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Bills slap franchise tag on Clements March 17 is deadline for extension

INDIANAPOLIS -- Now that the Buffalo Bills have placed the franchise tag on cornerback Nate Clements, they face the difficult task of signing him to a long-term contract.

The Bills have until March 17 to sign Clements to an extension and not lose their franchise designation for the life of the contract. If a deal isn't struck by then, negotiations will likely be put off until July 15, a scenario that also would allow the Bills to avoid losing their franchise designation for the contract's duration.

It's possible the Bills and Clements can reach an agreement by March 17, but it won't be easy given Clements' desire to be one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. That distinction currently belongs to Denver's Champ Bailey, who received an $18 million signing bonus as part of his seven-year, $63 million deal in 2004.

If a long-term contract can't be worked out in the next three weeks, franchising Clements was the next-best thing the Bills could do to keep him for at least another year.

The franchise designation comes as no surprise. It essentially keeps Clements off the open market when free agency begins on March 3.

As a franchise player, Clements is guaranteed a one-year contract worth $5.89 million, which is the average of the top 10 salaried cornerbacks in the NFL. That's a reasonable price to pay for a starting cornerback of Clements' caliber.

Using the franchise tag not only locks Clements up for next season, it also buys the Bills time to try and work out a long-term deal.

"We consider Nate a valuable member of our defense and believe he will play an important role in re-establishing our defense as one of the toughest units in the league," Bills General Manager Marv Levy said in a statement released by the team. "At the same time, we remain optimistic that we will be able to work out a long-term deal with Nate in the foreseeable future."

Neither Clements nor his agent, Todd France, was available to comment. France is expected to be in Indianapolis this week for the NFL scouting combine.

Clements, the Bills' first-round draft pick in 2001, is coming off a season in which he struggled at times in pass coverage and had only two interceptions.

However, he finished third on the team with 127 tackles and his 20 career interceptions and team-record six return touchdowns (four on interceptions, two on punts) are proof of his playmaking ability. Clements also has been remarkably durable, starting 72 consecutive games since moving into the lineup as a rookie.

There are other good cornerbacks on the free agent market (New York Jets' Ty Law, Oakland's Charles Woodson and Pittsburgh's Deshea Townsend), but Clements, 26, would have been the most attractive player at the position because of his youth, talent and long-range potential.

The Bills had no choice but to franchise him if they had any hope of retaining his services.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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