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QBs can use sessions as springboard Bills to begin evaluating candidates next week

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Buffalo Bills will open their most fascinating spring practices ever next week.

Spring practice? Fascinating? Not for most teams. But the Bills have the most unsettled quarterback situation in the NFL. Starting candidates Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman and Craig Nall begin the process of sorting it out when the Bills convene for training sessions April 7-9.

Bills coach Dick Jauron has no doubt about the biggest challenge he faces in his new job.

"The one that confronts us right away and almost on a daily basis is the quarterback issue," Jauron said Tuesday during a coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings. "To be successful, we've got to solve that. We've got to find a quarterback who will perform at a high level, make plays and lead the team. I'm pretty certain that without that guy, you don't win a lot of games in our league. That's the No. 1 challenge for us. With the three guys we have, we're hoping that competition elevates all their play and somebody takes off, somebody in those three."

Jauron will get plenty of looks at his quarterbacks the next three months. All three got to Buffalo last week for offseason conditioning work. Next week's session is a voluntary minicamp for veterans. There will be another voluntary three-day session after the April 29-30 draft. Then there are 14 days of organized team activities scheduled from late May into mid-June. (Attendance will be mandatory three of those days.)

Since it's hard to give three quarterbacks equal work in training camp, spring ball will be an important part of the evaluation process.

"It's not like training camp and it's not like playing the game," Jauron said. "But we get to see them. We get to see them think, we get to see them in the huddle, get the feel for the team around them. It's still not the game. But it is important."

Jauron said he and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild might try to keep the practice repetitions for the QBs equal even when they get to training camp. He's not certain there will be a clear pecking order by June.

"Maybe not going in [at training camp], but soon thereafter," Jauron said. "At some time, the reps will have to shift. We'll have it figured out obviously before we even start our on-field work in the offseason. We'll see if we're going to change anything that any of us have ever done to give three guys a chance to compete."

Just like Bills General Manager Marv Levy, Jauron gave every indication the unheralded Nall is viewed at least every bit as highly by the team as Losman, the Bills' first-round draft pick in 2004. Nall, the free agent from Green Bay, was the top-rated QB in NFL Europe in 2003 and sat on the bench behind Brett Favre the past four years.

What does Jauron see in Nall?

"Experience for one thing," Jauron said. "He obviously doesn't have a lot of playing time. But when he's played, he's performed well. He has been accurate with the football. He's a good decision-maker. He's got experience. We're not teaching the guy how to play. All he has to do is transfer information. He should be able to step up and compete. He's got good size. I like his size, his height in the pocket. I like his demeanor. I like the way he handled himself in interviews. He's a very competitive guy. He believes he can be a starter and should be a starter."

Just as with Nall, spring practices start a pivotal offseason for Losman.

"We recognize his great ability," Jauron said. "Now we have to try to help him fit those abilities onto the field in the NFL and succeed and be consistent. He has to slow himself down a little and be accurate. We recognize that talent."

"He had to play a lot last year, and it was thrown on him early," Jauron said. "It was a difficult situation to be in for a young guy. So he's got a real chance. . . . He's got all that physical talent. He can run. He's got a strong arm. He's a smart guy. He's not afraid to work. He's got a lot of upside to him. We've got to give him a chance to get it out. Hopefully those other guys competing will force the hand a little bit and make them all better."

Meanwhile, Jauron said he's waiting to see how trade discussions between Eric Moulds' agents and other NFL teams develop.

"We're not necessarily in any big hurry," Jauron said. "We'd like it to get done in the right way, whether it's having Eric back with us or however it works out. . . . We understand Eric's unhappy and wants to move on. So his people are out working on that actively. We're trying to facilitate that if we can and if it's in our best interest."

Elsewhere, the Bills re-signed special teams standout and reserve receiver Sam Aiken. He was a restricted free agent, and the Bills had retained his rights earlier this month by making him a one-year qualifying contract offer.

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Cincinnati, Cleveland to visit in preseason

The Buffalo Bills will play host to AFC playoff contender Cincinnati and regional rival Cleveland in preseason games.

The NFL released its preseason schedule today, designating the weekends of all games but not the dates and times of most of them.

The Bills will play at Carolina the weekend of Aug. 10-14. They play Cincinnati at home Aug. 17-21. They face Cleveland at home Aug. 24-28. They play at Detroit between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2.

The league is expected to announce its full regular season schedule within the next two weeks. In addition to their AFC East opponents, the Bills will play Jacksonville, Tennessee, San Diego, Green Bay and Minnesota at home and Houston, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit on the road in 2006.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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