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BILLS MAKE MOULDS THEIR BIG-PAY RECEIVER

The Buffalo Bills' offense has a prayer in 2001.

We're not sure who the quarterback is going to be (although Doug Flutie still looks like the leader in the clubhouse). We're not sure what the offensive line is going to look like. The attack may not have a go-to running back for a third straight year.

But one thing it will have is a receiver who can make plays no matter who's covering him, no matter how many people are covering him and no matter who's throwing him the football.

The Bills got an early jump on the free agency season Friday by finalizing their contract with Eric Moulds, their most important offensive weapon.

Moulds signed the richest contract in team history. According to a league source, it's worth a total of $40 million over six years with a $12.5 million signing bonus.

That puts Moulds virtually even with Tampa Bay's Keyshawn Johnson at the top of the pay list for NFL receivers. (Moulds' deal averages about $6.6 million a year, Johnson's about $6.68 million).

"This is a great day for our entire organization," said Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe. "He's a big play performer, he's a difference-maker, he's somebody we feel who has a chance to really flourish in this offense."

"I'd like to thank Mr. (Ralph) Wilson and the Bills' organization," Moulds said, referring to the team owner. "The Bills have been great to me. Why go somewhere else and try to start over."

Moulds is long-time friends with Johnson, and he said Johnson's experience this year drove home the idea the turf is not always greener in free agency. Johnson left the New York Jets last offseason. While Tampa Bay had a good year, the Bucs' offense struggled.

"One of my best friends in the league is Keyshawn Johnson, and you guys know the situation he went through, getting an opportunity to go someplace and get a lot more money and the difficult transition he went through his first year in a new environment," Moulds said. "He had a lot of success with the New York Jets. I talked to him on the phone as each week progressed about the situation he was in, and it was a little frustrating, and I looked at that situation."

Moulds said Minnesota's great receiver, Cris Carter, and other NFL peers encouraged him to stay in Buffalo, where he has succeeded.

"I was comfortable here in this situation, and I like the team and the great guys on the team," Moulds said. "I like the tradition we have here. We've been to the playoffs as much as anybody. This is a good organization. . . . This is a college football environment type of town. The chance to play in this type of setting made my decision easy. I wanted to play in this city. The people here deserve a championship."

Moulds, 27, is one of the elite receivers in the league. There might not be any receiver who has the same combination of speed and physical strength. Moulds already holds the team records for catches and yards in a season (94 in 2000 and 1,368 in '98). He has made the Pro Bowl two of the past three years.

Over the past three years, Moulds has 3,688 receiving yards, fifth most in the NFL behind only Randy Moss (4,163), Jimmy Smith (4,031) and Marvin Harrison (3,852) and Rod Smith (3,844).

Moulds said he also liked the idea of playing in the West Coast offense new head coach Gregg Williams plans to employ.

"As a receiver, you've got to be excited about the West Coast offense," he said. "You look at some of the great players in this league in the West Coast offense -- Tim Brown, Jerry Rice -- and the success they've had. That was a factor also."

Moulds, who is a fanatic about keeping in great condition, said he's not worried about complacency now that he has a big contract. He said there's a lot of peer pressure among the top receivers in the NFL. Moulds visited Carter and Moss last offseason to check out their workout regimen.

"There's a little of competition there," Moulds said. "Each season you look at Cris Carter and what those guys are doing. You look at Randy Moss over there and he's working hard, and it makes you push yourself."

Jim Overdorf, the Bills' vice president for business administration, negotiated the deal with Moulds' agents, Harry Henderson and Greg Johnson. The talks began in October and have been fairly intense since the middle of January.

Given Moulds' production, it's safe to assume he could have gotten at least a little bit bigger contract if he waited to go onto the open market and gotten into a bidding war. Philadelphia is one of many teams that likely would have pursued him hard.

"If Eric wanted to just get the most money he could have made, he'd obviously be out of here," Johnson said. "But like Eric said, 'What's enough?' You never know what he could have gotten. But he wanted to be here, and without a doubt he got a fair-market value."

Bills fans should enjoy this large piece of good free-agency news. The rest of the free-agent season, which starts March 2, is likely to be a downer for Buffalo.

The team entered the offseason an estimated $13.4 million over the 2001 salary cap of $67.4 million. And that doesn't count about $5 million it will need to sign draft choices and a couple exclusive-rights free agents.

Most of the cuts, which are likely to include Sam Rogers, Ted Washington, Joe Panos and other popular veterans, probably will come on March 1. (Defensive end Phil Hansen, for instance, has been asked to take a pay cut of more than $1 million.)

The Moulds deal also makes it unlikely the Bills will re-sign fine defensive end Marcellus Wiley. Even Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. is calling Wiley's re-signing doubtful.

The Bills structured Moulds' contract so that they left themselves an outside chance to keep Wiley. Moulds' salary cap figure for 2001 will be about $2.5 million, which is as cap friendly as they could make it. But if the market for defensive ends goes up any from last offseason, the chances for keeping Wiley are slim.

The Bills have a franchise label they could slap on Wiley, thereby taking him off the market. But the franchise label for defensive ends (the average of the top five cap figures in the NFL) is $5.4 million, and the Bills can't create that much cap room.

The Bills have plenty of time to fret over the near future, but Friday's announcement was cause for a celebration.

Asked what he would do with his financial windfall, Moulds said, "I pretty much have all the toys I need. The only thing I'm missing right now is a championship ring."

Zorn replaces Sheppard

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Jim Zorn, the Seattle Seahawks' first starting quarterback, has been appointed the team's new quarterbacks coach. Zorn takes over the post previously held by Bills offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard.

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