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MOULDS HOPES 1998 WILL BE BREAKTHROUGH YEAR

Eric Moulds is having a terrific preseason. Of course, we've heard that before.

The Buffalo Bills' third-year wide receiver has often struggled once the regular season begins.

But there is reason to believe this year is going to be different. Through three preseason games, Moulds has been very productive with a team-high 10 catches.

More importantly, the Bills' top draft pick in 1996 appears to be more confident and at ease with himself.

"I think I put too much pressure on myself early on," Moulds said. "I've learned after a couple of years in this league to let the game come to me. That's what I've done this preseason."

That was evident in Friday's 17-9 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Moulds had six catches for 35 yards and a touchdown, one more TD than he had last season.

The yards per catch might not be impressive, but it is more a result of what the Bears were doing defensively.

"I went out and took what the defense gave me," said Moulds, who got behind the Bears' secondary once, but Rob Johnson overthrew what appeared to be a sure touchdown pass.

"They played off us most of the night because of some blitzes, so we had to be patient and run shorter pass routes. I was happy with my performance. It felt pretty good out there."

Coach Wade Phillips has been pleased with Moulds, giving him more time with the first-team offense than he's received in the past.

Veterans Andre Reed and Quinn Early are still the starters, but Phillips feels Moulds has earned a right to have a more prominent role in the offense.

"We want to give Eric every opportunity to play," Phillips said. "He's done so well, we're trying to get him the ball as much as possible.

"I think the big difference with Eric is he's just more comfortable with himself playing ball, and not worried about being a number-one pick. He knows now that if he plays his own game, things will come for him because he's got ability."

Moulds is capable of turning short catches into long gains because of his running skills. Once in the open field, particularly on catches over the middle, he is able to use his improved strength to break tackles and make big plays.

"He's a really good runner, and he's shown that on kickoff returns," Phillips said. "I think he's the second-leading kickoff returner in the history of the Buffalo Bills in only two years."

For the record, Moulds needs seven kickoff returns for 43 yards to break the club's career records held by Keith Moody (101 for 2,168 from 1976-79).

"Eric knows what he's capable of doing," Phillips said. "With his physical tools, you hope he steps up and has a great year."

Moulds dedicated his offseason to getting into the best shape of his career. He has a lot of muscle packed on his 6-foot, 204-pound frame, but he looks trimmer than a year ago.

One of his workout partners during the offseason was Arizona Cardinals' All-Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams, one of the best cover men in the league.

Working with Williams must have helped because Moulds is separating from defenders a lot better.

His 3-yard touchdown against the Bears was a prime example as he shook off a hold by Chicago cornerback Tom Carter to make the catch.

"I knew if the small corner came up on me, I could use my body on him," Moulds said. "I got inside of him and Rob looked in and then threw it outside of me."

Johnson gave Moulds most of the credit on the touchdown.

"Eric had to keep working hard because the coverage was different than we expected," Johnson said. "The play was supposed to be hit real quick, so he had to buy some time and make a good play breaking away."

A breakaway season is exactly what Moulds and the Bills are hoping for.

"I'm happy with my performance, but I want to keep coming out and trying to improve," Moulds said. "I'm glad coach Phillips has confidence in me. That has helped a lot. Now I just want to relax and compete. When I do that, everything becomes a lot easier."

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