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Wide receiver Michael Clayton exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2004 when he caught a team-high 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns.

But injuries and dropped passes have plagued the former first-round draft pick over the past two seasons. In fact, he's caught a total of 65 passes for 728 yards and just one touchdown over the past two seasons, both of which ended with him on injured reserve.

Pewter Report's Jim Flynn had a conversation with Clayton after the team's organized team activity on Wednesday. Clayton touched on several topics, including the possibility of the Bucs using their first-round draft pick to select WR Calvin Johnson, the contract he signed with Bucs head coach Jon Gruden last offseason and whether he was asked to play safety in 2006. 

Read what Clayton had to say in this exclusive PewterReport.com Conversation. 

Mike, you’ve had two straight offseasons of ailments and surgeries. Now you’re coming off a season-ending knee injury you sustained during the Pittsburgh regular season game. Has three times been the charm or have you had more setbacks due to your latest injury?
“Yeah. I was perfectly healthy. I feel good. My body feels really good. Everything is going how Coach Gruden and the trainers expected things to go. We’re on a roll now. I’m just waiting for training camp to roll in and we’ll see how everything goes.”

Bruce Gradkowski came in and worked hard, but having a rookie quarterback really presented problems for the offense just because defenses were stacking the box and daring Bruce to beat them with his arm. Do you think people can appreciate how much Chris Simms’ injury impacted the offense, particularly the running game?
“It all depends on who you are. I think people that can’t appreciate what Chris Simms meant to our team last year and how valuable he was probably can’t appreciate anything. Chris is very valuable. He’s a natural leader. The guy goes out there with no fear. You can’t ask anything more of your quarterback. He’s a smart guy and he can make plays. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot of times last year by not finishing plays, before and after Chris got hurt. It’s not about the plays you make. It’s about correcting the mistakes. That’s what we’re trying to do this year.”

You worked hard to rehab your knee injury and get in top shape last offseason. How frustrating was it for you that the hard work didn’t necessarily translate into success on the football field, where you caught 33 passes for 356 yards and one touchdown in 2006?
“It wasn’t as frustrating as you might think. As players, you set out to do everything your coaches ask of you. That was me. For the first 12 games I did everything I was supposed to do. I had a few mishaps with the football. You go through that. You drop some balls here and there. Everybody does it. You just have to deal with it and move on. You’re frustrated in the moment and then it’s over with. In terms of the injuries, that’s just football. You can’t escape that playing the way I play sometimes. God blessed me that it wasn’t a career-ending injury. It was a four-week injury. We only had a few games left, so the Bucs placed me on injured reserve. I am back healthy and ready to move forward.”

With the injuries and problems in the defensive backfield, did the Bucs ever come to you asking you to possibly play safety last season? You had some experience doing that in college.
“No, not really, but I would’ve been open to it. I hunt heads on special teams. I feel like I get my defense in on special teams. [Special teams coach] Rich [Bisaccia] is one of the biggest reasons why I got drafted down here. I’m up for anything. Whatever I can do to help this team win, whether it be receiver, special teams or defense, I’m going to do it. With the depth we have at receiver there might be some opportunities for me to do some stuff like that. I’m certainly open to whatever it takes to help this team win.”

How tough was the dropped touchdown in Pittsburgh for you, Mike, especially seeing as your season ended two plays later on the catch you made?
“That was tough, but I just keep my focus. I know that I’m a football player and that I can play this game. I know the coaches on this team respect that. I’m a guy that submits myself to the team in any means necessary. As I’ve grown in the league I’ve gotten smarter, and I have to play smarter and not try to get that extra yard when you’re getting tackled by three or four people. I have to go ahead and get down because that’s the smart thing to do to prevent injuries. That’s what the Bucs want me to do this year – stay injury free. But they also don’t want me to take anything away from my game.”

Some wonder what it will take for you to return to your rookie form, where you caught 80 passes for over 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. But at the same time, Joey Galloway has emerged as a primary receiver in Jon Gruden’s offense over the past two seasons. When he wasn’t healthy in 2004, you emerged as the primary receiver as a rookie. You’re not catching 80 passes per season now, but Galloway has been quite productive. I can only assume you’ve played some sort of role in helping Galloway get open and be as productive as he’s been.
“It happens like that, man. My rookie year I was able to take advantage of a couple of guys getting injured. I was successful. We still lost games, but I was able to do what the team asked of me. I was successful when I was put in that role. I think the maturity stage of our offense is getting more guys involved. That’s going to be a big thing for us if we’re going to win a championship. We’ve got to get more guys involved. Maybe it’s not so much one guy getting 80 catches in a season. It might be a thing where two guys get 60-plus catches. I think that’s where we’ll see the top of our production in terms of receivers and offensive players.”

Mike, Coach Gruden presented you with a contract that listed things he wanted you to commit to doing last offseason. You committed by signing it. Do you feel like you lived up to that part of the contract?
“I definitely feel like I lived up to it. Coach Gruden and I have a good relationship. All he asks is that a guy be totally committed and dedicated to his team and to the game of football. I’ve done that. I’ve played hard and I’ve played hurt. That goes for everybody because we all play hurt. That’s just part of the game. If it was up to me last year, I would have never went on injured reserve. That was the team’s decision because they didn’t want my injury to get any worse. I’ve done my part, and I only look to enhance the things I’ve done here and to help this team win a championship.”

Contracts are usually a two-way street. Do you feel like Coach Gruden lived up to his end of the deal?
“Oh yeah. No, it was a one-sided contract. It was all on me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a team player. That’s who I am. Our backs are against the wall, and we’ve got to come out fighting. The work ethic has to be turned up a notch. As an offense, we’ve done that and will continue to do that. We’re going to take that mindset into training camp and see what happens.”

The year after you were drafted you went with the Bucs scouts and coaching staff to watch wide receiver Mike Williams work out at USF, and you were in favor of the team taking him even with you and Joey Galloway onboard. What are you thinking when you hear all of the pundits projecting the Bucs to select wide receiver Calvin Johnson with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft?
“If the guy can come in here and help this offense he’s accepted with open arms. It takes a lot for a rookie to come into this league and have success. You definitely have to have the mindset, and if you don’t have the mindset, we’ve seen over the last few years what happens. The top receivers that were drafted haven’t even gotten on the field in some cases. They haven’t been successful. They didn’t have the mindset. I think the coaches are taking that into account. I think the coaches are taking into account what I have to say, and what Joey Galloway has to say, and also what David Boston and Ike Hilliard have to say about it. The coaches are asking us now what we think about the receivers and how we can help this offense. I think that’s really good because we’re all getting involved in an effort to help make this team the best team possible in 2007.”

At the same time, drafting Calvin Johnson makes some sense. Joey Galloway can’t play forever, Jon Gruden is talking about moving Maurice Stovall over to play X (split end) behind Galloway, and Gruden would like to feature more three-receiver sets. How does a future receiver trio of Clayton, Johnson and Stovall sound to you?
“That wouldn’t be a bad thing. But right now we’re preparing for this year, not so much the future. The time to get things done is now. I think we’re doing what we need to do to get the players we need to get things done this year. If Calvin Johnson is there at No. 4 and we see him as the best fit to make us more successful this year, he’ll be our pick.”

Mike, you were part of a Bucs team that went from 5-11 to 11-5 in just one year. You also watched your division rival, the New Orleans Saints, go from 3-13 to first place in the NFC South division and the NFC Championship Game in just one season. How much will these examples help you and your teammates in terms of believing you can rebound from a disappointing 4-12 season in a short period of time?  
“You have to keep your focus. Some years, eight wins will get you in the playoffs. Other years 11 or 12 wins will get you in the playoffs. We have to take every game one at a time. Win or lose, you want your opponent to walk off the field saying the Bucs have one hell of a football team. In our division you play a team strong and word will get around. You really want to strike fear into your opponents. I think that’s our main mentality. We have a couple of new guys here that came from places where they had that mentality. They’re just going to add to what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

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