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BILLS FOCUS SHOPPING LIST ON DEFENSE AND RECEIVERS

The Buffalo Bills have needs.

Perhaps the needs aren't as crying as they were last year, when the wish list included a quarterback, an offensive lineman and a new lease.

But the team's decision-makers know that the dramatic improvement from 1997 to 1998 probably will not continue in 1999 unless they address some key areas.

The priorities heading into the free-agent signing period, which begins Feb. 12, and the April 17-18 draft are cornerback, defensive line, tight end and wide receiver.

"I think we need something at most positions," coach Wade Phillips said. "I don't think you can say you don't need anything. We're not that strong at every position where you couldn't use a player."

The Bills certainly are stronger at quarterback, going from Todd Collins to the combination of Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson. And their offensive line, with the addition of Joe Panos and the emergence of second-year man Jamie Nails, went from a disaster to a strength.

To continue moving in the right direction, the Bills will eventually explore the free agent market, but first want to re-sign their two most prominent unrestricted free agents -- offensive tackle Jerry Ostroski and cornerback Ken Irvin. Plus, they need to make roster moves to get under the NFL's salary cap.

Since it is unknown which players on other teams are truly headed for free agency, most of the Bills' needs will be addressed through the draft. They pick 22nd in the first round.

"The draft certainly is important, and it's going to be a key factor no matter what," said Phillips, who has spent the past two weeks evaluating participants in the East West and Senior Bowl college all-star games. "As far as free agency, we'll just have to see where we are and what we have to give up to (make the cap room to) get something."

The Bills discovered just how thin they are in the secondary when their best cornerback, Thomas Smith, suffered a sprained knee Dec. 13 against Oakland. The injury underscored the problems created by the free-agent loss of Jeff Burris and season-ending knee injury that his successor, Marlon Kerner, suffered in the opening game in San Diego.

Smith should fully recover, but there is no guarantee that Kerner will come back from his second major knee injury in less than two seasons. And the Bills are not at all comfortable with relying on Donovan Greer, the practice-squad player pushed into the starting lineup, or Ray Jackson.

"That's an area that we certainly need to look at," Phillips said. "And it's corner more than safety just because of coverage abilities and matchups and people putting five wide receivers in."

Buffalo's defensive line took a major hit late in the season when left end Phil Hansen suffered a sprained knee. Although second-year man Marcellus Wiley was an admirable replacement and finished with four sacks, Hansen's absence was felt, especially in the wild-card playoff loss in Miami.

With right end Bruce Smith closing in on age 36 and his 15th NFL season, the Bills' line is in obvious need of an injection of youth. Smith made his 11th Pro Bowl, but his play clearly slipped in 1998.

Pro Bowl nose tackle Ted Washington remains the anchor of the front three and is the primary reason the Bills have one of the stronger run defenses in the league.

But the Bills want to upgrade their inside pass rush on third down, something they don't get with enough consistency from Washington or anyone else.

Reserve nose man Pat Williams showed impressive flashes last season. However, Sean Moran, the tackle who was supposed to have been the key component of the Bills' four-man front, was never the same after undergoing major knee surgery after the 1997 season. Shawn Price did an OK job as a reserve, but was nothing special.

"Defensive line strength is something you always need," Phillips said. "To be dominant defensively, you have to have dominant people. When I first got here (in 1995), we only had three guys up front. We've got a lot more possibilities now along with the three guys we still have, but I think an inside pass rusher is something we need to be looking for."

The Bills' pass rush hasn't been the same since last year's free-agent departure of outside linebacker Bryce Paup. The team had 46 sacks in '97, three more than in 1998. Smith had 14 sacks in '97, four more than last season.

"We were pretty dominant when we had Bryce, Bruce, Phil and (Jim) Jeffcoat," Phillips said. "I thought we were at our strongest that we've been with that group, and I would like to get to that point again somehow.

"I think the guys we have are going to get better. Certainly Wiley has got a chance to blossom into a really good player next year, more of a dominant player. Although he played really well, I think this may be his year. Hopefully, it's his 'Moulds' year."

The reference was to wide receiver Eric Moulds, who enjoyed a breakthrough season in '98, breaking Andre Reed's long-standing, single-season record for receiving yards and earning a spot in the Pro Bowl.

The Bills' need for a tight end couldn't be much more obvious. The team finished last season with only two tight ends on the active roster -- Lonnie Johnson and Jay Riemersma. And with Johnson due to become an unrestricted free agent -- and the Bills unlikely to make a strong effort to re-sign him -- the only tight ends they will have in the fold are Riemersma and Jerry Ross, who spent the year on their practice squad.

Riemersma emerged as a strong receiver last season, especially in the end zone, although his blocking still left something to be desired. The Bills would like to find a blocking tight end, something they thought they had when they signed Duane Young, who wound up seeing little action before being waived during the season.

Phillips said it was unrealistic to expect the Bills -- or any team, for that matter -- to find a tight end who excels at catching the ball and blocking.

"The problem with tight end is if you can get a guy who can really block, then he's not a great receiver, and if you get a guy that's a good receiver, he's not a good blocker," the coach said. "If you get a guy who does both, you've got a Hall-of-Famer . . . and that guy isn't there.

"Maybe (New England's) Ben Coates, but some people question what kind of blocker he is."

The Bills would love to add a speedy game-breaker to a receiving corps that has Reed, about to turn 35, and Quinn Early, who will be 34 in April and is unlikely to be retained at a $2-million-plus-per-year salary. They hope Kamil Loud, a rookie in '98 who had some nice moments in the wild card game, can make a significant contribution. If not, they will need to add a newcomer.

"You always want skill guys because those guys can score for you," Phillips said. "We've got hopes for Kamil. He played well in that last game. He looked really smooth on film. But I think we need to add depth and/or quality."

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