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BILLS THROUGH SHOPPING FREE AGENT MARKET

The Buffalo Bills' decision-makers will keep a collective eye and ear on the NFL free agency market, but for all practical purposes, they have made the extent of their major offseason moves.

The last came Wednesday when the Bills re-signed unrestricted free agent Henry Jones to a five-year contract that, at least temporarily, makes him the highest-paid safety in the league. The deal is worth $12.238 million, paying him an average of $2.45 million per season, and includes a signing bonus of $3 million.

It is another sign of the aggressive attitude the Bills have taken into the offseason. After two consecutive years of major losses in free agency, the Bills began fighting back last month. First they made linebacker Cornelius Bennett an untouchable franchise player. After that, they signed pass-rush specialist Jim Jeffcoat from Dallas, nose tackle Ted Washington from Denver and linebacker Bryce Paup, one of the more coveted players in the free agent market, from Green Bay.

"I don't foresee us doing anything else major, unless the unknown comes about," general manager John Butler said. "We're not in pursuit of anything, but we're listening at all times.

"With the draft coming up (April 22-23), that's where we're spending most of our time right now."

The Bills have also spent most of the money they have under the NFL's updated salary cap of $37.1 million per team, a $500,000 increase over the original estimates for this season. They have about $1.9 million remaining, which is enough to cover the 10 picks they have in the draft, some smaller-scale re-signings and acquire a few lower-level and rookie free agents while having a little left over for injuries.

Jones is the third free agent to return to the Bills. Defensive lineman Mark Pike and quarterback Rick Strom are the others.

Also on Wednesday, cornerback Jerome Henderson became the fifth unrestricted free agent to leave Buffalo when he signed with Philadelphia. The others: linebacker Marvcus Patton, tight end Pete Metzelaars, cornerback Mickey Washington and defensive lineman Oliver Barnett. Linebacker Keith Goganious, a restricted free agent, was taken by Jacksonville in the expansion draft.

Of the Bills' nine remaining unrestricted free agents, only three -- Bennett, fullback Carwell Gardner and defensive back Mike Dumas -- seem likely to return. At the very least, Bennett must agree to a one-year contract for $2.8-plus million, the average salary of the top five players at his position, or he can sit out the season.

Question marks linger with the rest of Buffalo's unrestricted free agents -- linebacker Darryl Talley, quarterback Frank Reich, wide receiver Don Beebe, defensive lineman Mike Lodish, running back Kenneth Davis and long-snapper Adam Lingner. The ones who don't sign elsewhere might very well not receive an offer to return to the Bills.

Earlier this week, Talley, who has yet to receive a contract offer, visited the Detroit Lions. Reich, who has been seeking a starting job, has also yet to get a nibble in the free agent market.

Jones, who earned an average of $652,000 in his previous contract, has moved ahead of Stanley Richard -- who received a $2.1 million-per-year deal when he moved from San Diego to Washington -- to become the NFL's top-paid safety.

However, by the start of the 1995 season, at least three other free agent safeties are expected to move ahead of Jones -- Eric Turner of Cleveland, Carnell Lake of Pittsburgh and Steve Atwater of Denver.

"Henry's contract recognizes what he has done as a top-level football player," Butler said. "He is probably the premier cover safety in the league. Henry affords you that ability to cover slots and he has that man-to-man coverage ability.

"I think we all know what he's like with the ball in his hands. He's an exciting football player, he's a smart player, a student of the game, a person who conditions himself very well. And as the senior member of that secondary, he gives you that leadership back there."

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