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Fitz deserves to be paid like a No. 1

You can sense it by talking with him, by looking in his eye. Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn't felt this way since he was at Harvard seven years ago. He's finally the big man on campus again, the unquestioned starter.

"It is so different," Fitzpatrick said Thursday at St. John Fisher. "The last two years have been really hard for me in terms of wanting to say things, wanting to talk to my receivers and coach them a certain way, but not being able to because I'm not the guy."

Fitz is the guy now, and he's not shy about it. He's a natural leader and a competitor. That's what any NFL team wants from its quarterback, a sense of command and confidence, the ability to inspire teammates and make them better.

It's difficult to express those qualities when you're a backup, or when you're in a muddled situation at football's most vital position.

"Yeah, since I've been at Harvard I haven't had this opportunity," said Fitzpatrick, 28. "In my first six years in the league I was able to get so much knowledge. But it was never really my offense. I wasn't able to take ownership. Hopefully, this will be a great year, because I've taken ownership from Day One."

The Bills handed him the keys during April's draft, when they decided not to take a quarterback. After Cam Newton went No. 1, they didn't feel any of the other QBs were franchise guys. Coach Chan Gailey said Fitz gave management the "freedom" to address other needs.

It was a resounding endorsement of Fitzpatrick, a declaration that the No. 1 job was in capable hands. The organization showed its belief in Fitz as an NFL starter. Now it's time they affirmed that faith with a new contract.

Fitzpatrick is entering the final year of a three-year deal that averages $2.3 million per season. He's on the books this year for $3.1 million. That's not chump change, but it's low for a proven NFL starter. Fitz was the 32nd-highest paid QB in the league a year ago.

It's hard to pin down exact salaries. I counted at least 21 quarterbacks making at least $7 million this season. There are several QBs making big money who have done no more than Fitz in the league.

Fitz had 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 13 games last season. Kyle Orton was in a similar situation a year ago. Orton, who is the same age as Fitz, had 21 TD passes and 12 picks for a losing Denver team in '09. The Broncos bumped his salary to $8 million -- after drafting Tim Tebow.

OK, Fitzpatrick has his limitations. He's no franchise guy. He faded late last year, and maybe the league will catch up to him this season. But the Bills are committed to him. He will likely be their starter for the next two years.

There has been a whirlwind of financial activity since the NFL returned from the lockout. The Bills had to sign rookies and undrafted free agents. Maybe they're just biding their time with Fitz. They have other players in line for extensions, starting with wideout Stevie Johnson.

The money is there. The Bills have been saving on the quarterback position since Drew Bledsoe left. Pro athletes watch closely to see how the top players are rewarded. If you send a popular starting QB on the field at below-market rates, it sends a bad message.

The Bills could wait and see how Fitz plays, then rework his deal during the season. Maybe he'll regress. But fans are excited about the offense. On a team without stars, Fitzpatrick is an attraction. He's worth the investment. Imagine the reaction in town if he throws 30 TDs and leaves as a free agent.

"I'm the guy right now, and this is my team," Fitz said. "I'd love to remain the guy. I'm not worried about the off-field stuff. I'm worried about taking over this team, taking control, and performing on game day. Then everything takes care of itself."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com