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Tampa Bay’s wide receiver position has been one of interest this offseason, and it could become one of need for the Bucs if Joey Galloway and/or Michael Clayton miss a significant amount of time this season due to injury.

The Bucs will be set at wide receiver if Clayton can return to his rookie form and Galloway can turn in another outstanding season in 2006.

Galloway caught a team-high 83 passes for 1,287 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdowns while starting all 16 regular season games for the Bucs. The Bucs likely will once again limit Galloway to one-a-day practices at training camp in an effort to keep the 34-year-old, speedy receiver healthy.

While the 5-foot-11, 197-pound Galloway managed to stay healthy in 2005, Clayton struggled mightily with injuries. He waited too long to have his knee scoped last offseason, and as a result, the second-year receiver entered training camp out of shape. To make matters worse, Clayton suffered a separated shoulder in preseason.

Clayton, who led the team in receptions in his rookie season, caught just 32 passes for 372 yards and no touchdowns before suffering what turned out to be a season-ending turf toe injury in Week 16 of the regular season.

The former first-round pick was embarrassed by his dismal performance in 2005, and he’s working hard this offseason to prove to his critics that last year was the exception, not the norm. After undergoing minor knee surgery in January, Clayton (6-3, 215) has been a regular at One Buccaneer Place this offseason, which is something the Bucs are pleased with.

Before re-signing Ike Hilliard, the Bucs took a hard look at a couple of other wide receivers. The team expressed interest in signing St. Louis free agent WR Isaac Bruce before he re-signed with the Rams.

Although they did not toss their name out there as a team interested in acquiring him, the Bucs indeed were interested in former Buffalo Bills WR Eric Moulds. However, being interested was about the only thing the cap-strapped Bucs could afford to do with Moulds, who eventually signed a four-year, $14 million deal with the Houston Texans, who surrendered a fifth-round draft pick to the Bills in exchange for Moulds.

With Moulds out of their price range and free agent receivers like Marc Boerigter and Tim Carter opting against signing with the Bucs, Tampa Bay signed Hilliard (5-11, 210) to a four-year contract. Hilliard, 30, proved to be a serviceable receiver in his first year with the Bucs. Although he caught just one touchdown, 24 of Hilliard’s 35 receptions resulted in first downs last season.

After those three players, the Bucs are extremely young and experienced at the wide receiver position. In fact, nine of the 13 wide receivers on their offseason roster have less than three years playing experience in the NFL.

Edell Shepherd (6-1, 175) is considered one of the best route runners on the team and made a huge touchdown catch against the Washington Redskins during the regular season. However, Shepherd struggled down the stretch, fumbling a kickoff in overtime against Atlanta that nearly cost Tampa Bay the game, and dropping a perfect strike from quarterback Chris Simms in the end zone on a play that would have put the Bucs in position to tie their playoff game vs. the Washington Redskins late in the fourth quarter. Although he has an edge over some of the team’s younger receivers, Shepherd isn’t guaranteed an active roster spot in 2006.

Mark Jones (5-9, 185) has yet to emerge as a playmaking receiver for the Bucs, but unless Tampa Bay drafts a player with punt and kickoff return ability, Jones stands a good chance of keeping his roster spot. He did a good job of solidifying the Bucs’ punt return position, where he averaged 9.6 yards per attempt in 2005.

But Tampa Bay might not be eager to dedicate one of its 53-man roster spots to a player that isn’t ready to contribute at receiver and can only return punts. If the Bucs draft a return specialist, that player and Jones could be competing for one available roster spot in training camp and preseason.

Tampa Bay is hoping one of the three receivers it drafted in 2005 will step up and separate themselves from the rest of the group. That player could be Larry Brackins, who was drafted in the fifth round last year. Brackins (6-4, 205), a raw player that dominated at the JUCO level, was given a redshirt year in 2005, but the Bucs might not have that luxury this season.

The good news for the Bucs is Brackins made some unbelievable plays in practice last year, and with a year of head coach Jon Gruden’s system under his belt, Brackins could be the guy that steps up this season. Even if he shows he’s made progress at the receiver position, Brackins must make a significant impact on special teams.

The other two receivers, Paris Warren (6-0, 213) and J.R. Russell (6-3, 206), both of whom were drafted by the Bucs in the seventh round last year, must step up at both the receiver position and on special teams in order to have a chance or securing a roster spot. The climb up depth chart will only get tougher for Warren and Russell if the Bucs draft another wide receiver this year, which they’re expected to do.

This year’s group of wide receivers isn’t the best the NFL Draft has seen in recent years. It’s particularly a down year in the eyes of the Bucs, who prefer bigger wide receivers.

Although there’s a lack of size amongst this group, the Bucs will have a shot to draft Arizona State’s Derek Hagan (6-1, 208), Notre Dame’s Maurice Stovall (6-4, 219), Oklahoma’s Travis Hall (6-1, 210), Oregon State’s Mike Hass (6-0, 209), Western Michigan’s Greg Jennings (5-11, 195), Miami of Ohio’s Martin Nance (6-4, 210), New Mexico’s Hank Baskett (6-2, 220) and Auburn’s Anthony Mix (6-5, 250) in this draft.

The remaining Bucs receivers, Chas Gessner (6-4, 215), Terrence Stubbs (5-11, 190), Jonathan Carter (6-0, 180), Derek McCoy (6-3, 210) and B.J. Johnson (5-11, 207), are considered long shots to make the team and likely will serve as extra bodies in training camp and preseason.

Current Position Grade: B-

Bucs Update Publishing Schedule
April 22 – Tight Ends
April 23 – Offensive Tackles
April 23 – Centers/Guards
April 24 – Defensive Ends
April 25 – Defensive Tackles
April 26 – Linebackers
April 27 – Cornerbacks
April 27 – Safeties
April 28 – Kickers/Punters

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