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In the Buffalo Bills' four previous drafts, fingers were always crossed that one or two of the rookies would make some sort of impact on the team's fortunes. It happened once, when wide receiver Lee Evans was last year's No. 1 selection and immediately scared opposing defensive coordinators. There was also a solid bump when Travis Henry was drafted.

But the Bills are beyond the need of an impact rookie. They enjoyed their first winning season of the Tom Donahoe era. In fact it was better than just 9-7 when you consider they won eight of their last 10 games.

The players they're drafting this weekend will be gravy if they contribute more than marginally this season. This is a team that has passed the desperate stage for talent. What they need now is solid improvement from their second- and third-year players.

J.P. Losman is the most inexperienced quarterback to start a season for Buffalo in 32 years. Considering all the talent around him, defensively as well as offensively, he doesn't have to fly out of the starting gate throwing passes all over the field.

The last Bills quarterback with such sketchy experience was Joe Ferguson as a rookie in 1973. He had a bullwhip for an arm, which he proved at the University of Arkansas, but Lou Saban was the coach back in '73 and he put handcuffs on Fergy. There was a good reason, Saban had O.J. Simpson. The Bills won only four games in 1972, but Simpson had arrived as a great pro runner. Buffalo upset George Allen's Over-the-Hill Gang in Washington on the final Sunday of the '72 season and O.J. won the NFL's ground-gaining title. Saban knew good days were ahead.

Fergy was allowed to throw just 164 passes in 1973, completing 73 and connecting for a mere four touchdowns. That was the year O.J. ran for 2,003 yards, breaking Jim Brown's NFL record. He averaged 6 yards a carry. His running mate, Jim Braxton, ran for 494 yards and a 4.6-yard average and backup Larry Watkins had 414 yards and a 4.2 average. The Bills didn't need to pass much. They won nine and lost five, although they didn't make the playoffs.

Coach Mike Mularkey isn't about to put Losman in handcuffs, but he has Willis McGahee and a more experienced offensive line. Not that Ferguson's line was shy of talent. Saban had two first-round draft choices and used both rookies to help generate the running game. Right guard Joe DeLamielleure went to the Hall of Fame and Paul Seymour was the best blocking tight end in Bills' history. Pulling guards were still in vogue in the early '70s and there were few better than left guard Reggie McKenzie, even though he had just one year's experience.

In their first game, against the Patriots in New England, the Bills rolled over their foes, 31-13, as Simpson ran for 250 yards. Buffalo won four of its first five games with the same sort of running attack.

Consider the first five games of the 2005 season: Houston at home, at Tampa Bay, Atlanta at home, at New Orleans and Miami at home. The Texans and Falcons had the best records against the run among those five in 2004, Houston finishing 13th in the NFL and Atlanta tied for eighth. But the Texans were 24th against the pass and the Falcons 22nd. Look for balance from the Bills in those games.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, was the No. 1 pass defense in the league last year, but just 19th against the run. The last two of the opening five, the Saints and Dolphins, were 30th and 31st, respectively, against the run. Miami had the No. 2 NFL pass defense but New Orleans was 27th against the pass.

I suspect that we'll see a great deal of running but also a lot of play-action passes from the Buffalo offense as Losman discovers his sea legs. There are three defenders who could produce breakout years. End Chris Kelsay is beginning his third season with the expectation that he'll add to his 4 1/2 -sack total of last year. Terrence McGee went to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner; now the hope is that his year of experience as an emergency replacement for Troy Vincent as a starting cornerback will make the secondary a bigger plus.

Tim Anderson barely played as a rookie, but all that's being asked of him is that he carry his end of the bargain as the co-replacement, with veteran Ron Edwards, for departed Pat Williams at defensive tackle.

Since he'll turn 34 in June, Vincent has so much experience he could team with Lawyer Milloy to create the best pairing of safeties ever for the Bills. After Vincent missed most of last season with injury, he returned to the lineup at the new position and looked as if he had played free safety forever. Who needs rookie impact?
Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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