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Buffalo Bills season preview

INTRODUCING...

The Bills have a different look this year. Gone from the Super Bowl teams from the early 90's are Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. Rob Johnson, acquired in a trade prior to the 1998 season, was anointed the starter at quarterback heading into camp for the second time in three seasons.

However, his hold on the position was solidified when Doug Flutie, who took over as the starter during the 1998 season and held the job until Week 16 of 1999, suffered a torn groin early in camp and will likely miss the first three games of the season.

ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL...

Defensive end Marcellus Wiley will have some big shoes to fill as he tries to replace Smith. Making matters even more difficult will be the fact that Wiley is recovering from July 8 surgery to repair a bulging disk.

NFL INSIDER POWER RATINGS

Ratings based on analysis of 1999 team and individual statistics, offseason personnel moves and feedback from respected experts Rushing offense: 8.7 Passing offense: 8.2 Rushing defense: 9.2 Passing defense: 9.2 Special teams: 7.2 Coaching: 9.4 Intangibles: 7.4 TOTAL: 59.3- Scale of 1-10; Perfect score=70

"The back is fine," Wiley said. "Now I just gotta turn it on upstairs and get all that right. I've been sitting on the sidelines too long. I gotta get it all in tune - the mind and the body."

So far, Wiley has been making a speedy recovery. Expected to miss all of training camp, the fourth year defensive end came back to practice on Aug. 7. He expects to play in the Bills final preseason game and to be ready for the regular-season opener.

IMPACT NEWCOMER...

Jerome McDaniel spent the 1999 season on the Bills' practice squad. This year, the wide receiver out of Arizona figures to be the third wide receiver when the Bills go to a three wide-out set. McDaniel spent the offseason in an intense conditioning program of Bills strength coach Rusty Jones. Thus far in camp, McDaniel has looked impressive.

DON'T OVERLOOK...

Rookie free agent Fred Jones could make the team at inside linebacker. Jones went undrafted after playing at the University of Colorado, where Bills' standout Sam Rogers also played. Jones has shown a nose for the ball and an ability to rush the quarterback from a three-point stance.

BREAKING THROUGH...

With Reed catching passes for the Denver Broncos this year, the Bills need a wide receiver to step up as Eric Moulds counterpart in the starting lineup. Peerless Price appears to be the answer. The second-year wide receiver from Tennessee was a favorite of Peyton Manning in college, then played a big role after Manning's departure in leading the Volunteers to the NCAA championship in 1998. In his rookie campaign, Price overcame a slow start to finish with 31 receptions. He will have the opportunity to improve upon those numbers this year.

BILLS AT A GLANCE

Head coach: Wade Phillips (third year with Bills, 21-13). 1999 record: 11-5 (2nd in AFC East) 1999 rankings:

Offense - 11th overall (333.3 yards/game), 8th run (127.5), 20th pass (205.8) Defense - 1st overall (252. 8 yards/game), 4th run (85.6), 1st pass (167.2).

KEY COMINGS

WR Kevin Drake (NFLEL)

KEY GOINGS

DE Dan Brandenberg FB Sam Gash (Ravens) WR Kamil Loud (Falcons) DL Sean Moran (Rams) WR Andre Reed (Broncos) S Kurt Schulz (Lions) DE Bruce Smith (Redskins) CB Thomas Smith (Bears) RB Thurman Thomas (Dolphins) WR Kevin Williams (49ers) OL Dusty Ziegler (Giants)

TOP DRAFT CHOICES

DE Erik Flowers (1st round) DB Travares Tillman (2) LB Corey Moore (3)

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING...

150-106. That's the combined record of the Bills' 2000 opponents last season. In terms of winning percentage, Buffalo will have the toughest schedule in the league for the 2000 season ... 4.2: Thurman Thomas' average yardage per rush last season. The next-closest on last year's Bills' roster was Antowain Smith, at 3.7 ... 100,000: That's how many fans turned out for Bills training camp at St. John's Fisher College this summer.

CAN'T MISS...

Sunday, Sept. 3, 8:35 p.m. Tennessee at Buffalo. Bills fans don't need to be reminded of what happened when these two teams met last year, as Buffalo seemingly had the AFC wild-card game won, only to see it all go down the tubes in the Music City Miracle. This time around the game is in Buffalo, and Bills fans will be seeking revenge.

Another prime-time matchup for the Bills will be on Dec. 11, when Buffalo travels to Indianapolis to take on the Colts on Monday Night Football. Last season, the Colts lost just three games all year, but one of those losses came in the final week of the regular season, when Johnson got the start and torched Indianapolis.

TO BE ANSWERED...

How will the Bills running game be without Thomas?

Shawn Bryson could be a nice complement to Antowain Smith in the Bills' backfield. The running back out of Tennessee made quite an impression on the Bills in 1999, but he was injured in the preseason and never played a down. This year, Bryson has been impressive in each of the Bills preseason games and should combine with Jonathan Linton to fill Thomas' shoes.

How will Johnson hold up?

Johnson has never made it through an entire season without getting injured, and the Bills will really be depending upon him now that Flutie will miss at least the first four games of the regular season. He has put good numbers when given the opportunity, and but has not proven to be the most durable quarterback.

Who's going to lead the team?

The Bills lost a lot of veteran leadership in the offseason. Linebacker Sam Cowart Sam Cowart will be asked to fill that role on and off the field, along with Phil Hansen. Tight end Jay Riemersma, Moulds, Johnson and Smith will have to do likewise on the offense.

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