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In the past few years, the arrival of the NFL's free-agency period has brought considerable anxiety to the Buffalo Bills, worrying that some of their key players would be lured elsewhere by massive dollars.

Things should be different this time around.

A midseason analysis of the Bills' roster shows that the contracts of 13 players are due to expire at the end of the year. However, of that total, only four have the necessary experience -- four or more seasons -- to become unrestricted free agents, meaning they could sign with any team without the Bills having the right to match or receive draft-pick compensation.

The rest are restricted, which leaves little or no chance of them signing with another club unless the Bills choose not to retain them.

The four players due to become unrestricted free agents are quarterback Jim Kelly, punter Chris Mohr, and wide receivers Steve Tasker and Russell Copeland. At this point, the Bills' chances of losing any in the open market -- other than by design -- appear fairly slim.

Due to some aggressive offseason work by general manager John Butler, the Bills greatly diminished the prospect of being heavily raided once the free-agency signing period begins on Feb. 15. Butler extended the contracts of three players who would have become unrestricted free agents at the end of this season and likely drawn a great deal of attention in the open market -- defensive end Phil Hansen, cornerback Thomas Smith, and free safety Kurt Schulz.

"It took a fortune of money by Mr. (Ralph) Wilson, but we were able to get it done," Butler said. "You have outstanding young talent, and you want to keep the continuity together. That's one of the keys to maintaining success in this league."

Running back Thurman Thomas also was eliminated from the open market by agreeing to a contract extension last March, although the fact he turns 31 in May would have probably made him less attractive to other teams. Despite frequent public griping about his contract since the preseason, defensive end Bruce Smith still has one season left beyond this year, after agreeing to an extension in 1995.

Butler said he did not anticipate extending the contracts of Kelly, Tasker, Copeland, or Mohr before the end of the season.

On Aug. 2, Kelly, unhappy with the results of preseason extension talks, had a much-publicized meeting with Wilson. Kelly said the owner promised to take care of him, which the quarterback took to mean that his average salary of $3.2 million would be boosted to the $5- to $6-million range of Miami's Dan Marino and Denver's John Elway.

Although he has never addressed the subject publicly, Wilson's understanding of the meeting is known to be different. As far as the owner is concerned, his only promise is that he would do the best he could for Kelly after the season, which doesn't necessarily mean a $2 million or more pay raise.

Kelly's age (he turns 37 in February) and struggles through most of his five starts also figure to impact any negotiations he might have with the Bills or any other team after the season. And if Kelly should end up having a phenomenal second half of the season and suddenly increase his league-wide stock, the Bills could always make him their "franchise" player.

"That's something I don't even have on my mind right now," Kelly said of his contract. "My mind's on getting back on track, offensively and personally, and winning some football games.

"I've always wanted to remain a Buffalo Bill and retire a Buffalo Bill. I'm very happy here and I would like to end my career here."

Tasker, who turns 35 in April, has missed almost all of the first seven games of the season with a sprained foot he suffered in the season-opener against the New York Giants. He is due to return to action Sunday night against New England.

Tasker, whose current agreement pays him an average of $733,300 per year, said he isn't concerned that his injury will adversely affect his leverage at the bargaining table.

"They know that injuries are going to happen and that this injury could have kept a 22-year-old out the same amount of time," Tasker said. "Plus, the amount I'm playing doesn't really bother me so much as how I play when I'm out there. I think that's what they look at, too.

"It's been my experience from watching other guys and even with myself, if you do what you can do whenever you can do it and make the most of your opportunities, this club will take care of you. But I'm not even really thinking about my contract. I'm thinking about the season and where this team can go. There's a lot of football to be played and we're right in the thick of it.

"Jim's in kind of the same boat I am. Not a great first half of the season, but then, too, it's really not so much about the road there, it's the destination. And if we end up with the kind of year we hope we do, they're going to forget pretty quick about the first eight games."

Mohr, who is one of the NFL's top-paid punters with an average salary of $654,000, admitted that his preoccupation with his upcoming free agency was a distraction that hampered his performance early in the season. He said he has since made an effort not to think about it too much, which has helped him to kick much better.

"It's a mental thing that you really have to try to block out," Mohr said. "But it's always on your mind."

Copeland, who signed a one-year contract last year for $362,000, has been strictly a utility player this year. He has seen minimal action as a receiver, catching only three passes in six games. While Tasker was injured, he became the Bills' primary punt returner and did a solid job.

"I'm just laying back," Copeland said. "Whatever situation they put me in, I'm just trying to make the best of it."
Inactive for the Bills Sunday night will be wide receivers Justin Armour and Chris Brantley, tight end Jay Riemersma and free safety Mike Salmon.

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