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John Hagy is confident he can start for the Buffalo Bills this year.

If only he could get the Bills to express the same feeling in the form of a contract.

As one of 10 conditional veteran free agents on the team, the 24-year-old free safety is attempting to negotiate a new agreement he believes is commensurate with first-string status.

He has demanded his 1989 base salary of $75,000 be increased to around $225,000-$250,000. The Bills emphatically have said no.

"I didn't send them numbers so we could dicker back and forth," Hagy said this week by telephone from his off-season home in Austin, Texas. "I sent them the numbers I really wanted, cut and dried. Otherwise, I wasn't going to play this year."

He might very well be looking at a long holdout, because the Bills' position appears unalterable. They see great promise in Hagy, but have no intention of boosting his salary until he proves he should start instead of Mark Kelso.

As far as the Bills are concerned, 13 regular-season games as a backup in his two-year career don't justify a $150,000-plus pay raise.

"He can sit," Bills General Manager Bill Polian said flatly.

It is known the Bills have high hopes for another reserve safety, Tim Smiley, who spent last season on their developmental squad. They might consider turning to him for depth should Hagy not play.

Besides Hagy, the Bills have yet to sign nine other conditional veteran free agents -- offensive tackle Will Wolford, cornerback Kirby Jackson, strong safety Dwight Drane, linebacker Carlton Bailey, fullbacks Larry Kinnebrew and Jamie Mueller, and tight ends Pete Metzelaars, Keith McKeller and Butch Rolle.

"In all cases, we're talking, although we're not getting very far," Polian said. "But the pressure of training camp (which opens July 27) tends to get those things done."

After joining the Bills as an eighth-round draft pick from Texas in 1988, Hagy played four games, mostly on special teams, before suffering a knee injury that required reconstructive sur
gery. He missed the rest of his rookie year and the first seven regular-season games in '89.

His highlights last year included breaking up a fourth-down pass to kill Cincinnati's hope for a comeback in the Bills' 24-7 victory over the Bengals, and registering a quarterback hurry in Buffalo's 33-24 loss to New England.

"You can't win a starting spot in the middle of the season, but once I got back out there, I thought I had a pretty productive season," Hagy said. "It's hard to say things about yourself without coming off as being cocky or arrogant, and I don't want to do that. But if you don't believe in yourself, why should anybody else? I just feel I have the talent and the ability to be a starter on our team.

"I know what I can do, and I think the Bills know what I can do, too. It has been indicated to me that they feel I can become the starter this year. They haven't guaranteed me anything. But the opportunity's there for me, and I feel I can take advantage of it. That's what I'm there for."

Hagy said his contract proposal to the Bills was structured so he would be paid a certain amount as a starter and less if he remained a backup.

"If I do not become the starter, I will not even get close to a starting contract," he said. "And if I become a starter, I won't even make what the average starter on our team makes; I'll make well below it, but I will make better money than a backup. The contract I've offered protects them, as well as me.

"I feel that some big things are going to happen to me, and I want to get this done so I can be in camp on time. I need to get all of the practice reps (repetitions) in, and get ready to go.

"They know where to find me."

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