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It must have been quite a scene inside the Buffalo Bills' war room during the 1998 NFL draft.

Without a No. 1 pick, the Bills watched helplessly as one highly touted player after another was plucked off the board. When their turn finally came around in the second round, they could hardly believe their good fortune.

Today, the Bills are still pinching themselves that Sam Cowart fell right into their laps.

"Sam Cowart. One of my favorite subjects," said defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell with a wide smile. "I think it's safe to say we're glad to have him."

The Bills may be happy to have the former All-America linebacker from Florida State, but they didn't know for sure whether Cowart had the pro game to match his lofty collegiate reputation.

They do now.

Cowart had a sensational rookie season. He finished second on the team with 119 tackles, including 72 solo hits. He added two interceptions and another 15 tackles on special teams.

And if you thought last season was good, the Bills are predicting bigger and better things this year.

"I told people this before," Cottrell said. "I think Sam can be an All-Pro this year if he stays healthy and progresses the way I think he can."

Such expectations are nothing new to Cowart. Remember, he comes from Florida State, where anything less than a national championship is considered a disappointment.

"I know there is a lot expected out of me," Cowart said. "After a 100-plus tackle season, it's imperative that I play better. You never want to go backward. It will be a challenge, but there's no doubt in my mind that this season will be even better."

Bills coach Wade Phillips thought the team had a special talent when Cowart was drafted. After a review of the season, Phillips' beliefs were confirmed.

"Like a lot of guys, you hoped that he would be a good player," Phillips said. "I don't know if he exceeded our expectations, but I don't know if you could say there were many guys picked ahead of him that were better than he was."

There might have been better rookies, but how many impacted a team so much it changed its scheme to accommodate him?

Entering the '98 season, the Bills were wedded to a 4-3 defensive alignment, with John Holecek at middle linebacker and Sam Rogers and Gabe Northern on the outside. But it became obvious to the coaching staff the best 11 players weren't on the field.

Midway through the season, the Bills were back to the 3-4 with Cowart starting at inside linebacker next to Holecek.

"We went back to the 3-4 and did it better than in the past because of Sam Cowart," Phillips said. "We didn't give up 100 yards rushing in the last seven (regular-season) games, and he had a lot to do with that."

Cowart started 12 games overall, including the last eight in the regular season and the Bills' lone playoff contest. He made 10 or more tackles five times, topped by a season-high 14 in a Nov. 8 meeting against the New York Jets.

"You could tell in his first training camp that he had something special," Cottrell said. "Sam has excellent speed, great instincts and a real nose for the football. The main thing Sam has and what all great athletes have is great vision. He sees things so quickly and then reacts quicker than most athletes at his position."

Cowart is always quick to say he isn't surprised by the immediate impact he made. As for the teams who passed on him in the draft, well, it's their loss.

"It used to bother me that I didn't go in the first round, but I'm over it," Cowart said. "I think I proved that I was one of the best rookies in the league last year, and I'm happy with that.

"But I'm not satisfied. There's some things I can still work on, like being more consistent. Last year, it was OK to make a mistake here or there because I was young and learning the system. But now that I feel I know the system, making mistakes will not be acceptable. Nobody plays a mistake-free ballgame, but my goal is to strive for perfection every time I step on the field."

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