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GETTING A LINE ON THE DRAFT Bills could target Oregon's Haloti Ngata, who looms large at defensive tackle

Buffalo is a long way from his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, but according to Haloti Ngata, the two cities have their share of similarities.

"Buffalo's like Salt Lake," Ngata said. "There's cold and snow. I think I would fit in well there."

He might get that chance. Just about every magazine or Web site that has a mock draft predicts the Buffalo Bills will take Ngata, the All-America defensive tackle from the University of Oregon, with the eighth overall selection.

Defensive line is one of the Bills' biggest needs, and Ngata (pronounced nah-ta) is one of the best in the draft. Only North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams is rated higher among D-linemen by scouts.

Offensive line also is high on the Bills' wish list. In fact, you could argue that offensive and defensive line rank 1-2 -- in either order -- on their list of needs.

The Bills aren't about to reveal their draft intentions, but they don't hide the fact that offensive and defensive line are areas they must address this offseason.

"With regard to our offensive and defensive line, yes, both areas need attention. Both need to be improved," Bills General Manager Marv Levy said last week at the NFL scouting combine. "We simply were not good enough in those areas a year ago."

The Bills have ignored their lines in recent drafts, targeting skill position players with their top picks. The team has suffered as a result. Buffalo's offense ranked 29th in pass and 28th overall in the 32-team NFL last season. The defense finished 29th overall and 31st against the run.

According to Levy, both sides of the ball are only as good as the men up front.

"Your skill position players have to have those pieces in place," Levy said. "I don't care how good a coverage guy you are, if you're not getting heat on the passer it's tough because you can't cover forever. I don't care what kind of quarterback you are, if you're not getting the protection you're not going to be able to function. The generals aren't going to be great unless the soldier in the trenches isn't pretty darn effective creating opportunities for them to be successful."

Fortunately for the Bills, there will be plenty of talented big men in this draft.

Virginia offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson is the consensus choice as the best lineman in the draft and is expected to be a top-five pick. The 6-foot-6, 312-pounder is an exceptional athlete with good footwork and sound techniques. The next best offensive lineman is Southern California tackle Winston Justice, who played on the right side protecting the blind side of left-handed quarterback Matt Leinart. Auburn's Marcus McNeill, Miami's Eric Winston and Boston College's Jeremy Trueblood are rated a notch or two below Ferguson and Justice.

Williams is clearly the class of the defensive ends. The 6-7, 295-pound junior has the size, speed, athleticism and playmaking ability that have drawn comparisons to Carolina's Julius Peppers. Other top pass-rushing ends include Penn State's Tamba Hali, Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka and Virginia Tech's Darryl Tapp. LSU's Claude Wroten, Michigan's Gabe Watson and Florida State's Brodrick Bunkley are the top D-tackles behind Ngata.

"I think the offensive and defensive lines are very solid groups," said Tom Modrak, the Bills' assistant GM and head of college scouting. "My hope is once we set our board that some of the people we like are still there. Part of that is in the hands of the other people. How fast do they get pulled off the board? There's no way to know that right now. There are a lot of picks between our first one and by the time we come around for the second one. Typically, big guys come off the board fast."

The Bills could do worse than using the No. 8 pick on Ngata, a 6-foot-4, 338-pound man-child who tore up the Pac-10 Conference with his size, strength and mobility.

A prototype run stopper, the 22-year-old Ngata models himself after Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. Some scouts believe Ngata has the ability to equal and perhaps even surpass Hampton's success if his full potential is reached.

Ngata excelled in the 4-3 defense at Oregon, but he's used to being double-teamed and is being looked at as a nose tackle in the NFL.

"He's a big, powerful run stopper, which everybody likes," Modrak said. "He would be an excellent 3-4 nose and he would be good in a 4-3, where you can put him in a position to clog up the middle. And he's a good athlete. He's got good feet and moves well."

Ngata was born in Los Angeles and moved to Utah when he was 6. He passed up the opportunity to go to a bigger-name program to stay near his family on the West Coast.

He entered the starting lineup just five games into his freshman season of 2002 and was a first-team Freshman All-American. He missed the following season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He said he didn't regain full strength until about halfway through the 2004 campaign, in which he played in all 11 games.

Ngata was named Pac 10 co-defensive Player of the Year last season after recording 61 tackles (nine for loss), three sacks, five pass breakups, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble and a safety. He also was a standout on special teams, setting an Oregon record with seven blocked kicks during his career, including two last season.

"I'm quick and I have a lot of power up front," Ngata said. "I'm not bad at pass rushing. I have a lot of upside at rushing the passer. I'm quick, but I need to work on balancing the way I rush the passer."

Ngata left school a year early to take care of his ailing mother's medical bills. But Olga Ngata succumbed to kidney failure related to her diabetes in January. Ngata had already lost his father, Solomone, who was killed in a trucking accident three years ago.

A devout Mormon, Ngata has relied on his faith to help him deal with the tragedy in his life. But he's motivated to honor his parents' memory by having a successful NFL career.

"It's comforting to know that I am going to see them again," said the soft-spoken Ngata. "I love football and they loved watching me play. My dad and my mom are finally going to see me play together."

Ngata's focus is on supporting his four siblings (ages 18 to 26). He will have no problem with that because he is expected to be picked high in the draft, which would make him an instant multimillionaire.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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>Ngata at a glance

Player: Haloti Ngata

Pos.: Defensive Tackle

College: Oregon

Height: 6-4

Weight: 338

Fast facts: Cracked starting lineup five games into his freshman season (2002) and was a first-team Freshman All-American. . . . . Pac 10 co-defensive Player of the Year in 2005 after recording 61 tackles (nine for loss) and three sacks.

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