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It's fashionable to ridicule Russ Brandon as a football personnel man, to dismiss the Bills' president as a marketing genius who was out of his element during his two years as the team's general manager.

But it's not as if Brandon was an utter flop. In his last draft as GM in 2009, the Bills drafted Eric Wood with the 28th overall pick, Jairus Byrd at No. 42 and Andy Levitre with the 51st pick.

Byrd was the top free safety in this year's free agent class. The Bills slapped a $6.9 million franchise tag on him last week. Levitre is the top free agent among guards, and soon to be very rich. Next year, Wood is likely to be the top free agent center on the market.

Just imagine if the Bills hadn't whiffed on Aaron Maybin with the 11th overall pick, if they'd grabbed Brian Orakpo, Brian Cushing or Clay Matthews instead. That '09 draft might be seen as the best in team history. But there are consequences for hitting draft picks. Eventually, you have to pay them.

That means deciding in the next week whether to pay Levitre elite money or allow their durable left guard to test the waters as an unrestricted free agent.

The price tag will be steep. The Bills used their franchise tag on Byrd, so they must give Levitre a long-term deal or let him walk. Top guards command average salaries north of $8 million nowadays. Tampa Bay's Carl Nicks is atop the list at $9.5 million a year. The Pats' Logan Mankins makes $8.5 million a season. Jahri Evans of the Saints is at $8.1 million.

The Bills aren't in any hurry to negotiate. Levitre told The News' Tim Graham he was “in limbo” and the team should “at least throw me an offer.” Maybe the Bills have no intention of meeting Levitre's demands. But they should find out what those demands are.

I wouldn't pay Levitre elite guard money. He's not worth it. Levitre is a very good player. He hasn't missed a game in his four-year career, or rarely a play. But he's not great. He hasn't made the Pro Bowl. He doesn't dominate.

It's good to keep the line together. Chemistry is vital for an O-line. But guards are replaceable. Teams reach the Super Bowl all the time with restructured lines. The Ravens did it this year. Games are decided by playmakers; the Bills don't have enough of them on either side of the line of scrimmage.

You like to keep your best players around. That doesn't mean you have to overpay them. The Bills paid top wide receiver money for Lee Evans a few years back and regretted it. They overpaid for Chris Kelsay, Ryan Fitzpatrick and, of course, Mario Williams.

Levitre says he wants to stay in Buffalo. His girlfriend is from here. His agent, who isn't returning phone calls, would likely advise testing the waters. As Levitre says, a player might get only one chance to hit the free-agent jackpot.

The Bills should make a fair offer. If they refuse to break the bank, so be it. They have many holes. They need a big No. 1 receiver (Dwayne Bowe?). They could use a tight end. Dustin Keller is a free agent. They need linebackers, a strong safety, help at cornerback, offensive tackle and quarterback.

If they won't overpay Levitre, fine. But pay somebody. Stop the “cash to the cap” and use every resource to upgrade the roster. There's no law that says you have to re-sign all your free agents. What matters is whether you improve the team and get closer to contention.

When you've missed the playoffs 13 years in a row, no one qualifies as elite.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com