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The Buffalo Bills have begun negotiations for a long-term contract with quarterback Rob Johnson.

General manager John Butler and Johnson's agent, Leigh Steinberg, met here Monday during the NFL's annual meetings to discuss an extension of Johnson's deal, which is due to expire after the 1998 season. After that, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Johnson, whom the Bills acquired from Jacksonville last month for first- and fourth-round draft picks, is scheduled to earn $400,000 this year. On a long-term package, Steinberg likely will seek a salary commensurate with the top-paid quarterbacks in the league, about $5 million or $6 million per season, including a signing bonus of $8 million or $10 million.

"We'd like to work something out with Leigh for Rob for long-term so we can solidify something, especially with these players going from here to there and so forth," Bills owner Ralph Wilson said.

"We're certainly amenable to securing a long-term future for Rob in Buffalo," Steinberg said. "That is his place. That is where he'll hopefully have a 10-, 12-year run. Rob's excited to be there, they're excited to have him, so there's a lot of good will.

"If the position is, 'Let's see how Rob does, and then do the contract,'
that's fine. If the position is, 'We traded for him, we project that this is where he'll be and we want to do a long-term contract,' that's fine, too."

Both sides stressed they are in the preliminary stages of negotiations. However, Steinberg said he intended to have more meetings with Butler before leaving Orlando at midweek, and did not rule out the possibility of reaching an agreement before he departs.

Although Johnson has made only one career start, Wilson said he would like to extend the quarterback's contract before the start of the '98 season.

At the time of the trade with Jacksonville, there was speculation the Bills might want to wait until after Johnson played several regular-season games before offering him a substantial pay increase.

However, the Bills have a strong conviction that Johnson can be the next franchise quarterback to follow in the cleat prints of Jim Kelly. They also know that they have one of the most coveted players in the league.

Wilson said that on Sunday night, when the NFL meetings began, a general manager for another team approached Butler with an eye-popping offer to trade for Johnson. Wilson would not name the team. But there was speculation among league observers that it was the San Diego Chargers, who recently gave up their third overall pick and 1999 first-rounder as part of a trade to move into Arizona's No. 2 slot for a chance to select one of the nation's two premier college QBs -- Tennessee's Peyton Manning or Washington State's Ryan Leaf.

It was also speculated the Chargers were willing to give Buffalo the second overall pick for Johnson, but the Bills refused.

"You would be absolutely shocked at what John was offered (Sunday) night," Wilson said. "They wanted him, they were serious. You'd be shocked. We were.

"People like the guy. You can't believe the people that would have liked to have had Rob Johnson. The clubs around here that we've talked to are very sincere about that."

That is why Wilson is proud of the Bills' quick movement in making the trade with Jacksonville. Although the deal was officially made on Feb. 13, it was put together several days earlier during the NFL's college scouting combine in Indianapolis.

"We moved fast," Wilson said. "We didn't dicker. Butler said, 'They (the Jaguars) want a fourth-round pick (along with Buffalo's first-rounder),' and I said, 'Give it to them.' If we had dickered and bargained, somebody else would have come in and gotten him."

If the Bills aren't able to agree on a long-term contract with Johnson, they could always make him a franchise player after the season, which would assure that he remain in Buffalo for one more year for a salary equal to the average of the top-five-paid NFL quarterbacks.

But the Bills aren't entirely comfortable with that option after the NFL Players Association challenged the validity of the franchise tag they placed on nose tackle Ted Washington last month. A special master was supposed to rule on it, but before he could, the union and the NFL Management Council reached an agreement that placed a less restrictive designation on Washington, whom the Bills later re-signed.

Tying Johnson to a long-term deal now is a risk for both sides. The Bills could end up parting with several million dollars up front only to see Johnson flop. On the other hand, Johnson could end up having a sensational career, and his contract could be quickly outdated.

Steinberg probably will seek a handshake agreement with the Bills that, should Johnson fulfill their expectations that he will become a top-level player, they will be open to possible frequent renegotiation in order to keep his contract as current and salary-cap friendly as possible.

Steinberg has similar understandings with New England, for quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and Dallas, for quarterback Troy Aikman.

"The challenge is to fashion an arrangement, which takes into account the rapidly changing economics of the NFL," Steinberg said. "In every major contract I've done, what was considered an explosion at whatever time it was done, the market caught up and went by."

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