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For nearly two weeks, they have been throwing passes in the fairly relaxed confines of Fredonia State College.

Now it is time for the Buffalo Bills' quarterbacks to begin the true competitive phase of their battle for the starting job.

Tonight's preseason opener against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium won't provide any definitive answers to the many burning questions surrounding the Bills. But it will provide a long-awaited first look at how their quarterback picture shapes up in the post-Jim Kelly era.

Todd Collins, who entered training camp No. 1 on the depth chart, has been the most impressive passer at Fredonia. As tonight's starter, he should be put to a pretty stiff test early on against the Broncos' vaunted first-string pass rush, which could generate some significant pressure against the Bills' reconstructed offensive line.

Collins and Buffalo's other quarterbacks will also work with a limited version of the new offense of new coordinator Dan Henning in order to show regular-season opponents as little as possible.

"Everyone wants to look good whenever they go out there and play," Collins said. "But I'm not going to get carried away one way or the other. I just want to go out there, just like I do in practice. I'll critique myself with coach Henning and see how I went through my reads and how I performed.

"It's mostly exciting just to go out there and play somebody else other than your teammates. You kind of get bored seeing the same guys every day in practice."

Collins is expected to play about a quarter before giving way to Billy Joe Hobert, who has not looked particularly sharp in camp and gives himself only a "below-average" grade for his performance thus far.

But Hobert, making his first appearance in a Bills uniform after four seasons with the Oakland Raiders, is quick to point out that he performs better in games than in practice.

"The fact of the matter is that I'm more focused during a game than I am during training camp," Hobert said. "I'm looking forward to getting my 15 or 20 plays, however long they have me in there. But with five preseason games, there's a lot of time to get better."

Coach Marv Levy plans to use his other two quarterbacks, Alex Van Pelt and Jim Ballard, in the second half, although neither is expected to have a legitimate chance to compete for the starting job.

"I feel I know the offense well enough to be the starter and do the things that this team needs," Hobert said. "Whether or not coach Levy sees it that way, you'll have to ask him come Aug. 31 (when the Bills open the regular season against Minnesota)."

Another key focus area for the Bills tonight is their offensive line. Dusty Zeigler, who has been tabbed to replace retired Kent Hull at center, will start and probably see a good deal of action, along with new starting right tackle Corey Louchiey. Rookie free agent Bill Conaty has moved into the No. 2 center spot in place of Jerry Ostroski, who is primarily working behind Glenn Parker at right guard.

"What we have seen from the young man, we like," Levy said of Zeigler. "He's a good learner, he's making good (line) calls in there, and seems to be picking things up. Now he's got to translate it into games."

All eyes will also be on rookie running back Antowain Smith, the Bills' first-round draft pick. With Thurman Thomas sidelined by bruised ribs, Smith is expected to receive a healthy number of carries, even though incumbent No. 2 back Darick Holmes is expected to start in Thomas' place.

"It's just a great opportunity to get out there and showcase my talents," said Smith, who has looked good running and catching the ball in camp drills.

As usual for the Bills' first preseason game, there will be considerable shuffling of bodies on both sides of the ball. Established players such as Andre Reed, Quinn Early, Bryce Paup, Chris Spielman, Ted Washington and Phil Hansen will see minimal work. The night will generally belong to rookie offensive linemen such as Jamie Nails and Marcus Spriggs, and rookie defensive linemen such as Marcellus Wiley, Doug Brown and Pat Williams.

"Our top priorities in preseason games are evaluating personnel and sharpening execution," Levy said. "Playing five preseason games will help us with these objectives.

"We want to sharpen our execution so the players who are going to make the team have to play enough, but they don't have to play more than enough. I think it is a little bit less (playing time) than many other coaches feel comfortable with."

The Broncos are widely viewed as the team to beat in the AFC and the most likely opponent to face Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII.

When last seen, they were suffering a bitterly disappointing divisional-round playoff loss to Jacksonville, which had stunned Buffalo in the wild-card round a week earlier. Since then, the Broncos have changed their logo and uniforms, but have generally remained intact.

They enter the season with the makings of a highly talented and balanced offense. Fifteen-year quarterback John Elway, who is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, is expected to play sparingly tonight, as is star running back Terrell Davis.

A major question surrounding their offense is left tackle, which was vacated by the retirement of Gary Zimmerman. Tony Jones, acquired in a trade with Baltimore, makes his debut tonight in Zimmerman's place, while free-agent Harry Swayne is competing with Jamie Brown for the starting spot at right tackle.

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