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SMERLAS CAN'T HELP BUT WONDER IF HE IS STILL IN THE BILLS' PICTURE? VETERAN TACKLE DOESN'T WANT TO BE 'SURPRISED' BY TRADE

Two months before his 11th training camp with the Buffalo Bills, Fred Smerlas figures he's entitled to know whether he has a future on the team beyond the preseason.

"After all these years, I don't want to be surprised," the Bills' nose tackle said. "That's not that much to ask, is it? I mean, after all these years, I don't need that."

The kind of surprise Smerlas is concerned about is being traded. Speculation to that effect began early last month, and there has been little cause to put it to rest.

Smerlas tried recently to get a concrete answer on the subject from General Manager Bill Polian.

He came away with no clearer picture than he had before their hour-long session.

"Bill was just very vague," Smerlas said. "He wasn't definite on anything. No one can tell me if I'm going to be here or not.

"They always say something could happen."

The one thing the team's brain trust is expected to consider this summer is having second-year man Jeff Wright, who turns 26 in June, replace the 32-year-old Smerlas as a starter.

From a business standpoint, it would be difficult for the Bills to justify having Smerlas and his $650,000 salary on the bench while Wright, who is due to make $82,500 this year, starts. Most observers believe it would make far better sense for them to swap Smerlas for a player who could help them elsewhere -- such as a speedy wide receiver with experience.

Two weeks ago, during the Bills' minicamp at Rich Stadium, Smerlas inquired about his first-string status with head coach Marv Levy. He was told, "Right now, you're our starting nose tackle."

"Right now" wasn't good enough for Smerlas; he wanted to hear that, barring injury, he would be the No. 1 man at the position for the entire season.

Levy wasn't about to go that far.

"Every player would like to have lead-pipe assurances. I can't do that," the coach said. "Later, something happens competitively and you've misled the guy. I just tried to tell him we have great regard for how he played, for the leadership qualities he has given us.

"Right now, he's our starter. We're not saying he's on the bubble or that type of thing. I told him at the end of last year I'm not always looking at chronological age, I'm looking at performance."

On his 1988 performance, Smerlas built a strong case to remain the Bills' regular starting nose tackle for a 10th consecutive season. He played as well and as enthusiastically as he did at any other point in his career. And, while much of that may have resulted from being surrounded by some of the more talented defensive
players the Bills ever have had, Smerlas' output was recognized by enough opposing offensive linemen for him to be voted to his fifth Pro Bowl appearance.

He made one of last year's bigger plays when he blocked a 40-yard Pat Leahy field-goal attempt to force the extra period in the Bills' 9-6 overtime victory against the New York Jets for the AFC Eastern Division championship.

At 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, Smerlas has a distinct size advantage over the 6-2, 270-pound Wright. But Wright is quicker, and a better inside pass-rusher. Despite limited playing time at nose tackle last season, he had five sacks to Smerlas' four.

Still, Smerlas doesn't believe there is any comparison.

"I'm better than he is, and I'm in top shape," Smerlas said. "My results speak for themselves. I don't think there's any question about it."

Wright insists he hasn't paid much attention to talk of his unseating Smerlas, "because I know you have to prove it on the field; that's where it happens."

However, Wright added, "I want to be someone who contributes to the games. I don't want to be on the sidelines. That's not me. That's not my role.

"I'm not the size of a lot of the other nose tackles. I'm not 300 pounds. But I can do things people 300 pounds can't do; I can run, they can't."

As far as Smerlas is concerned, the Bills are running away from questions about his future.

"I want to know whether I'm going to be here or not," he said. "I don't want to have to pack my bags halfway through camp.

"My wife (Kris) and I were thinking of making a move to Buffalo (from their off-season home in Waltham, Mass.). But you can't do it if, halfway through the preseason, I'm going to go somewhere else."

Draftee out of hospital

Defensive back Michael Andrews, the Bills' fifth-round draft pick, no longer is being hospitalized for the excessively high blood pressure he was found to have at minicamp earlier this month. Doctors still are awaiting test results to determine a cause.

Andrews will be examined again in July. He isn't expected to be offered a contract until the Bills' medical staff gives him clearance to play football.

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