Competition is once again open — and welcome — at the wide receiver position.
That’s what Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden is stressing to his players this week as the team continues to search for WR Joey Galloway’s replacement.
The Bucs traded WR Keyshawn Johnson to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for Galloway last March. Galloway brought a speed element to Gruden’s offense and even prompted the head coach, who also calls offensive plays for the Bucs, to add some new wrinkles to his playbook, but with Galloway sidelined 4-6 weeks with a serious groin injury, the Bucs are counting on their backups to fill the void left at the split-end (X) position.
Replacing Galloway will be no easy task, though. Receivers Edell Shepherd (injured reserve) and Joe Jurevicius (physically unable to perform list) are injured and unavailable, and Tim Brown and Michael Clayton are currently filling the void left by WR Keenan McCardell (holdout) at the flanker (Z) position.
That means Charles Lee, Bill Schroeder and Frank Murphy are battling for a starting job, but Gruden said there’s a chance that all three receivers could see playing time against the Seattle Seahawks.
“We’ll see,” Gruden said. “We’re going to use the receivers that we have who are healthy. Michael Clayton’s off to a good start. We’ll try to get him more and more involved in the game. And Tim will be a part of it as well. We’ll see. Charles Lee, Bill Schroeder, even Frank Murphy might see some snaps.”
Last year, Lee was promoted to the starting lineup after Johnson was deactivated for the final six regular season games. Lee capitalized on the opportunity, catching 33 passes for 432 yards and two touchdowns in a total of eight games. He believes that game experience will help him should he get more playing time at receiver this season.
“I think that was a plus for me,” Lee said of last year’s game experience. “I was able to get my feet wet a little bit last year. I received some game time and game experience. I know what to expect, so now I can just got out and play and not worry about assignments and lack of game experience.”
Lee was challenging for playing time this offseason, but a severe hamstring injury caused him to miss most of training camp and three of Tampa Bay’s four preseason games. He caught three passes for 54 yards in the final exhibition contest at Houston, but the Bucs decided to deactivate Lee for last Sunday’s game at Washington.
“I’m practicing, I played in the last preseason game,” said Lee. “I felt as if I was well enough to play (last week), but the coaching staff felt as though they wanted to give me another week to get ready. It’s here now, so we’ll see what happens.”
Gruden said the motivation and real possibility to see some significant playing time at receiver this Sunday seemed to motivate Lee during Wednesday’s practice.
“Yeah, he’ll play,” Gruden said of Lee. “He’ll be active for the game and he had a much better practice today. We’re confident he’ll be ready to go.
“I don’t know what we’ll do there yet. We’ll use tomorrow to see exactly where Charles is. We’ll push him two days in a row to see how the leg feels. But we do look for him to play and we’ll see how big a part.”
Lee, who has a nice combination of size (6-3, 227) and speed, believes he has some of the same skills Galloway possesses.
“I’m not as fast as Joey, but I feel like I have some of the same skills,” said Lee. “It’s all about technique and how you set guys up. I’m more than capable of doing the things that he had in the offense and hopefully Coach Gruden will give me a shot this week.”
Like Lee, Schroeder (6-3, 200) has good size and speed, but he’s also got more playing experience. In fact, Schroeder has played in 105 career games with 76 starts while hauling in 299 passes for 4,453 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Next to Galloway, Murphy (6-0, 206) is probably the second-fastest player on Tampa Bay’s roster, but he lacks experience at the receiver position.
Since entering the NFL out of Kansas State in 2000, Murphy has been working on making the transition from running back to wide receiver while making an immediate impact as a kickoff returner. If Gruden is looking to replace Galloway’s speed, Murphy says he’s his man.
“I will expect that coach will want some speed, and to stretch the field, and clear it out and open it up for some more people,” said Murphy. “I’ll get out there and run and do what I have to do to help the team. Anything he needs me for, screens or whatever.”
Brown said everybody needs to be ready to contribute since Gruden’s offense is known for spreading the ball around to different receivers.
“Everybody’s going to have to step up,” said Brown. “Obviously Joey was going to be the guy. We certainly look forward to having him back but Charles Lee was walking around all last week with his head down because he knew he wasn’t going to be playing this last weekend but it’s a whole different week for him now. Now you have to get going and just come in and chip in. With what Gruden is doing nobody is going to be asked to come in and catch 15 balls a game. You’re going to have the opportunity to catch two or three and you have to get it done.”
Clayton, who hauled in a team-high seven passes for 53 yards against the Redskins, concurred with Brown’s sentiment.
“More than just myself, it is going to be everybody on the receiving corps,” Clayton said. “I think the mentality that we have is that once somebody goes down, the next person has to step up whoever that may be. We all work together, there’s not just one guy who’s going to be a playmaker on this receiving corps. You can’t do it by yourself; it has to be a team effort. It sometimes takes a guy being a decoy, if that guy isn’t doing his job 100 percent; the pattern is not going to work. It will be a must that we all step up.”
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