the biggest thing. The average in the AFC was 4.59 (for the 40-yard dash), and the average in the NFC was 4.56. Eric Moulds ran a 4.51 on my watch. But the other things, the quickness of getting in and out of cuts, and the ability to make adjustments, and the physical talent. That's not on a stop watch."

And that's why drafting is far from an exact science.

"I can remember a head coach tell me (before the '96 draft) that he wouldn't take Eric Moulds as a free agent," Adams said. "He's not a coach any more."

"The Bills put a heavy emphasis on character and players who really want to play the game," says Pro Football Weekly draft analyst Joel Buchsbaum.

"The difference between the Bills and the Patriots, for instance, is the Patriots take Tebucky Jones, the Bills take Antoine Winfield," said Buchsbaum, referring to two cornerbacks. "Winfield produced in college, Jones was a workout warrior."

Jones, a converted safety, was a first-round pick in 1998. He's the Pats' No. 3 corner, and it remains to be seen whether he can live up to his potential.

"Every year in our evaluations, we never dislike the Bills' draft, and yet it never excites us," said Phil Hepler, editor of Ourlads' draft guide. "They always pick real solid players. They're very steady."

Adams stresses there is plenty of credit to go around when the Bills succeed in the draft.

"No. 1, the ownership here is committed to winning and ownership believes in scouts," he said. "No. 2 is management. Our general manager was a scout and understands personnel. No. 3, our coaching staff works together with us.

"I emphasize that last part, because I talk to a number of other scouts around the league, and the camaraderie and chemistry is not the same," Adams said. "It's more argumentative. . . . We get each position coach to tell us the three most important criteria they want at their position. We keep that in mind and we constantly go over it."

Says Kirwan: "The reason personnel guys have always fought that idea -- what do the coaches want? -- is because they're used to coaches being fired every three years. 'Yeah, the guy wants a cover corner. The next guy will want something else.' That's an attitude that exists."

"We're always trying to make sure we're on the same page," Butler said. "We meet throughout the year, and our scouts spend time with the coaches at training camp. Is there something we're thinking of changing or some quality we're lacking where we need a different type of athlete? Those are things we discuss at camp."

Fitting draft choices into the starting lineup is taken for granted these days in Buffalo. But it wasn't always that way.

There was a time when the Bills were the Nutty Professors of the draft. From 1972 to 1982, the Bills had 11 first-round draft choices, and nine of them turned out to be busts. They included Walt Patulski, Tom Rudd, Reuben Gant, Phil Dokes and Tom Cousineau.

Based on recent history, it's unlikely that Winfield, this year's No. 1, will be joining that dubious list.

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