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The statistics don't scream greatness. Not by the current standards for cornerbacks.

Zero interceptions this season and just five total in his seven-year NFL career.

The stat still bothers Thomas Smith, even as he helped lead the Buffalo Bills to the No. 1-rated pass defense in the league this past week.

"I'm not sick of talking about it," Smith said. "I'm probably, if anything, frustrated that I don't have any or that I'm not getting the interceptions that I want to get, but I still go out and keep playing. . . . I focus on playing and covering and covering the receiver. I'm trying to get interceptions no doubt, but it's just not coming. One year I had a chance to get them and I dropped them, but this year I think I only dropped one."

But Smith doesn't need to make the interception to be an effective corner. Opposing quarterbacks don't go long on Smith. Sure, he might not make the big play, but he doesn't give it up either -- a football skill highly valued in the NFL these days.

Good cornerbacks are in demand, but hard to find. A quick refresher course in high school economics: high demand, low supply means higher prices.

It's part of the free agent market game that Smith gets to play at the end of this season.

"If you're a good cover corner, you're in demand. They like a guy that can cover. They don't like giving teams the big plays. They don't like seeing the long bomb. They like guys, if it's a team that wants to blitz a lot, corners that can cover on the outside and take away a receiver one-on-one and that's what I'm capable of doing."

He's proven his point week after week with the Bills. He took over the starting right cornerback duties during his second season in Buffalo and did not miss a game until injuring his knee in mid-December last year. He missed the final two regular-season games and the wild-card loss to the Miami Dolphins.

Smith came back strong this year, recording 11 pass deflections and 55 total tackles through last week's win at Arizona. He and Ken Irvin have anchored a Buffalo secondary that has allowed teams just 173.3 yards per game in the air and 256.7 yards overall.

But with Irvin out for the rest of the season with a torn ligament in his foot, Smith must control opponents' passing game with rookie Antoine Winfield.

"We definitely have confidence (in Winfield)," Smith said. "Eventually, he's gonna have to play and this is a good chance for him to come and play and get some experience. It's unfortunate the injury to Kenny, but you know, he's gotta play. He'll do fine, though."

Winfield will do fine, partly because he's had nearly a year to learn from Smith and Irvin. The rookie corner says he's picked up a lot about technique from the veteran tandem. Proper technique is what Smith does best -- nothing flashy or spectacular, just consistent outside coverage.

Smith faltered just twice this season, with a sub-par performance in the Bills' 26-16 loss at Seattle and against New England when he gave up a deep pass to Terry Glenn that prevented a Buffalo shutout.

But those aberrations aside, Smith ranks among the top six starting cornerbacks who will be on the free agent market, unless they re-sign with their current club before the end of the season.

Todd Lyght of St. Louis and Aaron Beasley of Jacksonville have six and five interceptions, respectively, and will likely be the two most sought-after corners this summer.

Also likely to be key players on the market are Phillippi Sparks (New York Giants), Jimmy Hitchcock (Minnesota) and Terrell Buckley (Miami).

Even though Smith lacks luster in the interception category, with his ability to stop big plays and his tough tackling when teams attack with wide running plays, he should command a hefty price.

Which means Smith, a first-rounder for Buffalo in 1993, could be the third solid cornerback the Bills have lost to free agency. It started with Nate Odomes, a second-round pick for the Bills in 1987, who left Buffalo in 1993 for Seattle. Jeff Burris, a first-round pick in 1994, went to Indianapolis as an unrestricted free agent in 1998 with just two interceptions on his stat sheet his final year in Buffalo.

Since the Bills have a host of economic decisions to make this offseason, Smith might end up leaving Buffalo for greener pastures even without the desired cornerback stat line. But with two regular-season games and a playoff spot on the line, the free agent game still feels like something for the distant future.

"I thought about it, but it's just not something I'm worried about. It'll just take care of itself," Smith said. " (I'll just) keep continuing to play well, go far in the playoffs and hopefully try to go the Super Bowl and try to get as much exposure as I can."

A few interceptions wouldn't hurt, either.

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