AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) -- Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix has dropped enough hints over the past six months. It's easy to determine which key position he intends to address in the NFL draft this week.
It's quarterback, of course.
Nix first mentioned the need to draft and develop a QB in November, when the Bills were bumbling toward their eighth consecutive losing season. Very little has since changed, with the team in the midst of another start-from-scratch rebuilding plan.
And it makes no difference to Nix that this year's crop of prospects is filled with question marks.
"I've said this from Day 1, this quarterback class is better than everybody thinks it is," Nix said last week. "I've said this from the start that two or three of these guys will be franchise quarterbacks. I believe that."
The only questions are whether the Bills will select a quarterback with their first pick, eighth overall, and who they're targeting. Among those often linked to Buffalo are West Virginia's Geno Smith, Southern California's Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib, who played under Bills rookie coach Doug Marrone at Syracuse.
Nix is keeping his options open. He won't rule out trading Buffalo's first pick to add additional high selections. He's also suggested being prepared to go off the team's draft chart to select a quarterback earlier than Bills scouts might have him rated.
"If you like a quarterback, and like him in the third round," Nix said in December, "then you had better take him in the second."
The Bills' offseason focus has been so quarterback-centric that of the 30 draft-eligible prospects they brought in to Buffalo, nine were quarterbacks. All totaled, the team's brass has met with and worked out at least 10 quarterback prospects -- many of them twice (Barkley, Smith, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Florida State's E.J. Manuel and Tennessee's Tyler Bray).
"The intangibles are so important, and they're so hard to figure out," Nix said when it comes to ranking quarterbacks. "You have to dig and dig to find out how they really are."
Of course, the Bills have numerous holes to fill on a ragtag roster that NFL.com rated as the league's fourth weakest last month.
The Bills lack an established receiver opposite Stevie Johnson. They have questions at linebacker, particularly with the defense reverting to a 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Mike Pettine. There's a need at cornerback and a big hole to fill at left guard after Buffalo lost Andy Levitre to free agency.
Those needs, however, are regarded as secondary for a team that can pin many of its past troubles on a revolving door at quarterback during a 13-year playoff drought -- the NFL's longest active streak. It's been an unsettled position since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired following the 1996 season, and it's one of the main reasons the Bills are now on their fifth coach and fourth general manager in 12 years.
Ryan Fitzpatrick was the latest in failing to secure the job. He was cut last month to free up salary and after two-plus inconsistent seasons as the starter.
The Bills have since signed six-year veteran Kevin Kolb to a two-year contract, but he's regarded as a stopgap to allow a younger candidate time to develop.
Nix made it clear that Kolb's addition doesn't change the team's approach to the draft.
"It doesn't, but it makes me sleep a little better at night," he said, noting how Kolb at least provides insurance. "You never know what's going to happen in the draft. You can do all the planning you want to do, but it's still a crapshoot some."
This draft will be the first since Russ Brandon was promoted to team president on Jan. 1, a move that gives him full authority over the entire operation. Calling the franchise's reputation "tarnished," Brandon is intent on ushering in a new era.
It began with the firing of Chan Gailey and replacing him with Marrone, a move that's open to scrutiny.
Though Brandon vowed to leave "no stone unturned" and go to the "end of the earth" in finding a new coach, the Bills interviewed five candidates over five days in a search that wound up going as far as Syracuse.
It's an important draft, too, for Nix, whose long-term future is uncertain in Buffalo. The Bills are already grooming his successor, assistant GM Doug Whaley.
At 73, Nix has said several times he has no intention of stepping down until the team has a franchise quarterback in place. Having failed to do so in his first three seasons, Nix is starting to run out of opportunities.
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