- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- In his prime, Randy Moss made it look easy.
With long arms, big strides and blazing speed, Moss both towered over defenders and blew past them. He had a way of making downfield catches seem effortless, the football equivalent of Yao Ming grabbing a rebound.
Physically, Moss had the edge. He's 6-foot-4, while Watkins is 6-foot-1. Moss ran a 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds; Watkins checked in at 4.46 seconds.
But when Watkins cut through three defenders with the stride of a gazelle during Monday's practice, I saw Moss. When Watkins had three steps on cornerback Leodis McKelvin on a fly pattern Monday -- and again Tuesday -- and reached out, snagged the ball and walked into the end zone, I saw Moss.
If Watkins keeps that up, it will be a much-needed shot in the arm for an offense that scored just 16 passing touchdowns last season, tied for second-worst in the NFL.
One of many culprits of the offense's ineptitude last season, quarterback EJ Manuel has looked his best when throwing to Watkins this week. It's not quite Moss catching passes from Daunte Culpepper, but the potential is there.
The rookie receiver and second-year quarterback were shaky at the end of spring practices, but Manuel has been nearly perfect on passes intended for Watkins this week, whether they've been short, deep or anywhere in between.
That's been a high point of Watkins' performance thus far. He doesn't just excel at catching flashy deep balls. The Bills have sent Watkins across the middle and he's executed in that part of the field, using his long arms and soft hands to reel in one pass over a linebacker on Monday.
"He's made a very good career for himself, in college, being able to go over the middle. That's always a big test when you get to this level to make sure you can come over the middle," coach Doug Marrone said. "He’s a fearless player and, again, at the same time you have to be smart when you do that."
Later on Monday, Watkins came over the middle again, leaping to grab a tipped pass and coming down hard. He was slow to get up, and teammates quickly surrounded him. He came off the field with a trainer and was down on one knee on the sideline.
As it turned out, he was poked in the eye. Crisis averted.
But for those few minutes, the crowd at St. John Fisher College was silent. Twitter was buzzing. Marrone walked over to check on his first-round pick.
That's the impact Watkins has brought to the Bills. Losing him to an injury would be catastrophic.
"He's made plays in this camp," Marrone said Monday. "I think a lot of people are excited."
While Watkins' play early in camp has been reminiscent of Moss, his persona off the field hasn't. Moss was one of the more quotable players in recent NFL history, drawing attention for often the wrong reasons.
Watkins' approach has been different.
"There's a gentleman on that (Clemson) staff that I worked with that I have a great amount of respect for," Marrone said Monday. "He said to me that, '[Watkins] is one of the most humble superstars that I've been around.' "
There is a long way to go -- most teams haven't even started training camp yet -- but the early returns on Watkins have been decidedly positive.
He's been making it look easy.
1hEric D. Williams