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Early signs positive for D-line; Impressive core battle for few spots

The Buffalo Bills' coaches got a tantalizing early look at their overhauled defensive line the past month.

The improved quality of the defensive front was the most obvious development during the team's spring practices, which concluded Thursday.

"They're ready to go, and we're excited about it," said Bills running back Fred Jackson. "It's going to be fun to watch them compete through training camp and see what happens. ... You look at the second-team line, and they could start on a lot of different teams."

Asked his view of the defensive line depth, coach Chan Gailey said: "Extremely large as far as the depth goes. I mean the size is large, too, but the depth is (large). We have a lot of people there. That competition is going to be strong. That will be one of the things that we are really looking at hard during training camp."

It's apparent that Mario Williams is going to attract a lot of attention rushing from the left end position. Not a lot of right tackles can handle him, as second-year Bills tackle Chris Hairston found out throughout the 13 spring practices the past month.

Just as encouraging for the defense was the explosiveness shown by defensive end Mark Anderson, who worked with the first team at right end Thursday. Anderson and Chris Kelsay rotated with the starters throughout the spring.

In pass-rush situations, the Bills had a second-team line of Kelsay and Shawne Merriman at ends and Spencer Johnson and Alex Carrington at tackles. Merriman was a handful for the backup tackles and came through spring work fully healthy.

"I haven't had a real offseason in about three years, and this is the first time I was actually able to go out and work out every day and practice every day," Merriman said. "I just feel really good right now. .... I know it's going to be a question for a long time, but I've been working every day. ... I'm just going to keep working and keep progressing."

Of course, it's hard to draw too many conclusions about physical play along the line with the players in practice shirts and shorts. Anderson, who had 10 sacks for New England last year, stressed the physical work will get done in training camp.

"It is still early to me," Anderson said. "We still have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot of different assignments and stuff to learn. It is looking good. Everything is looking on the upside of things, but we still have a long way to go."

With that in mind, here are some other observations from the Bills' spring practices, seven of which media members were allowed to watch in their entirety:

*Dogfight at WR: The battle is not just for No. 2 wideeout, but for who will join Stevie Johnson and David Nelson in the three- and four-receiver sets. Physical and sure-handed Donald Jones had a good spring. He can play in the slot, and he's pretty good on the boundary, too. Marcus Easley showed promise. He caught the ball well and stayed healthy. Derek Hagan saw time with the first-unit as well on the outside. He's pushing for a spot. Speedy David Clowney will have to catch some downfield throws in preseason to make the squad. Rookie T.J. Graham got a lot of snaps with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB in four-wide sets. He's not as strong or as strong-handed as Lee Evans was as a rookie in 2004. But Evans was exceptional and was the 13th overall pick. Overall, Graham caught the ball pretty well. And when he gets in the open field: Zoom.

"Everyone else has a lot more negative things to say about our receiving corps than I do," Gailey said. "I have a lot of confidence in our receiving corps and what we will be able to do. Having people that have been out there, been in the games and been on the same page with Fitz really is going to pay dividends for us, I believe. T.J. Graham struggled because he has just not been in the system. He just needs to learn the system. He has a lot of talent."

*QB Security? We'll see in training camp and preseason how much security the Bills have behind Fitzpatrick. Tyler Thigpen worked as the No. 2 most of the spring, with Vince Young as No. 3. The 6-foot-5 Young has the big physical edge on Thigpen and is the favorite to win the job. He has the stronger arm. Thigpen will need to have a big camp and preseason. Young is still learning the offense. Don't expect him to run it smoothly early in camp.

"He has done a very good job considering the circumstances," Gailey said of Young. "He had to come in and try to learn all of that stuff. It is very difficult. It would not have been as hard two years ago, but we are in so much more of an advanced stage now than we were two years ago. He is trying to learn what the base concepts are and how we have advanced to where we are today without the benefit of going through the baby steps. It has been tough on him but he has got a natural feel for playing the position."

*Gilmore is physical. First-round draft pick Stephon Gilmore took every snap with the first string and showed a lot more physicalness at the line than one normally sees from a rookie. Expect Gilmore to start opposite Terrence McGee. But with Terrence McGee rehabilitating from knee surgery, Aaron Williams manned the other outside spot. Leodis McKelvin had an improved spring over last year and worked on the slot with the starting nickel unit. At full strength in the nickel, it's McGee on the slot and Gilmore and Williams on the outside - for now. Justin Rogers will push for slot-corner duty as well.

*The tackles are young. It's silly to draw conclusions about the offensive line before they put on pads. Starting right tackle Erik Pears sat out all spring after offseason surgery. That enabled second-round pick Cordy Glenn to take all the snaps at left tackle with the starters, while Chris Hairston worked at right tackle. Rookie Zebrie Sanders was the second-team left tackle and got an education from Merriman. The Bills will have to be patient with these young tackles. They will have their ups and downs during the summer.

*Random views: This is stating the obvious, but Jackson and C.J. Spiller are two of the most impressive-looking players at every Bills practice. ... Young Dorin Dickerson, one of Dave Wannstedt's top recruits at Pitt, has a legitimate chance to make the team as an H-back. .... Rookie Nigel Bradham got quality time with veterans at strong-side linebacker. He's going to be a top LB backup if he keeps his play up. .... The Bills weren't lying when they said their linebacker spots are interchangeable. They rotated their linebackers at a dizzying pace throughout the spring.