Tampa Bay's offense hasn't been full strength since before the start of the preseason. That will change Sunday when the Buccaneers kick off the 2009 regular season vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
Bucs starting wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton were sidelined for a significant portion of training camp due to a knee and hamstring injury, respectively.
In fact, Bryant had to undergo knee surgery, which sidelined him for all four of Tampa Bay's preseason games.
Bryant caught a team-high 83 passes for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns in his debut with the Bucs in 2008. That production earned Bryant the franchise tag this offseason, which increased his pay from the veteran league minimum to $9.88 million.
Despite changing offenses and offensive coordinators twice over the past six months, Bryant still be a big part of Tampa Bay's revamped offense.
"It goes from week-to-week," said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. "He got really hot down the stretch [last year], where he was on a six-week tare. He was an important piece and the centerpiece of the offense at that time, but I don't know that he came into the season as the centerpiece. He was comeback player of the year. As the season went on he became a centerpiece and a weapon. Now you look at the dynamics of our team, you have to say he is one of the centerpieces, if not the centerpiece. You'll see a lot of Bryant."
While he's back on the practice field and preparing to face the Cowboys, Bryant stopped short of saying he was 100 percent.
"I'm always rusty," said Bryant. "I felt like last year that while guys began deteriorating I was just getting into shape. Understanding the mentality behind that, I don't do things the same way I did them last year. I'll be okay. We'll play it smart, but I'll be okay."
Clayton's hamstring injury appears to be an ailment of the past. The former first-round pick suggested Bryant looked just fine on the practice field.
"He's looking good. He is in a mindset where I don't even think he's thinking about it," said Clayton. "He's almost pain free. With a few more days to go he should be good to go. We ran routes together and he looked fine. He's catching the ball well. He's been here long enough to know exactly what he has to do to get his body right."
New Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson suggested Bryant might have been able to play had the preseason been the regular season.
"We've been resting him," said Olson. "He's had some issues with an inflamed knee, but we were giving him some rest. He came out and practiced very hard today. I think some of the veteran players understand the business. They're not going to risk playing somewhat nicked up in the preseason and risk more injury. He's fresh and ready for the preseason, and he had a good practice today."
One potential concern could be non-health related in terms of Bryant's absence during the preseason. By not playing in any exhibition games, Bryant and starting quarterback Byron Leftwich haven't gotten a lot of work together.
However, neither Bryant nor Leftwich expressed much concern regarding the timing between the quarterback and wide receivers.
"No concerns, I had a chance to throw to these guys all summer," Leftwich said of Bryant and Clayton. "I've been here this summer and going through the OTAs and everything. It gets me to the point where I have no concern over that."
In order to get shake off the rust, Bryant plans to put in some extra work on the football field in the week leading up to Tampa Bay's Week 1 contest vs. Dallas, which happen to be Bryant's former team.
"A lot of spectacular catches are made because of bad timing," said Bryant. "That's how I look at it. I'm going to do a little extra on ball-catching. Like before the games I try to catch like a million balls, just so when the game is underway and the ball comes my way it's not the first time I'm catching the ball."
Leftwich believes Bryant and Clayton are two of the best wide receivers he's ever worked with in the NFL. Bryant shares a similar confidence level in Tampa Bay's veteran signal caller.
"He loads and unloads the ball a whole lot different than anything I've seen," Bryant said of Leftwich. "He has a lot of power behind his arm, but the most encouraging thing is he sees a lot and he's able to make adjustments. I've worked with guys that weren't able to do that in the past. I think that's a plus. He knows what's going on on the field, so even though I haven't played a lot with him I have a lot of confidence in him and in our ability to make plays together."