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Bills counting on rookie TE Nelson to catch on

The mild spring weather might have been the only thing that surprised tight end Shawn Nelson when he arrived in Buffalo for the start of the Bills' rookie minicamp this week.

``I thought that it would be snowing when I got off the plane,'' said Nelson, who's from Gonzales, La., and played college at Southern Miss.

Give it time, because the snow will come soon enough. And when it does start falling, usually by November, the Bills are hoping Nelson will be playing a role in a revamped passing attack, which also features Terrell Owens.

Though few fourth-round draft picks are counted upon to make big impacts during their rookie seasons, the Bills are making an exception for Nelson. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Nelson is regarded as a player who has the size, speed and pass-catching ability to fill an immediate hole after the Bills released veteran starter Robert Royal in February.

Nelson was a four-year starter in college, where he averaged 500 yards receiving a season and scored 16 career touchdowns, tied for third among Conference USA tight ends.

Bills scout Shawn Heinlen said shortly after Nelson was selected with the 121st pick that he's ``an extremely athletic tight end who can help right away.''

And Nelson is eager to meet that objective.

I also expect that of myself. I don't want to come in and sit on the bench,'' he said.I've come here to compete and work hard and try to get a starting role.''

Two days into a three-day minicamp, Nelson hasn't provided the Bills much reason to think differently, showing glimpses of many of the strengths touted in pre-draft scouting reports.

He's fast off the line - sometimes too fast, after jumping the snap count two straight times on Saturday - and able to get up the field in hurry with an effortless stride.

Nelson's also got solid hands and a great knack for adjusting to errant throws. Several times on Friday, Nelson was able to reach back and down to snag low passes without missing a step. On Saturday, he ran an out pattern to his right and reached back for a pass thrown behind him to make a one-handed catch while keeping both feet inbounds.

That's one of the reasons the Bills got him, offensive coordinator Turk Schonert said.

He's a good athlete,'' Schonert said.We think he's going to be a tough matchup for linebackers and safeties.''

The only knock against Nelson is a need to add strength and improve his blocking to go up against NFL defenders. That's no different from most tight ends coming out of college, and Schonert noted that Nelson at least showed an ability and desire to block at Southern Miss.

The will to block is there,'' Schonert said.He just has to learn how.''

Nelson will be given every opportunity to compete for a regular job on a team that currently has four tight ends on its depth chart and only two - Derek Schouman and Derek Fine - with any NFL playing experience. The Bills haven't had much consistent production out of their tight end position since Jay Riemersma's departure following the 2002 season.

Nelson benefited during his senior season, when Southern Miss brought in a new coaching staff that introduced a more pass-happy attack. The change in philosophy led to Nelson's getting more involved in the passing game and setting career highs with 53 catches and 557 yards receiving last year.

It also helped that Nelson's new position coach was Kris Mangum, who spent 10 years playing tight end for the Carolina Panthers.

Nelson credited Mangum with helping him become better prepared to play at the NFL level.

First and foremost, it was the first time having a coach that actually played tight end,'' Nelson said.I learned more from him than any of my coaches throughout my college career.''

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