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BILLS MAY END UP WITH OVERWEIGHT MYSTERY MAN FROM MISSISSIPPI

If the reports around Draft Central are accurate, the Bills are about to use their first-round draft choice on a player who is overweight, underexperienced, out of shape and a mystery to a lot of other teams.

His name is Tim Bowens and he started just seven games and played a portion of two others during his lone season of big-time college football. Bowens had a year left at the University of Mississippi, but it would have been a struggle to keep him eligible.

The funny thing is that drafting Bowens may a stroke of brilliance for the Bills.

"When I went to work him out," says a scout for a rival NFL team, "Bowens was huffing and puffing. If you could get him in shape, though, he could be another Eric Swann."

A defensive line coach for an NFC team salivates over Bowens: "He needs work, polish and development. But if that happened and he gets down to his playing weight, he could be special. In fact he could be a great player."

"For the Bills, it could be a wise selection, considering all the extra picks they have in the next two rounds," says the scout.

The logic is that the Bills, drafting 27th, aren't going to get an impact player. The chances of their trading up are slim, since teams with better draft choices to barter than Buffalo's were having difficulty making moves as the draft edged toward zero hour.

So the wisest thing Buffalo to do is select players who can help in specialty roles now, but who may be more valuable in 1995.

If they do draft Bowens, he would be placed in the hands of Rusty Jones, the team's highly regarded strength coach who is skilled at transforming the Pillsbury Doughboy into a hard body. Bowens' ideal playing weight is around 315 pounds. He stands 6-4 1/2 , about the size of the Rams' Sean Gilbert, now an NFC defensive force.

Bowens is a big, strong Mississippi farm boy who wasn't even allowed to practice with the Ole Miss team until a few days before opening day of the 1993 college season due to some questions about his eligibility after he transferred from a junior college. It took him half the season to catch up and he was further handicapped by a badly-sprained ankle. Once he got into the lineup, he was dominant. He was credited with 53 tackles, six sacks, five tackles for losses on running plays, six quarterback pressures and an interception.

Despite his eligibility problems, Bowens scored relatively high on the intelligence test given to prospective NFL draftees. He has quick feet and is such a good athlete that Ole Miss used him as a tight end and sometimes at offensive tackle in goal-line situations.

Bowens declared for the draft just before the annual scouts' meat market, the physical appraisal week in Indianapolis. That week a heavy snowstorm prevented him from reaching Indy to be appraised. That, plus his lack of experience, gave many NFL teams just sketchy reports on him.

The Bills, as usual, went the extra mile in checking him out. Drafting so low, they had more interest in him then most teams.

The comparison to Swann is significant. The Bills were ready to draft Swann in the first round in 1991, even though the huge defensive lineman never played college football. The Cardinals beat them to it, selecting him with the sixth pick of the first round.

In two years, Swann was a starter and now he is a star.

The Bills, in their situation, are willing to take a player who can produce on special teams for a season with the possibility of contributing heavily later. That's how they approached wide receiver Russell Copeland a year ago.

The Bills need a young tight end, so it would not be a shock to see them use one of their second-round selections on Lonnie Johnson of Florida State, even though he was ignored in his team's pass offense the last two years because quarterback Charlie Ward had so many wide receivers and running backs to whom he could throw.

Johnson was more of a pass-receiving factor as a sophomore, which the Bills make note of, along with the fact the Seminoles use an offensive style similar to Buffalo's. He is also a skilled special teams player.

The Bills' brass also warmly admires Kevin Mitchell of Syracuse, who is too small to play nose tackle, his college position. Buffalo would be willing to have him cover kicks for a year while he learned a new position.

Jason Sehorn of Southern California, like Bowens a big talent with sketchy experience, is a second-round possibility for Buffalo. Sehorn was a starting corner for USC last year, but he does a bit of everything. He played just one year of baseball in high school, but the Cubs drafted him and he played two years in their minor-league organization. He played just one year of football in high school, but he became one of the best wide receivers in junior college. He soared 48 feet, 1 inch as a triple jumper. At 6-2 and 210 pounds, he would probably be a free safety for the Bills, which is where he played his first season at USC.

Supposedly there no longer are sleepers in the draft. Try these:

A.J. Odofile, Missouri tight end -- He's a year away. If he had stuck around for his senior season he might have been a first-round pick. He's Pete Metzelaars' size, has speed and caught 55 passes last season. If the Bills miss out on Lonnie Johnson, Odofile may be their new tight end.

James Folston, Northeast Louisiana linebacker -- Pass rush is his game. He weighs 243 and he can fly. He had 27 sacks in the last three seasons and was credited with 47 quarterback pressures last year. The Bills admire him.

Max Lane, Navy offensive tackle -- No longer has a five-year service commitment since he accepted the honorable discharge he was offered in the wake of the Annapolis cheating scandal. He was cleared in the first investigation, but he declined to undergo the hassle of another. He's 6-6 and 295 pounds and he has pass-blocking skills.

Toby Wright, Nebraska safety -- Teammate John Reece is ranked higher by scouts because of his speed, but Wright is one of the nation's top hitters. He is at his best in the big games. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

Gabe Wilkins, Gardner-Webb defensive end -- Played a low level of college football, but he's 6-5, 295 pounds and he can fly after a quarterback. He needs at least a year of development.

Anthony Phillips, Texas A&M-Kingsville defensive back -- Not a sleeper to the pros. He'll probably go in the second round because he is 6-2, 217, with quickness. His school, formerly Texas A&I, sent many players to the NFL, including all-pro corner Darrell Green of the Redskins. Phillips is a thunderous hitter who plays well in big games. He had four interceptions in Division II playoff appearances. He also averaged 38 yards on a dozen kickoff returns.

Willie Clark, Notre Dame athlete -- Lou Holtz loved this guy, but he couldn't decide whether he was a running back or a defensive back. Clark started a handful of games at three different positions. A college sprinter, Clark would be a developmental project, but he's worth a stab in the later rounds.

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