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CASHING IN HIS CHIPS Superlative season leaves London Fletcher primed to command a high salary next year, but will it be the Bills writing the checks?

London Fletcher walked up to greet the media and took a deep breath. He knew there would be a round of questions regarding his future with the Buffalo Bills and he was prepared. But when it comes to being pinned down for a definitive answer, the veteran linebacker proved more elusive than LaDainian Tomlinson.

With free agency looming, today's regular season finale at Baltimore may be Fletcher's last game in a Bills uniform.

"I cannot focus on that right now," Fletcher said. "Like I said in the past, I don't really know what the future holds. Not really any sense in me worrying about it, different scenarios take place. We will cross that bridge when that happens."

After all the plays he has made in Buffalo, it might be jarring to see Fletcher in Oakland silver and black, stuffing the run in Paul Brown Stadium or wearing a Seahawks helmet. But the pleasant memories attached to these made-in-Buffalo giddy days could die out once Bills executives meet with Fletcher's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to analyze the cost of keeping him.

Fletcher is obviously at a different stage than some of the younger, elite middle linebackers but even at 31 he's proved able to rebel against the signs of age during his ninth season. He has never missed a game and has rarely missed practice due to injury. Two more solo tackles today will give him 100 for the season and his 149 tackles easily leads the team, 54 ahead of rookie Donte Whitner.

He's taken on more responsibility this season and has helped develop some of the younger players. Fletcher has played well in pass coverage and his three interceptions are one shy of his career high.

"It's a situation where once the season is over with you have to look and evaluate everything," he said. "[The Bills] will do some evaluating and if there is something where both parties feel that it is best that I return, then we will try to get something done."

Taking into account his play over the last five seasons, Fletcher is among the most productive free agent signings ever by the Bills, right alongside Takeo Spikes, Ted Washington, Bryce Paup, Doug Flutie and Bill Brooks.

"He's been a tremendous leader for us, on the field and off the field," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "He's a calming influence for us, particularly for our younger players on the field. Gets them lined up, doesn't get flustered, understands the game. London's had a terrific year."

With his backdrop of accomplishments, Fletcher is expected to command a salary approaching $5 million a year. He made about $4 million in base pay this season. The salary cap is $102 million this season and will climb to $109 million next year. The Bills have enough room to do anything they choose, it's just a matter of prioritizing.

"I feel like my play this year has spoken for itself but there are 32 teams in the NFL," Fletcher said. "I currently play for the Buffalo Bills and like I said, I do not know what the future holds. I feel like I still have a few more years left in me at a very high quality of football. So I am just going to go from there."

The Bills generally haven't spent big money on free agents on the wrong side of 30, the exceptions being Troy Vincent and Lawyer Milloy -- and their play in Buffalo can best be described as a mixed bag.

Nevertheless, the Bills elected not to re-sign nose tackle Pat Williams after the 2004 season. Williams, now 34, is playing the best ball of his career with the Minnesota Vikings and the Bills' run defense hasn't been the same since he left.

Besides Fletcher, the Bills have other offseason priorities, such as re-signing cornerback Nate Clements, defensive end Chris Kelsay and perhaps running back Willis McGahee, another Rosenhaus client who is seeking an extension.

In the past, Fletcher has indicated a desire to finish his career in Buffalo and perhaps have his name added to the franchise's Wall of Fame.

"I feel like I have grown as a player, grown as a person and grown as a man here in Buffalo, so that definitely has been a benefit of being here," he said. "As far as the wins and losses go, you can't be really happy about losses and not making the playoffs. So, I think there have been some positives in my time here, as well as some things I wish I could change."


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