Consider Buccaneers wide receiver Michael Clayton a fan of new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. Not only is the six-year veteran out of the doghouse he was in under former head coach and playcaller Jon Gruden, Clayton is flourishing as a starting flanker opposite Antonio Bryant.
On the heels of signing a five-year contract extension worth approximately $26 million, Clayton is seeing a lot more passes thrown his way in practice, which is a welcome change from how things used to be under Gruden, who often featured Joey Galloway or Antonio Bryant as the primary option in the passing game while Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2004 was relegated to a complementary role – when he wasn't hurt.
"It is just a different mentality," Clayton said. "Not to say anything negative about Coach Gruden because we all know that he's a genius when it comes to putting together offenses, but the mentality we have is that we are going to score points. I can remember times when all the receivers were taken out of the game in the red zone, for years, and we are throwing to tight ends. This is definitely not the issue. [Jagodzinski] utilizes the receivers. I'm happy for that, and happy to have this opportunity. five-year veteran and going into my six years and the experiences that I've learned. The one-on-ones that we take every day killing the cornerbacks (laughing). We actually get to [do] that. It is a great feeling to be go out and know that the coach has the confidence in the receivers and tight ends to get everybody involved."
Despite catching 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie in 2004, Clayton has played second fiddle to Galloway and Bryant over the years, watching Galloway set a team record with three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 2005-07 and witness Bryant have a breakout season with 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns last year while Clayton was relegated to catching 38 passes for 484 yards and one score.
Injuries and dropped passes played a part in limiting Clayton's opportunities in the past, but he was healthy last year for the first time since 2004 and was seldom used on offense, catching an average of 2.5 passes per game while Bryant doubled his production. Early indications from Tampa Bay's organized team activities suggest that Jagodzinski will be spreading the ball around more this year in the passing game.
"Definitely, throughout the OTAs speaking on the difference, it is a different game plan," said Clayton. "I remember the days when I would catch one ball every two days. I would be coming in having done all that work to catch one ball and watch an hour of film and I'm not on it. To have everybody involved – it feels good. To be able to sit on the sideline and see the next group of guys come in and make plays it brings a whole lot more camaraderie because everybody wants to watch the film and everybody is getting an opportunity. We have that much more focus, and that much more people having success and allowing the players to learn from it, so that is why I think the young guys will do well here."
Clayton was asked if the lack of practice receptions hurt his production during the games.
"I think it was pretty even, if you aren't in the game plan in practice don't expect to be in the game plan during the game. That is the coaches mentality," said Clayton. "I think it is like that on every team. I expect no surprises, really. I think the balls that I got were because of Jeff Garcia making plays, me staying with him, and him being able to roll out and him making a play and me making a play. We had a lot of that last year. That is where my success came from. It wasn't where we are going to designate it ‘This ball to M80.' It wasn't like that, and I accepted that because that wasn't my role last year and I couldn't do anything about that last year. All I could do is make the best of my opportunity.
"I was blessed last year to have a pretty good season and help the team win some games. Getting back in there and help lead my team to what we would say was very successful first half or three quarters of the season. I'm proud of that, and I'm proud to be back. I'm proud to be a part of the change in this locker room, and proud to be part of what this team will be under the leadership of Coach Morris. Everybody respects him, and loves him, and everybody wants to see him do well, so in terms of as a leader on this team we have to make sure everybody falls in line with that. At the end of the day that is going to be the main ingredient of us winning a championship. I've seen it, and talked to the guys. Ryan Clark is a good friend of mine he is a safety on the Steelers, and went to LSU. I talked to him and worked out in Arizona with him and he said that is what it was: it felt like family. It was a family."
Clayton has also noticed the increased competition at the quarterback position with the arrival of veteran Byron Leftwich, who won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh last year as a reserve. Leftwich, a former first-round pick in Jacksonville, is competing with Luke McCown for the right to start this year in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers also spent a first-rounder on Kansas State's Josh Freeman, but Clayton believes the talented rookie will need some time to learn the NFL game before legitimately competing for the starting job.
"Everybody is making plays," Clayton said. "I'm familiar with the quarterback situation and having a lot of guys to choose from. I've caught passes from quite a few guys, so it makes no difference to me, but the thing is now I really feel that the quarterbacks are getting the opportunity to be more aggressive and throw more balls downfield. When you have receivers saying ‘man we are catching too many balls.' When you have that feeling, and you can take a break on the sideline and watch the next group of guys and get balls down the field, you know that this thing is not going stop. Individually the steps that they have taken, of bringing Byron [Leftwich] in, he won a championship last year and played a big part in them winning and he played a big role on that team. You can tell by his demeanor that he has been there and is confident. I think that alone will push everybody else to be great quarterbacks.
"With Josh Freeman who knows if it is going to be his time this year, but he is still a baby, and he has time to grow into that situation will allow him to be the quarterback of the future. It will give him a better opportunity. It will definitely push Luke [McCown] to be the best quarterback that he can be. I think it is a great situation for all three quarterbacks. Even Josh [Johnson] when he steps in. He knows his role and his reps are limited, but it forces him when he gets the opportunity to get in, he throws the ball downfield. We have all seen dramatic steps since Byron has gotten here, and he has been able to push them from a veteran standpoint and it is good for them."
Freeman isn't the only rookie who has caught Clayton's eye this week during the OTAs. Clayton was heaping praise on the team's seventh-round draft pick, Sammie Stroughter, who was a 1,000-yard receiver at Oregon State last year.
"The guy has great feet," Clayton said. "He has caught every ball that has touched his hands. He is a natural hand catcher. He snatches it. He is a smart guy that has caught onto the offense really well. He goes in and plays the offense. When I talked to him, I told him the steps that I took to get to know the offense on a day-by-day basis. Gruden's offense was way more extensive, so I had to spend a lot more time on it. We don't have that volume now so it is allowing him to be more precise in the sense that he is coming along very well. He has some speed, and he has caught on to everything that coach Mann has coached him up on, and he is going to do well. He is going to do real well."
While Stroughter is vying for a roster spot, Clayton's is virtually guaranteed given his veteran standing at One Buccaneer Place, his past production when healthy and his contract. Now Clayton is aiming to become a bigger part of the offense. It seems Jagodzinski is willing to oblige. Clayton also has a goal of being a leader in the Bucs roster.
"I think definitely it is a situation at this point in my career it will be different from the past," Clayton said. "Individually in terms of my opportunities as a wide receiver and in terms of leadership with all the changes that are going on. I'm one of the older guys in the locker room with the number of years I've had here. That means a lot as well with the leadership role that they have asked me to take. With everybody that has been here younger than me, and with the new guys coming in it is no different than when [Quincy] Black came in and my [leadership] role to him. Now my leadership expands to the whole team. Nobody is really the lone voice of the team, or the mentality of the team, and how we go about the process in the locker room. We are a like a family, and we are bringing the team together."
QUOTE OF THE DAY Head of the NFL Players Association DeMaurice Smith met with the media and talked about his dinner with former Buccaneers NFLPA represenative Derrick Brooks on Tuesday night.
"I'm not sure it is an everyday occurrence when you meet a man like Derrick Brooks and spend time with him," Smith said. "He is not only passionate about the game, but he is passionate about his community, his life. He is special."