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STAR SEARCH <br> After 11 consecutive non-playoff seasons, the Bills have a chance to return to a great bygone era. Will they choose a gunslinger like Cam Newton of a behemoth like Marcell Dareus?

The Buffalo Bills hope to add some desperately needed greatness to their team today.

Greatness and the Bills have been mutually exclusive terms for a long time. The franchise is on a streak of 11 straight nonplayoff seasons and six straight losing seasons. The Bills have no marquee players. The television networks want nothing to do with them.

For the second straight season, the Bills are not scheduled to play a single prime-time game in 2011.

They need some star power, and they can get it with the third overall pick in the NFL draft, which starts at 8 p.m. (ESPN, NFL Network). Presuming they do not trade down, which is unlikely, it will be the highest the Bills have drafted since they took Hall of Famer Bruce Smith No. 1 overall in 1985.

The Bills' likeliest options: Pick a "Bruce-sized" behemoth to help their perennially weak defense or draft a franchise quarterback to fill the void left by Jim Kelly 15 years ago.

"It obviously is extremely important, and certainly where we're picking, we've got to hit it on the nose," said Tom Modrak, Bills vice president of college scouting. "There's no way around it."

The Carolina Panthers own the No. 1 pick, and the favorite to go first is 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton. He led Auburn University to the national championship last season, won the Heisman Trophy as the top collegiate player and produced a phenomenal 50 touchdowns -- 30 passing and 20 rushing. If Carolina pulls a surprise and does not take Newton, the Bills probably will jump on him. Denver, with the No. 2 pick, is expected to draft for defense.

The top two big defenders in the draft are Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus and Texas A&M pass rusher Von Miller.

If Denver takes Miller, Dareus looks perfect for Buffalo. He's 6-foot-3, 319 pounds. He helped Alabama win the national title in the 2009 season. The Bills ranked last in the NFL in run defense last year and have been in the bottom 11 in stopping the run six straight years.

"He's pretty much as advertised," Modrak said. "He has the ability to play the run, and he can push the [passing] pocket. In his situation, everybody sees the glamour sacks and edge rushes, but guys on the inside create sacks. He'll create them if he doesn't get them."

Miller, 6-2 1/4 and 245 pounds, is a speed-rushing linebacker who led the nation in sacks in 2009 with 17 and followed up with 10 1/4 last season, even though he battled an ankle injury early in the year.

What if Denver takes Dareus? And when are the Bills ever going to find a quarterback to lead them back to the playoffs?

The QB question has weighed on the minds of Bills General Manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey. Both have said since Buffalo's 4-12 season ended in January that the franchise cannot afford to pass up an elite quarterback if he's available.

"We gotta look at the big picture," Nix said. "Our goal is to win the Super Bowl. We're not looking to make a splash the first six weeks of the season. We're trying to see down the road. And that's hard to do sometimes. If there's a quarterback there, and I've said this time and again, that might be an eight- or 10-year guy, that can be a consistent winner, and we'd be a threat every time we hit the field because of him -- you've got to seriously consider him."

Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert are the top two quarterbacks in the draft, the only ones worthy of going in the top 10 picks. Both are leaving college a year early. Both have more question marks entering the pros than some top QBs of the past, like Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and San Diego's Philip Rivers. Nevertheless, both are phenomenal physical specimens.

The Bills were encouraged with the play of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2010. Despite a shaky supporting cast, he ranked 13th in the league in touchdown passes and 22nd in passing yards. He's under contract through 2011. His presence means a rookie QB would not have to start right away.

"If you wait until you absolutely don't have a quarterback to draft one, it's probably too late," Nix said. "There's a good chance you might ruin him if you throw him in the mix [too soon]. Normally, people drafting this high are bad teams. If you throw him out there and they gotta start, you can damage a quarterback where he doesn't ever get his confidence back. That's what you need to avoid."

Comments like those lead fans to believe the Bills would love to take a quarterback this year.

The Bills have the second pick in the second round, the 34th choice overall. There's a chance they could get a quarterback there, and the best option might be Florida State's Christian Ponder. He was recruited out of high school by Gailey, when the Bills coach was at Georgia Tech.

"Christian might be the most -- and it's just my opinion -- he might be the most NFL-ready of the bunch," Nix said. "He played four years, he's a smart guy, he came from a pro-style offense where he's had to do the reads, and he's had to make the throws. He's also a mobile guy. Ponder's got a lot of things going for him."

The Bills' pick should be known by about 8:30 tonight. The second and third rounds will be held Friday, starting at 6 p.m. The draft concludes with rounds 4 to 7, starting at noon Saturday.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com