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Bills are on edge about rush; Gailey seeking DE but may take an OT

Chan Gailey acknowledges the obvious. The Buffalo Bills need to find more pass rushers this offseason. He also does not rule out offensive tackle as a key need.

The Bills have two months to decide whether they will go in one of those directions when they pick 10th in the NFL Draft on April 26. Gailey and Bills staff members began their up-close evaluation of draft prospects Thursday when the NFL Scouting Combine began at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Pass rusher is the Bills' most glaring need, at least before the free-agent shopping season begins March 13.

Asked to assess the team's edge rushing, Gailey said: "Lacking. There's no other way to say it. If you take away one game, we did not have a very good year of rushing the passer, and that's probably saying it the nicest way I can say it. We have got to be able to get more pressure on the passer."

The Bills finished 27th in sacks per pass attempt last season. Take away their 10-sack game against Washington and they were last in the league. Gailey acknowledged providing new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt with more pass-rush talent -- either in free agency or the draft or both -- is a top priority.

"I go back to what Dave said, we've got to get better winning one on ones," Gailey said. "That's going to create better pass rush [rather] than some fancy scheme that comes out of nowhere. There's only certain ways to rush the passer. If somebody can beat a block, that's the key. It's what the Giants do. It's what the Jets do. They've got all this funky stuff, but their guys beat somebody, too."

Gailey acknowledged that, coming off a 6-10 season, the Bills are not necessarily set at a lot of positions -- outside of maybe running back and center. There is room for more security at left tackle. Chris Hairston, a rookie in 2011, is presently at the top of the depth chart at left tackle. Demetrius Bell is due to be a free agent. The Bills would like to re-sign Bell, if they can.

"I think Chris played good not great," Gailey said. "I think that he has the chance to be very good before it's over with. I don't know if he'll get there. But I think he has a chance to. He's got some work to do. Demetrius -- the key for him is to stay healthy. That's the key for a guy like that. He certainly has the quickness and the speed to play over there, do that job.

"But I don't know if we're good enough to say we can discount very many positions right now. I guess I'm saying if there's a great one sitting there (at tackle), you really have to discuss that. It's not like that position is so firm and settled that you wouldn't have that discussion. If there was a center sitting there you wouldn't have that discussion."

Top draft prospects at pass rusher include North Carolina's Quinton Coples and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw. Top draft prospects at offensive tackle include Southern California's Ryan Kalil, Iowa's Riley Reiff, Stanford's Jonathan Martin and Ohio State's Mike Adams.

Gailey thinks the Bills' shift to a 4-3 defense from the 3-4 scheme gives them more flexibility in finding edge rushers. They could accommodate a good pass rusher, whether he's 280, 260 or 245 pounds. Outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense need to be able to drop into coverage some of the time.

"I do think it's getting harder and harder to find outside backers that fit in the 3-4," Gailey said. "That might be something else to consider. You'd like to say somebody can adjust on the move, but not everybody can. So I'm thinking it might be a little bit easier.

"The one thing I do believe is -- the 3-4 outside backer and the 4-3 defensive end have two main responsibilities. Set the edge in the run game, keep a hard corner, so if the ball goes outside it has to bounce deep, or it cuts back to the pursuit. And then rush the passer. So really their responsibility is not drastically different. In the 3-4 you ask guys to drop, whereas in the 4-3 you don't ask them to drop as much. I think you can focus in on what you need and what their job is and who they are a little bit easier in the four-man front sometimes."

The Bills were hoping their top edge rusher last season would be Shawne Merriman. But his season was ruined after six games due to an Achilles tendon injury that required surgery. Injuries have spoiled the last four seasons for Merriman. Gailey was conservative about predicting a return to Pro Bowl form for the veteran.

"I don't know," Gailey said. "I mean, the setback was not good. Now how far does he have to go? I don't even know how far back he is, and I don't know how far he has to go. I don't know where those two ends are. He got hurt again. So now we're back to square one or below square one maybe."

Gailey said Merriman will get the chance to prove he can come back.

"Yeah. The key is for us to get him healthy. Let's get him healthy and let's see what he can do," he said.

If he can come back, the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Merriman will not play outside linebacker in the 4-3 scheme.

"I'd rather him not. I think we'd rather him be a right defensive end rushing the passer all the time."

Nick Barnett is the weak-side outside linebacker in the 4-3 scheme. Kelvin Sheppard is the middle linebacker. With Chris Kelsay moving back to his natural position, defensive end, that leaves a hole at strong-side linebacker.

Re-signing veteran free-agent Kirk Morrison is one possibility.

"Sam (linebacker) is gonna be the one area where we're just waiting to see," Gailey said. "Kirk Morrison? Maybe, if he comes back. (Arthur) Moats. Maybe some of those guys (younger incumbents) can do it. I don't know. Maybe the guy's on the team already, maybe he's not."

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com