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It is safe to conclude that the Buffalo Bills wasted their playoff-caliber defense this year with an offense barely fit for the preseason.

The question is, how much of a window of opportunity do the Bills have left to take advantage of their defensive strength?

Strong safety Henry Jones, for one, thinks the window could be fairly wide open depending on how well the Bills keep the defense intact through the NFL's upcoming free-agency period.

Nine Bills players are due to become unrestricted free agents in mid-February, meaning they can sign with any of the league's 29 other teams without Buffalo receiving draft-pick compensation.

Of those nine, four are defensive starters -- nose tackle Ted Washington, cornerback Jeff Burris, and linebackers Bryce Paup and Sam Rogers.

"If the people who are in charge, who make those decisions, decide to keep our defense together, I think we've got a good two or three years (of quality defense left)," Jones said. "I think we've got some big decisions in the offseason to make in the front office because we have a lot of free agents coming up on the defensive side of the ball."

"It'll be hard for them to keep everybody and hard for them to make up their minds on who to keep," Paup said.

Besides Washington, Burris, Paup, and Rogers, other Bills due to become unrestricted free agents are starting tight end Lonnie Johnson and No. 1 right offensive guard Corbin Lacina, along with three backups -- special-teamer Mark Pike, linebacker Mark Maddox and nose tackle Shawn Price.

The one no-brainer on the list of "keepers" is the 6-foot-4, 360-pound Washington.

Washington was, by far, the most valuable player in the Bills' dismal season, which ends today in Green Bay. He has been a primary factor in their defensive success through all of the three seasons since he joined the team as an unrestricted free agent from Denver. In the last two years, Washington has established himself as the most dominant nose man in the NFL, and finally received long overdue recognition this month when he was selected to his first Pro Bowl.

There is no doubt that the Bills view retaining Washington as their highest offseason priority. An attempt to extend his contract was made last spring, but the Bills balked at a proposal by Washington's agent, Angelo Wright, to increase his client's average salary of $1.1 million to between $3.5 million and $4 million.

That will probably look like a bargain compared to what Washington could command in the open market. It is estimated that on a long-term contract, he would be offered a bonus of between $4 million and $5 million, and a base salary of between $2 million and $3 million in the first year.

"Somebody's going to pay," Washington said. "I'm not worried about where (he will play next season). If I had the choice, I'd rather be here.

"But if they don't want to kick out what I'm worth, I'll just go elsewhere."

Not so fast.

The Bills always have the option of designating Washington their franchise player, which means they are assured of keeping him under contract for one more year at the average of the top five salaries at his position. Estimates put that figure at $3.8 million to $4 million.

Although Washington says he does not want the franchise tag -- which could cost him anywhere from $2 million to $4 million in 1998 -- the Bills seem to be leaning in that direction, particularly if they follow through on plans to aggressively shop for help at quarterback and on the offensive line.

"You've got to have a middle stopper like Ted," Paup said. "As long as he's here, why not keep him here? To me, the outside people are more expendable than the inside, because it's harder to find a guy like Ted. You can get young guys at linebacker or whatever other position there is. You can almost get by with those people.

"But you have to have that guy in the middle."

A distant second on the priority list figures to be Burris, who is solid in coverage and a good punt-returner.

Nagging groin-muscle problems have helped render Paup far less effective in the last two years than he was in his first season with Buffalo, 1995, when he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. The Bills' switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense this season also reduced his impact as a pass-rusher, and highlighted some of his vulnerability in pass coverage.

Still, Paup has 9 1/2 sacks, most among the league's outside linebackers, and was named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth year in a row. His first came with Green Bay in 1994, after which he joined the Bills as an unrestricted free agent.

Paup -- who signed a three-year deal worth $7.6 million in '95 (including a $3.3-million signing bonus) -- is likely to again draw heavy interest in the open market. But there is strong speculation the Bills won't bid as strongly to keep him as they did to get him.

Paup, who is completing his eighth NFL season and turns 30 in February, figures his odds of returning are diminished because his contract was not extended.

"I've heard, in the past, if you want to keep your team together, you almost have to sign some of the guys before the end of the season," he said. "It didn't happen that way in Green Bay. They never came and talked to me, and they didn't match what I had offered (from the Bills).

"I'd like to stay here, but if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. It's a good organization. They paid me well, they treated me well. What else can you ask for? With the guys they've got here, I wouldn't mind staying, but that's kind of out of my hands."

The Bills figure to have an easier time keeping their other outside linebacker, Rogers, who has had a solid season but isn't likely to be a hot commodity.

"I definitely want to be here, but it's all up to them," Rogers said. "I'm trying to show that I want to be here by working hard every day in practice, working hard these last couple of days, even though the game doesn't mean anything."

"Definitely, we're playing for jobs," said Lonnie Johnson, whose disappointing career makes him unlikely to be re-signed. "And if you feel your job is in jeopardy, you need to use these last games to make yourself more marketable."

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