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The Buffalo careers of some valuable veteran Bills players appear certain to come to an end on Thursday.

NFL teams have a week-long window in which they can cut players from Thursday through March 1 - in order to get under the league's salary cap for 2001.

So the waiver wires figure to be flooded by teams that are the farthest over the salary cap - including the Bills, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Dallas Cowboys.

Linebacker Sam Rogers, nose tackle Ted Washington and guard Joe Panos are three veterans who almost have to go due to the salary crunch. Every team's salary total must be at or below $67.4 million by March 2. The Bills entered the offseason an estimated $13.4 million over the cap. Cutting those three alone will trim $7.8 million from the Bills' cap total.

One position that won't take a hit on "Black Thursday" is quarterback. The Bills met with Rob Johnson on Tuesday to allow the new coaching staff to get acquainted with him. But the Bills revealed they will not announce their decision on whether they will keep Johnson or Doug Flutie until "the middle of next week."

Meanwhile, other veterans who are candidates for the chopping block include defensive end Phil Hansen, linebacker John Holecek, cornerback Ken Irvin and running back Antowain Smith. Each might be able to stay under contract if he agrees to take a significant salary cut.

Washington has been a cornerstone of the Bills' defense for the past six years and has made the Pro Bowl three of the past four years. But he is scheduled to count $7.4 million against the cap in 2001, and the Bills could save $2.34 million by releasing him. Rogers has started for six seasons and remains an outstanding performer. But he will count $6.3 million against the cap, and the Bills would save $3.4 million by releasing him. Panos' three seasons in Buffalo have been marred by injury. He would save the team $2.1 million.

Like Washington and Rogers, Hansen, Holecek and Irvin are still strong performers.

But the Bills' cap crunch is severe. They actually have to trim more than $13.4 million from their payroll. Eric Moulds' new contract added another $2.5 million to the 2001 total. Offers to some restricted free agents probably will add another $1 million. Then they eventually will need another $4 million of room to sign their draft choices.

So they need to lower the contract total of every older veteran on the team.

Holecek had another outstanding year in 2000, but he could be in jeopardy because the Bills are expected to play a lot of 4-3 defense this year. Irvin is a solid cornerback but the Bills could save $1.48 million by releasing him.

The Bills have asked Hansen, who will be 33 this year, to take a pay cut of more than $1 million. He's scheduled to earn $3 million this year, and he will count $4.6 million against the cap (because past bonus payments are spread out over the length of the contract for cap purposes).

So Hansen will have to decide if he can get more money elsewhere. Of course, the Bills are facing the likelihood of losing defensive end Marcellus Wiley to free agency. So the team has to decide if it really wants to risk losing a good defensive lineman like Hansen. That negotiation between the two sides could go right down to the March 1 deadline.

If the Bills are looking for smaller savings, they might turn to Smith (who would save $350,000) or long-snapper Ethan Albright. They would save $600,000 against the cap by cutting him.

Team President and General Manager Tom Donahoe and coach Gregg Williams are scheduled to be in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine workouts of college players from today through Monday. Their meeting with Johnson in Orchard Park followed a similar parley with Flutie the day before.

"I was really pleased with both quarterbacks in terms of their personality and their commitment in wanting to be here and wanting to be the guy around whom we can try to build an offense," Donahoe said.

CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS Teams farthest over the cap:
1. Jacksonville $33.8 million
2. Kansas City $32.0 million
3. Dallas $13.5 million
4. Buffalo $13.4 million
5. Minnesota $11.5 million
NOTE: Figures do not reflect recent restructuring of contracts.

Source: NFLPA and league sources.

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