By John Wawrow
The Associated Press
BUFFALO — Stevie Johnson and the Buffalo Bills are still "far apart" in contract talks. And the receiver doesn't expect the team to use its franchise tag to retain him, a person familiar with discussions told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The person spoke with The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because talks are ongoing.
The update on talks comes after the two sides exchanged offers last week, and agreed to meet at the NFL combine in Indianapolis this week.
Johnson has led the Bills in receiving in each of the past two seasons and is eligible to become a free agent next month.
The Bills have a policy against discussing contract talks. General manager Buddy Nix did say last month that he would like to re-sign Johnson.
Starting Monday, NFL teams can begin using a franchise tag to retain the rights of their prospective free agents.
Applying the tag would not prevent the Bills from continuing to negotiate a long-term contract with Johnson. However, if a deal is not reached, it would put the team in a position to have to pay the receiver about $9.4 million next season.
Such a contract would handcuff the Bills' payroll, and limit their ability to sign other free agents to improve a team that's not made the playoffs in 12 seasons — the NFL's longest active drought.
The Bills haven't used the tag since 2006, when they designated cornerback Nate Clements their franchise player. Clements signed the $7.2 million offer, under the condition the team would allow him to become a free agent the following season.
Johnson has not discussed how much he's seeking, except to say he's not asked the team to pay him $9 million or $10 million a season, which would put him in the upper echelon of NFL receivers.
Johnson's value has gone up since the Bills took a chance on using a seventh-round pick on selecting the player out of Kentucky in the 2008 draft. Sparingly used in his first two seasons, Johnson's production took off in 2010, when he had 82 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns in supplanting veteran Lee Evans as the Bills' top threat.
Johnson maintained his production this season after Buffalo traded Evans to Baltimore in August. He finished with 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns in becoming the team's first receiver to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
As productive as he's been, Johnson has landed in hot water for his over-the-top celebrations. He was benched for the final three quarters of the Bills' finale at New England after being flagged a second time in six games — and third time in two years — for an excessive touchdown celebration.
Losing Johnson would be a big blow to a Bills offense that lacks experienced depth at the receiver position, and for an offense that made strides under quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick last season. Despite a 6-10 finish, in which Buffalo lost eight of its final nine games, the Bills finished 14th in the NFL in yards gained — the team's best showing since finishing 11th in 2002.