The Tampa Bay Buccaneers officially signed former New York Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard to a one-year contract on Friday.
Hilliard, a former first-round draft pick, played collegiately at the University of Florida. Before being released in a salary-cap maneuver earlier in the offseason, Hilliard played in 98 career games (92 starts) with the Giants, catching 368 passes for 4,630 yards (12.6 avg.) and 27 touchdowns.
“This is a great opportunity for me to play football again,” Hilliard said from One Buccaneer Place on Friday. “I was out of a job for a couple of months, so I was just trying to mentally prepare myself for what may happen next. I was fortunate enough to get that call from Coach Gruden. I was blessed enough with this great opportunity. So, it’s great to be back in the state of Florida, where I played college ball. Right now, we live in Miami, so it’s not that far of a commute.”
The addition of Hilliard gives the Bucs some much-needed veteran depth at the wide receiver position. He and Galloway are currently the only two Bucs WRs that have more than two years playing experience in the NFL.
“Ike has proven what he can do in this league, and we are excited to have him here,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “He is a versatile player, and we expect him to help us. He is a guy that we are really going to lean on.”
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Hilliard is coming off of a sub-par season in which he caught 49 passes for 437 yards (8.9 avg.) and no touchdowns in 16 games (15 starts), but he hopes to rebound as Tampa Bay’s No. 3 receiver behind Galloway and Michael Clayton.
“I just want to come in and do whatever it takes to help this football team win and just try and be a productive football player,” Hilliard said. “I am a year removed from learning a new system in New York. I can come down here and learn another system and try and do what I can to get as comfortable as I can possibly be in this offense and do whatever is asked of me as a teammate.”
Despite having a somewhat disappointing season in 2004, Hilliard drew interest from several teams on the free agent market, including the Giants and Tennessee Titans, but he had his reasons for signing with Tampa Bay.
“I think it was the best fit because of what they have here and what I may be asked to do as far as my role in the offense,” said Hilliard. “I think this system fits my style of play pretty well. Regardless of any other offer, this is pretty much where we wanted to be. It’s just a matter of getting a phone call; and interest in having a dialogue; and can you get it done.”
Hilliard suggested that money was not his primary incentive for playing for the Bucs, who signed him to a deal that is believed to be worth near the veteran league minimum of $750,000. Instead, Hilliard is looking to prove his critics wrong and stay healthy, which has been a challenge, evidenced by the fact that he’s only been able to play an entire season three out of the eight years he’s been in the league due to various injuries.
“We all want to be taken care of financially, but I’m here more for the non-economical reasons,” said Hilliard. “I want to show people I can play. I’ve had enough of the dirt-throwing. I’m hoping to show that I’m playing with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Definitely, after signing a contract today, I’m not trying to play anywhere else. I want to finish my career here. And I’m not trying to move my family across the country. The money, we’re getting paid great money. We’re very fortunate. If I play well and stay healthy, that stuff will come. That’s the furthest thing from my mind right now. I’m just looking forward to having an opportunity to play and make some plays. I’m just grateful to be back in the National Football League.”
Hilliard helped the Giants make an appearance in Super Bowl XXXV by catching a career-high eight touchdown passes in 2000, and was a former All-SEC player at Florida and helped the Gators win a National Championship in 1996.
Hilliard’s return to Florida along with the success he had as a Gator has prompted him to change from jersey No. 88 to No. 19, which was his old college number and just happens to be former Bucs WR Keyshawn Johnson’s number.
“After I was released by New York, I said that if I had the opportunity to play again, being that the league was a little more lenient as far as the numbers are concerned, I wanted to wear my old college number,” said Hilliard. “I know what that number means to this organization, and what they may or may not have gone through, and that’s the most I’ll say about that. If there are any comparisons, I’ll leave that to you guys and anybody else; I just want to wear my old number again and close that chapter with the 88 and move on. But it’s just great being back in Florida. I think I’m really going to have fun playing football again, so I’m looking forward to that.”
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