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AP Source: Bills exchanged offers with WR Johnson

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) - The Buffalo Bills haven't given up on re-signing Stevie Johnson before the receiver's eligible to become a free agent next month.

A person familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press on Thursday that the two sides exchanged offers over the past week, and plan to meet again at the NFL combine in Indianapolis next week. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because negotiations are not being made public.

The Buffalo News first reported the development, citing an unnamed league source, on its website on Thursday.

The exchange of offers is the first indication that contract talks have resumed since the two sides broke off discussions in November. That's when Johnson rejected the Bills' latest offer and said it would be up to the team to make the next move.

In completing the final year of his contract, Johnson became Buffalo's first receiver to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He led the Bills for a second straight year with 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns.

Johnson's season did end in controversy, after he was benched for the final three quarters of the Bills' finale at New England. He was disciplined for drawing an excessive celebration penalty after he scored a touchdown and pulled up his jersey to reveal the words "Happy New Year" written on his undershirt.

It was the second time last season and third time in two years that Johnson had been flagged for a TD celebration.

Coach Chan Gailey has said he would be open to Johnson returning as long as he can keep his emotions in check, and general manager Buddy Nix said last month that the Bills want to re-sign Johnson.

Starting next week, the Bills have the option to place a franchise tag on Johnson to retain his rights for one more season. That possibility was considered unlikely, because it would put the team in a position to pay Johnson about $9.4 million next season - and that's far more than what the Bills are willing to shell out.

Losing Johnson would be a big blow to the Bills' offense, which already lacked experienced depth at receiver last season after the team traded veteran Lee Evans to Baltimore in August.

In other Bills news, defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt said tackle Kyle Williams "is right on schedule" in recovering from a surgically repaired foot. Williams had previously indicated he expects to be cleared to practice in time for the start of training camp.

After coaching outside linebackers during his first season in Buffalo last year, Wannstedt was promoted to defensive coordinator after George Edwards was fired a day after the Bills' final game.

Wannstedt's first move is having the defense switch back to a 4-3 scheme.

Outlining his philosophy, Wannstedt said his defenses rely on big linemen, who can plug holes and pressure quarterbacks, while being supported by mobile linebackers. His top priority is improving the blitz after the Bills finished tied for 30th in the NFL with 29 sacks.

The inside of the line is expected to be anchored by Williams and Marcell Dareus, who's coming off a solid rookie season. Veteran outside linebacker Nick Barnett will continue his role as a three-down player, including moving inside during pass situations.

Wannstedt was also impressed with how Kelvin Sheppard progressed at middle linebacker as a rookie last season. He said he has "all the confidence in the world" in Sheppard starting in the middle this year.

One question mark is the status of pass-rushing specialist Shawne Merriman, who missed the final 10 games after surgery to repair nagging injuries to his right Achilles' tendon and shoulder.

"That's a great question, and I don't have an answer," Wannstedt said of his expectations of Merriman, who has one year left on his contract. "How it all comes back, we'll all find out together."

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