Rookie wide receiver Eric Moulds hasn't missed any playing time, but his first season with the Buffalo Bills so far has been affected by injuries -- other people's injuries.
First, Moulds was forced into the lineup as the slot receiver/H-back after Steve Tasker suffered a foot injury in the season opener against the New York Giants. Then, he got less playing time when the Bills cut down on the use of their three-receiver offense after quarterback Jim Kelly was injured.
The first-round draft pick hasn't had much impact in the passing offense after six games, but the former Mississippi State star has contributed as a kickoff return man.
"He's the best (returner) I've had since I've been here," said Bruce DeHaven, who has been the Bills' special teams coach since 1987. "That's why he was a No. 1 draft choice. He's a good athlete. He's got such efficiency of motion. He looks like he's not working very hard because he's so smooth."
Moulds is averaging 22.9 yards per return, despite the fact that his longest return was a 33-yarder against Miami last week. He ranks ninth individually in the AFC. Only one Buffalo player has averaged more for an entire season since 1988.
Moulds has made every return by the Bills this year and the team is ranked 14th in the NFL. That doesn't sound impressive until you consider where the Bills are coming from. They've ranked near the bottom of the entire NFL the last three seasons. They were 28th out of 30 teams last year.
Moulds concedes that his progress has been much slower as an apprentice wide receiver.
"It's been OK as far as special teams go," Moulds said. "Receiving work, I haven't really been able to contribute much. . . . Mostly I'm running routes to clear out for Andre (Reed) and Quinn (Early) so they can get open. Hopefully, it will get a little better as the season progresses."
The Bills' plan for Moulds was to slowly indoctrinate him into the offense, perhaps add some special routes for him in the game plans and gradually increase his role as he grew ready to take on more responsibility.
Then Tasker, whose adaptability, savvy and experience made him an important part of the offensive plan, was hurt in the opener. He hasn't played since. Moulds assumed Tasker's place in the lineup, but not the same prominent role. Lately, Moulds has been off the field when the Bills go to some double tight-end sets.
"He's not being put in a position where he has to carry a load or a burden," coach Marv Levy said. "There's a lot of learning because Moulds is trying to learn two positions, outside receiver and slot receiver, at the same time.
"Learning two positions isn't twice as much to learn. It's more than that because every rep (practice repetition) you get at the second position means you're getting one less rep at the first position."
So, Moulds is trying to assimilate a lot.
"There's a lot of reading of coverages on the run and sometimes they disguise things and sometimes you run the wrong route and mess the read up for Jim and the other quarterbacks," Moulds said.
"It takes a little time. I've been getting a lot better as the weeks progress and I'm starting to learn the offense a lot better."
Moulds' biggest offensive play of the season was his grab of a 24-yard pass from Todd Collins late in the Indianapolis game. The catch put the Bills in field goal range at the Colts' 19-yard line with 32 seconds left. Steve Christie kicked the tying three-pointer, then Buffalo won in overtime, 16-13.
"I want to build off that play and make bigger and better plays," Moulds said. "If I'm patient and keep working, good things will happen."
The 24th player taken in the first round of the NFL draft, Moulds has only nine catches for an 8-yard average and no touchdowns so far, but not many rookie wide receivers are burning up the league.
The No. 1 pick in the entire draft, Keyshawn Johnson of the New York Jets, has 21 receptions for 11.9 with two touchdowns. Terry Glenn of New England, the seventh pick, is tops with 30 for 13.4 with one touchdown. Two other receivers taken ahead of Moulds in the first round are Eddie Kennison of the St. Louis Rams (18th pick) and Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts (21). Kennison has 18 receptions for 14.6 and two touchdowns. Harrison has 21 for 12.1 and one touchdown.
Moulds has been earning his salary as the Bills' most consistent kickoff return man since Al Edwards in 1990-92. Edwards, who returned a 91-yarder for a touchdown in 1991, is the last Bill to score on a kickoff return, but DeHaven thinks Moulds is getting closer to breaking one each week.
"On several occasions he was right on the brink of breaking one, and we've gone against some pretty good kickoff guys," said DeHaven, pointing out that the Bills faced some of the strongest kickoff legs in the NFL -- Brad Daluiso of the Giants, Adam Vinatieri of New England, Chris Gardocki of the Colts and Joe Nedney of Miami.
According to DeHaven, Moulds has the running style and size to be an excellent kick returner.
"You've got to be a strong north-south runner," DeHaven said. "Guys looking to avoid people or looking for a hole are not good return guys. You've got to steam it upfield 100 miles an hour and have faith that the hole is going to open because if you wait to find the hole, it closes before you get through it."
LEADERS SINCE 1988 (20 PLUS AVERAGES)
Al Edwards 199011 23.30 54
Eric Moulds 199616 22.90 33
Al Edwards 199212 22.80 34
Ronnie Harmon 198918 22.70 49
Ronnie Harmon 198811 22.60 37
Yonel Jourdain 199427 22.30 42
Don Beebe 198916 22.10 85
Errol Tucker 198815 20.70 30
Darick Holmes 199539 20.50 42
Al Edwards 199131 20.11 91t
Don Smith 199032 20.10 38
TEAM STATISTICS SINCE 1988
YearNo.YardsAvg.TDLg NFL rank
198850935 18.7370 18
1989531058 20.0850 10
1990511041 20.4540 T-6
199152970 18.7911 T-14
199241761 18.6350 19
199345746 16.6280 25
1994 *72134518.7420 26
199570130218.6420 28 (15 in AFC)
199616367 22.9330 14 (7 in AFC)
* Kickoffs moved back 5 yards
to 30-yard line.
1995 league average was 21.4
1996 league average is 22.6