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BILLS' NO. 1 BACK? MAY THE BEST MAN WIN

Antowain Smith, gone. Jonathan Linton, see ya.

Recent releases have clarified the Buffalo Bills' running back situation. The position is now set with Sammy Morris, Shawn Bryson and Travis Henry. The only remaining question is: Who will be the No. 1 guy?

This should make for a very interesting competition when training camp begins next month.

"That's going to be a fun battle to see in training camp," Bills coach Gregg Williams said during minicamp last week. "Competition makes us all better, so I think this position will be much stronger because of that."

Morris seems to have gotten the most snaps with the first-team offense in minicamp, but Bryson and Henry have gotten plenty as well.

All of them have been impressive, but no one is making predictions on who will emerge as the team's primary ball carrier.

"I think it's still a work in progress," said Morris, a 2000 fifth-round draft pick who became a starter last year before being slowed by an ankle injury.

"We just have to go out there, work hard and see what happens," added Bryson, the Bills' leading rusher last season.

Henry, the first of the Bills' second-round picks, put the competition in the simplest terms: "The best man will start."

It might be well into training camp and maybe all the preseason games before the pecking order is established. But Williams doesn't mind if it takes longer than that.

"I hope that I can't make that decision until Thanksgiving," he said. "I hope they're all playing so well that I've got to find places to play all of them. Right now, it looks like that's the way it's going to be with the kind of attitudes and competitiveness that every one of those guys have."

If Morris, Bryson or Henry don't stand out from the rest, could the Bills find themselves in another running back-by-committee situation? That system wasn't very successful last season. By shuttling players into the lineup, the Bills' rushing attack never established a rhythm.

But the West Coast offense is different. Teams like San Francisco and Green Bay used multiple backs with great success.

"I think Denver has shown it doesn't matter who the running back is," said Bills offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard, who was hired to implement the West Coast attack. "Olandis Gary does a great job when Terrell Davis goes out. Mike Anderson comes in and does a great job for them.

"I think it's just a matter of getting quality people and players that are smart guys that understand what you're trying to do. Does one guy have to be the guy? I don't think so."

Morris, Bryson and Henry do provide the Bills' offense with multiple options.

As he did last year as a rookie, Morris continues to show good instincts and a knack for making plays. Bryson, the Bills' leading rusher last season, is the prototype big back (6-foot-1 and 233 pounds) with excellent speed and hands. Henry is a compact but powerfully built player who runs with exceptional vision and balance.

"They're as good as any three guys that I've played with throughout my career," said all-star fullback Larry Centers, who is expected to be another threat out of the backfield. "They have qualities that are very exciting. I think they can be game-breakers, each and every one of them. Hopefully, I can complement what they are already doing."

The running back competition has the rest of the team looking forward to training camp as well.

"We have a lot of talent at the position," quarterback Rob Johnson said. "All three guys are very good and should be able to contribute to the offense."

Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown said the offensive line's goal is to give Morris, Bryson and Henry every opportunity to showcase their skills.

"The most important thing is our coaches are committed to running the ball more than six times per game," said Brown, taking a swipe at former offensive coordinator Joe Pendry and his sporadic use of the running game. "That's what wins games in this league and that's what makes championship teams. We're dedicated to that and we have some running backs that we feel comfortable with. You give any guy enough opportunities, they will succeed."
The Bills announced the signing of offensive tackle Robert Hicks and safety Tony Driver. In accordance with club policy, terms were not disclosed.

Hicks, a restricted free agent, has accepted his tender offer from the team. Hicks is entering his fourth season with the team. He initially joined the Bills as a third-round draft pick in 1998 and has appeared in 38 games and made 23 starts at tackle in his first three seasons.

A sixth-round selection out of Notre Dame, Driver was taken with the 178th overall selection in 2001. In four seasons with the Irish, he played in 41 games and earned 18 starts. A native of Louisville, Driver played both running back and safety at Notre Dame and also returned kickoffs.

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