The Buffalo Bills made two moves Monday that they believe can solidify them at tight end for the 1998 NFL season.
The first was re-signing Lonnie Johnson, who had been an unrestricted free agent, to a one-year contract worth $450,000. Johnson, a starter for the last three seasons, had previously earned an average of $363,700.
The second move was signing free agent Duane Young, a blocking tight end who had been out of football the past two seasons, to a one-year deal for the NFL minimum of approximately $325,000.
After analyzing available tight ends in free agency and those eligible for next month's draft, the Bills concluded their best bet was to stick with Johnson.
Of all of the free agents at his position, Johnson, 27, has been the most productive over the past three seasons, with 136 pass receptions, including 41 last season. He has 139 catches since joining the Bills as a second-round draft pick from Florida State in 1994.
"Our coaches wanted him back very much," general manager John Butler said. "They did a tremendous amount of study on him. They realize how difficult it is to go ahead and try to replace this person.
"How do you get that production? Who do you go out and find?"
Max Bowman, the Bills' new tight ends coach and a former assistant football coach at the University at Buffalo, has been highly impressed with what he has seen of Johnson on videotape. He and new offensive coordinator Joe Pendry believe Johnson will be more effective -- and less mistake-prone -- in an offense that incorporates an actual fullback rather than having Johnson play a hybrid tight end/fullback position as he often did last year.
"I realize that I'm not an expert, at this point in time, in terms of the league," Bowman said. "But I know talent, and to sit there and watch a guy like Lonnie against the best on the other side of the ball . . . and to watch him take his releases and run his routes, I think he's got tremendous, tremendous ability."
Young, 29, played for the San Diego Chargers from 1991 -- when they made him a fifth-round draft pick from Michigan State -- to 1995. At 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds, he is built to block. New Bills offensive line coach Carl Mauck had long been impressed with Young's blocking skills, and convinced the Arizona Cardinals to bring him to their training camp last summer while Mauck coached their offensive line.
Young was released before the season, but still left a good impression on Mauck.
"Carl says he's one of the best blocking tight ends he's ever been around," Bills coach Wade Phillips said.
Young's most productive year as a receiver was '94, when he caught 17 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown.