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Tampa Bay will head into the 2007 offseason looking to upgrade several positions on the offensive side of the football.
Will wide receiver be one of them?
Joey Galloway has caught 127 passes for and 15 touchdowns over the past two seasons with the Buccaneers. However, the speedy receiver is 35 and will turn 36 during the 2007 regular season.
Galloway needs a successor, and although he’s not as fast as No. 84, the Bucs believe Maurice Stovall, the team’s third-round pick last April, can be that player.
In fact, the Bucs plan to move Stovall, who has been crosstrained at all three different receiver positions during his rookie season, to the X (split-end) spot in 2007.
He doesn’t have Galloway’s speed, but the 6-foot-4, 229-pound Stovall has the size Bucs head coach Jon Gruden craves in a receiver, and he wouldn’t mind getting bigger at the split-end spot.
Although he’s under contract and is affordable next season, Ike Hilliard isn’t a player the Bucs feel can help significantly improve the wide receiver position next year.
The one player inquiring minds want to know about is WR Michael Clayton, who was recently placed on injured reserve for the second time in as many seasons.
Clayton (6-3, 215) entered 2006 on the hot seat after a sub-par and injury-plagued 2005 season.
After catching a team-leading 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, Clayton hauled in just 32 passes for 372 yards and no scores in 14 games (10 starts) in ’05.
His disappointing season, which was deemed a sophomore slump, could be attributed to the fact that Clayton put off having knee surgery in the offseason, which in turn caused him to rehab late in the offseason and enter training camp out of shape.
The 2004 first-round pick out of LSU also suffered a dislocated shoulder and a turf toe injury during the ’05 season while the Bucs won the NFC South division title and made the playoffs.
Clayton underwent knee surgery again in 2006, but he got that procedure out of the way early in the offseason and went through vigorous rehab in order to return to action in time for Tampa Bay’s first organized team activity.
To prove he was willing to do whatever it took to return to his rookie form, Clayton even agreed to sign a contract that was crafted by Gruden, who outlined the things he thought Clayton needed to do in order to rebound and become great.
“He worked his butt off,” Gruden said when asked if Clayton had lived up to the contract he signed with the coach this offseason. “He had a good offseason and a good training camp. He played hard for us. I was pleased with the effort he gave us. He has to put in a lot more effort if he wants to become a superstar or become a great player. He did come back in great shape and did the things he needed to do to overcome some injuries. That’s how I’d assess it.”
Clayton was determined to prove that his 2005 outing was the exception and not the norm. Unfortunately for he and the Bucs, Clayton’s hard work didn’t necessarily pay off this season.
While he stayed relatively healthy before spraining his MCL last Sunday against Pittsburgh, Clayton caught just 33 passes for 356 yards and one touchdown in 12 starts this season.
In Clayton’s defense, Tampa Bay’s offense hasn’t exactly shined. It’s currently ranked 30th in the league and led by a rookie quarterback in Bruce Gradkowski, who has struggled over the past several games. The offense also features two starting rookie offensive linemen in Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph, and a running back in Cadillac Williams, who is experiencing his own version of a sophomore slump.
“There’s a lot of things you can attribute that to,” Gruden said of Clayton’s lack of receptions this season. “But I’m not going to get too deep or analytical about it. All you have to do is watch the film and take a look at it at close range, and you’ll get your answers. He did do some good things – he’s a physical guy. And there’s still work to be done.”
What’s becoming a disturbing trend and part of Clayton’s game is his inability to catch passes on a consistent basis. Clayton has had several drops this year, including the perfectly thrown pass that Gradkowski tossed to him down the right sideline during Sunday’s game that would have surely resulted in a touchdown for the Bucs.
Instead, the ball went off of his hands and onto the ground. A few plays later, Clayton caught a pass and suffered the season-ending knee injury while fighting for extra yardage.
Clayton has caught 145 career passes for 1,921 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons with the Bucs, and some are starting to wonder if he has the ability to work his way into becoming an elite receiver.
Tampa Bay likely will be open to the possibility of acquiring a wide receiver that can either compete with – or possibly replace – Clayton in 2007, and they’ll have the draft picks and salary cap room to do it.
The 3-9 Bucs will be hard pressed to win another game this season with upcoming contests vs. Atlanta, at Cleveland, at Chicago and vs. Seattle, and likely will secure a top 5 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
That could put the Bucs in position to draft Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson, who is considered by many to be the best player at his position entering next year’s draft.
Johnson (6-5, 235) has caught 169 career passes for 3,835 yards and 26 touchdowns in three collegiate seasons at Georgia Tech. He’s having an impressive junior year, where he’s caught 67 passes for 1,016 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The last Johnson that played wide receiver for the Bucs wasn’t exactly Gruden’s favorite player, but Calvin Johnson will certainly be a player on Gruden’s radar in ’07.
The Bucs, who are scheduled to be at least $25 million under the cap in ’07, could also turn to free agency for a veteran wide receiver.
Oakland wide receivers Randy Moss and Jerry Porter could be on their way out of Oakland, and if that turns out to be the case, expect Tampa Bay to be interested, especially in Porter, whom Gruden worked with in Oakland.
But even if they draft a receiver or sign one in free agency, it won’t necessarily mean the Bucs are going to part ways with Clayton. However, Clayton isn’t guaranteed a starting job in 2007, either.
Clayton, 24, has a base salary of just $755,000 in ’07, and his salary cap value is actually scheduled to lower from $2.177 million to $1.606 million.
If the Bucs do decide to release or trade Clayton, the latter of which would be more likely, they wouldn’t provide any additional cap room and would actually take approximately a $1 million cap hit.
Clayton is currently under contract through the 2009 season. The final year of his deal is voidable. The only question that some will ask as the offseason approaches is will the Bucs decide to void Clayton’s deal sooner rather than later.
As or right now, that doesn’t seem like a likely scenario.
“It’s not a finished product,” Gruden said of Clayton. “He’s 24 years old, and everybody wants to write the final chapter about him, but he’s only played about 30 games for us and he’s still a young guy. He’s not perfect yet, but our goal is to reach perfection There’s still work to be done, and he’s going to have to work if he wants to become great.”
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