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SUCCESS: AN INSIDE JOB

The acquisitions of star players such as Corey Dillon, Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse helped put New England and Philadelphia over the top and into the Super Bowl last NFL season.

What got them into contender status, however, was consistently good drafting over a series of years.

Big veteran acquisitions via free agency or trades are the sizzle of every NFL offseason. The draft, almost every football executive agrees, is the steak.

The Buffalo Bills are getting closer to the league's elite in terms of building through the draft. But the numbers suggest the Bills still need to increase their percentages of draftees on the roster.

The Bills had 25 drafted players on the roster last year, and nine of those were starters.

New England and Philadelphia each had 30 drafted players in the fold. Each of the league's Elite Eight -- the eight that advanced to the divisional playoff round -- had more home-grown starters. The Steelers and Colts each had 15 drafted starters. The Pats had 14 and the Eagles 13.

"We feel since we've come here, our scouts, both college and John Guy with the pros, have done a good job of building the roster back up," Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe said. "We had a lot of problems initially with the cap and talent level. Unfortunately some of the talented guys, we couldn't keep because they were making too much money.

"When we started four years ago, it was almost like starting with an expansion roster and an expansion team. Now we feel we have a good base. We have to continue to add to that base every year so that we don't slip back. We feel on our team we have a good nucleus of players we can add to in this draft."

Obviously Donahoe's draft record in Buffalo still is being defined. However, in 2004 the Bills got as much, if not more, from his regime's past four draft classes as any of the Elite Eight. None of the Elite Eight had more than the Bills' 24 starters from the '01-to-'04 classes. Eight of those players were starters for the Bills. Three of the top eight teams had nine.

Where the Bills' draft numbers pale in comparison is in drafted veterans with five or more years experience. The Bills had just one -- Eric Moulds.

New England had eight -- all significant contributors. Pittsburgh had 10, and all of them started. The Eagles had 10.

"No question, we're not happy with that," Donahoe said. "We'd like to have more."

Donahoe oversaw the drafting of six of those 10 veteran Steelers. Bills Assistant General Manager Tom Modrak oversaw the drafting of four of the Eagles.

The Bills got almost nothing out of eight picks from the 2000 draft, headed by defensive end bust Erik Flowers. The 1999 draft was outstanding. But the '98 draft produced linebacker Sam Cowart and little else.

"I don't think there's any question that with the system we have, those drafted players are the ones you know you're going to have for four years, and they have to be solid picks for you," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "There's no question if you don't go that route, you may have a short run, but over the long range trying to build something consistently, it's going to be tough. Not that you can't acquire players in free agency and do other things, but the foundation is the draft."

Here's how Donahoe's drafts are looking so far:

2001: Exceptional. Nate Clements, Aaron Schobel and Jonas Jennings each started four straight years. Travis Henry started 3 1/4 seasons. Ron Edwards contributes. Henry and Clements made Pro Bowls.

2002: This class will be better defined this year. Six of its players are on the roster, headed by Mike Williams, who had a good year last season. This will be a make-or-break season for second-round pick Josh Reed. Second-rounder Ryan Denney appears entrenched as a No. 3 defensive end. Third-rounder Coy Wire is a special teams ace. Sixth-rounder Kevin Thomas has been a good dime cornerback.

2003: It's looking mighty good and maybe great after the breakout years of Willis McGahee and Terrence McGee last year. Second-rounder Chris Kelsay won a starting job at defensive end, and the other five players are still in the organization.

2004: Check back in three years when the jury comes in on J.P. Losman. Lee Evans looks like a home-run pick. Third-rounder Tim Anderson could get the chance to start this year. Tim Euhus showed flashes of being a good tight end. Jonathan Smith and Dylan McFarland were seventh-rounders.

The better teams draft, the more money they have to spend in free agency because players on their first contract are less expensive.

"The draft is one thing you can't take away; there's a consistency there," Browns General Manager Phil Savage said. "Whereas in free agency, there are fluctuations in terms of available talent, the money you might have, the positions of need."

An example would be this year's left tackle crop in free agency. The Bills' Jennings was the only starter on the market.

"The one thing the young players do is give you a chance to get talent that's affordable and at numbers that are cap-friendly," Donahoe said.

"The right guy at the right time in free agency definitely helps you," Colts coach Tony Dungy said, "but you can't count on it. You can't plan on getting guys like that. Our young guys have to continue to grow into the system. You have to plan on drafting well and developing them."

BUILDING THROUGH THE DRAFT
How the Bills' roster stacks up against the NFL's Elite Eight from 2004
What is the blueprint of the most successful teams for stocking their roster? How do the drafts under Tom Donahoe stack up from a numbers standpoint? Below is a comparison of what last year's final eight playoff teams got out of the draft overall and over the past four years as compared to the Bills' numbers.

Category BUF NE PHL PIT ATL IND NYJ MIN STL
Drafted players on roster 25 30 30 27 20 31 31 23 24
Drafted starters on roster 9 14 13 15 12 15 12 10 13
Players drafted last 4 years
on the roster 24 22 20 17 16 23 24 16 20
Drafted starters from last 4 yrs 8 8 6 5 9 9 6 7 9
Drafted Pro Bowlers on roster 4 6 9 5 4 5 2 5 4
Draftees with 5 years on roster 1 8 10 10 4 8 7 4 4
-Drafted players on roster includes players who were on injured reserve.
-Pro Bowl numbers includes number of drafted players who have appeared in at least one Pro Bowl.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com