Salaries may cap Bills-Cowboys run Keeping Tasker,Ballard will be no easy task for Buffalo

January 26, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- What's the best special teams player in the NFL worth on today's open market?

Steve Tasker and the Buffalo Bills are about to find out.

Tasker, who made $475,000 this season as the master of special teams play, becomes a free agent at the conclusion of Super Bowl XXVIII between the Bills and Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

He says he wants to stay in Buffalo. The Bills say they want to keep him. But because of the new salary cap that goes into effect next season, Tasker's market value is a shadowy subject.

"It's hard to say because I'm breaking new ground," he said yesterday during interviews at the Georgia Dome.

"For a linebacker, every team needs a linebacker. With special teams, it's more of a philosophic question. Some teams may say they can get anybody off the street and make him a special teams player."

The Bills have both economic and philosophic questions to answer after their fourth straight Super Bowl. They also must address the looming free agency of two key starters -- offensive tackle Howard Ballard and cornerback Nate Odomes. Unlike Tasker, Ballard and Odomes seem certain to attract big offers.

All three are headed to the Pro Bowl next week.

Until now, the Bills have had a good track record for keeping the nucleus of the team intact. With the salary cap still undetermined reports are that it will be in the $33.9 million range -- general manager John Butler isn't certain who he'll be able to afford.

"After this, we're going to sit down and try to think of every conceivable way to be able to keep all these people," Butler said.

Keeping the Bills together has been Butler's goal since replacing Bill Polian, who was fired in the wake of last year's third straight Super Bowl loss.

Toward that end, Butler re-signed defensive end Bruce Smith and running back Thurman Thomas to four-year, $13.5 million contracts last summer. Butler also restructured 10 other contracts -- including quarterback Jim Kelly's -- to prepare for the cap.

Butler, former director of player personnel in Buffalo, assumed Polian's job with an old bromide.

"There was nothing broke at our place, absolutely nothing," he said. "Nothing needed to be fixed.

"We need to maintain our excellence and try to go to another level if at all possible. To keep the corps of this football team together was so important to me, and Mr. Wilson allowed that to happen."

Bills owner Ralph Wilson endorses the philosophy of retaining status quo over rampant spending for free agents.

"I don't believe in going out and grabbing players from this team and that team, and letting the corps of our team go," Wilson said.

The Bills credit management's willingness to re-sign players as a reason the team has reached four straight Super Bowls.

"You have to give credit to Mr. Wilson and management," Smith said. "They did a great job keeping us together, keeping Thurman Thomas here, myself here, keeping us happy at the same time, re-doing Jim Kelly's contract. That was truly a class act by the Bills in keeping this team together."

Said Kelly: "They've kept the majority of the star players and they've brought some good people in. Take, for example, [wide receiver] Billy Brooks. What a great move that was to get a guy like that in here."

Last off-season, the Bills lost offensive tackle Will Wolford to the Indianapolis Colts on a free-agent loophole that since has been closed. They also lost linebackers Carlton Bailey (of Woodlawn High) and Shane Conlan via free agency.

In order to keep players like Odomes, Ballard and Tasker, they will have to part with more high-priced veterans. Among those who could go are cornerback James Williams, who was beaten out by free agent Mickey Washington this season; guard Jim Ritcher, who lost his starting job to Glenn Parker; and third quarterback Gale Gilbert.

Losing Ballard, a sixth-year veteran, from the offensive line would be critical because the Bills have no one of that caliber ready to move in.

They may be better able to handle the loss of Odomes at cornerback, where first-round draft choice Thomas Smith of North Carolina has shown potential.

Then there's Tasker. Although his specialty is kick coverage, he made a huge, 67-yard kickoff return to help beat the Los Angeles Raiders in the second round of the playoffs. He is a five-time Pro Bowl player.

"I've enjoyed my time in Buffalo," said Tasker. "I'd love to keep playing there. But it's up to them."

UNDERPAID BILLS?

Three Bills who may leave via free agency:

* OT Howard Ballard: The loss of six-year veteran Ballard would come a year after the Bills lost another tackle, Will Wolford.

* CB Nate Odomes: He probably could be replaced by top draft pick Thomas Smith.

* Special teams player Steve Tasker: A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Tasker is earning $475,000 this season.

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