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Off Season Looks Promising
Expect Fewer Moves then last year.
by Steve Saslow

On the heels of a very exciting and unexpectedly successful season, the Bills head in to the off season with fewer holes to fill then in the recent past. With only five unrestricted free agents there won't be any major defections like there was last year with the loss of Bryce Paup and Jeff Burris. Don't expect too many big free agent signings from other teams either. When Doug Flutie's contract is re-negotiated the Bills will have at least $8 Million toward the salary cap on their two Quarterbacks which will effect their ability to make the big signings like they did last off season with Joe Panos and Sam Gash.

The first order of business this off season is deciding who to leave unprotected in the expansion draft. Don't expect returning LB Chris Spielman to be left on the list. The Bills organization thinks very highly of him and desperately want him back. He will be on the team next year and will most likely be back in his starting inside linebacker position. Since John Holecek is injury prone the Bills need as much depth as they can get at linebacker. There is always the possibility of moving Sam Cowart outside so both Spielman and Holecek can start. So if Spielman isn't on the list who will be? The leading candidates include WR Quinn Early who is no longer in the team's plans and commands a high salary. QB Alex Van Pelt and Guard Marcus Spriggs also should be on the list. Van Pelt is expendable with two solid players ahead of him at quarterback and Spriggs just hasn't developed. Newly signed LBWayne Simmons and DB Dwayne Porter are also possibilities.

The Bills should get out of the expansion draft relatively unscathed, the next step is too keep their own free agents which shouldn't be hard since there are only a handful of players that are eligible this year. The only important unrestricted free agents are Guard Joe Ostroski and DB Ken Irvin. Even though the Bills have developed some unexpected depth on the offensive line this year, they can't afford to lose the versatile Ostroski. He will cost them a pretty penny since offensive lineman are always at a premium. Irvin is also very important since he developed into a solid starter at a position that the club is relatively weak in, but he will too cost a good hunk of change. Expect the club to resign DBMarlon Kerner fairly cheaply since he's coming off two serious injuries, as well as long snapper Ethan Albright. Finally expect them to part with TE Lonnie Johnson if they haven't given up on him by now, I don't know what he has on the organization. They need to let him go and hopefully have some money left over to sign a solid veteran tight end on the market.

There are bigger restricted free agents than unrestricted ones. Manny Martin, Jay Riemersma, and Dusty Ziegler head that list. Expect the club to make good qualifying offers on all these players so they can keep other teams from going after them and having to part with high compensation draft picks. Defensive Backs Eric Smedley and Ray Jackson are also on the list and likely to return since the club needs depth in the secondary. Bill Conaty and Pat Williams will also remain with the club as exclusive rights free agents.

So the game plan is to re-sign most of this year's free agents which shouldn't be too hard since their aren't many of them. Looking at the long range plan, there are many more potential free agents after the 1999 season. That list is headed by SS Henry Jones, FS Kurt Schultz, CB Thomas Smith, QB Doug Flutie, WR Andre Reed, OG Ruben Brown, DE Phil Hansen, and OL Gabe Northern. This is a big deal, expect Butler to use this light off season on the free agent front to try and lock up many of next year's free agents to long term deals. If they don't do that, then next year may look promising, but the future may be bleak. This will be the last off season that gets a big salary cap jump from the television contracts so that extra money needs to be used on next year's free agents now.

When Flutie's contract is re-done and they take care of their own for the next two years, then there won't be much left to sign other team's free agents. This is all right since the team doesn't have that many holes and will already be bolstered by the return of Spielman and hopefully a healthy Kerner. They may try to use the draft to fill some holes and sign one or two key free agents to fill specific needs. I would hope they would try to sign a blocking tight end and a cornerback. This off season won't be filled with major news like last off season but it will be very important towards determining the long term health and success of the franchise.

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