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Woods taking advantage of time in Bills' receiver spotlight

PITTSFORD -- It hasn't happened often since Sammy Watkins joined the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills hope it won't happen for much longer ... and for at least as long as Watkins is on the team.

At the moment, that giant shadow he has been casting over the rest of the Bills' receivers since his rookie year in 2014 is gone. Watkins can only watch training camp practices at St. John Fisher College while recovering from foot surgery.

For the time being, Robert Woods, normally in the No. 2 spot at the position, holds the top-dog designation. Although there have only been two days of practice, it is fair to say he has looked the part. Even with some spotty throwing by Tyrod Taylor, Woods has consistently gotten open and made catches, including a few difficult ones that Watkins typically makes.

"He's a competitor," second-year Bills receiver Dez Lewis said of Woods. "Great route-runner, good with his hands. He's not scared of anyone. He's not the biggest receiver (at 6-foot and 190 pounds), but he plays physical and strong. Great blocker."

This isn't like any of Woods' three previous training camps or seasons since the Bills made him a second-round draft pick from USC. He has something to prove.

Convincing the Bills that Watkins won't be missed -- even if it's only for a matter of days or weeks -- is unrealistic, of course. Watkins is by far the best receiver on the team and one of the best in the NFL. When healthy, he will return to his No. 1 role and most of the passes will go in his direction. Woods, as usual, will return to trying to make the most of whatever chances he gets to make plays.

Woods is in a different category than Watkins, but what he does is important. Every team needs that reliable secondary target, especially when the main one is drawing extra coverage. Sometimes, the No. 2 receiver can be the primary playmaker. Woods has been that from time to time, but not often.

Last year, he dealt with a groin injury, which would require surgical repair, for most of the season. He was in top form during offseason workouts, and seems to have picked up where he left off in June.

"Yeah, just get back to playing my game," Woods said. "I was injured last year, battled a lot of injuries, so it’s hard really to be at my A game throughout that."

This would be a perfect time for him to play the best football of his pro career. He's in the final year of his contract, and, at least at the start of the offseason, the Bills expressed uncertainty over whether they wanted to retain Woods. Last year, they signed Percy Harvin to challenge him, and Harvin might very well have supplanted Woods were it not for multiple injuries that shortened his season and ultimately ended his career.

This summer, the Bills have a slew of receivers, young and old, competing in camp, although none holds high-end draft or free-agent status. Woods insists he isn't feeling any added motivation from his contract situation or the presence of others seeking any spot they can get on the roster -- including his.

"It’s just competition," he said. "We had (Chris) Hogan (now with the New England Patriots), had Percy come in and pushing us. That’s what we do. We compete here.

"And at the same time, we have guys still competing for the No. 2 spot and even for the No. 1 spot. Sammy is injured right now, so we’re just pushing to be better as a unit. We push all to be No. 1s, like I’ve been saying. We make this team so much better."

Woods had his busiest offseason since entering the NFL. He returned to USC and completed his studies for a degree in real estate development and policy planning and development.

He also did intensive training, with an emphasis on improving his speed.

"I know Tyrod has a beautiful deep ball," Woods said. "So my main goal was to get my speed down and try to really get behind defenders, just because I know that's what Tyrod does well. And if I can be another asset to Sammy going deep, I think that definitely opens up the offense. And even with the short-yardage catches, the medium-yardage catches, working with the speed so if I do get it, being able to run away from defenders.

"So that was my main focus, really to help this team and be more explosive."

With Watkins on the sidelines, Woods has the chance to do that in the spotlight, even if it's only temporary.

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