Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton has started 32 games for the Buccaneers since entering the National Football League in 2004.

But Tampa Bay’s official depth chart, which was released on Tuesday, suggests Clayton is in danger of losing his starting job to WR Maurice Stovall.

The official depth chart currently has Joey Galloway and Stovall, not Clayton, listed as first-team wide receivers.

A former first-round draft pick, Clayton exploded on to the scene as a rookie when he hauled in a team-leading 80 passes for 1,193 yards (14.9 avg.) and seven touchdowns.

However, Clayton struggled to rebound from a knee injury that required surgery during the 2005 offseason. As a result, Clayton caught just 32 passes for 372 yards and no touchdowns while playing in just 14 games (10 starts).

Clayton entered the 2006 offseason healthy, but the Bucs didn’t take any chances. They secured an insurance policy by selecting Stovall in the third round of the 2006 NFL Draft.

Last season, the quarterback position hindered the offense’s production, including Clayton’s. As a result, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Clayton caught just 33 passes for 356 yards and one touchdown in 12 games (nine starts) before finishing his second straight season on injured reserve.

During the offseason, Stovall, who hauled in seven passes for 102 yards in nine games (two starts) as a rookie, made quite a bit of progress and established himself as a legitimate competitor for the starting Z (flanker) job by running sharp routes and displaying soft hands, the latter of which is something Clayton struggled to do in 2005.

Stovall said he took what he learned from his rookie season and used it to help him prepare for 2007.

“I went through my first year, so now I feel as though I’ve been through it. I know what to expect now,” said Stovall. “As a rookie you really don’t know what to expect. You see a lot of guys who you’ve read about or who you’ve seen on TV, so for one thing you’re not star struck. The other thing is I knew going into this offseason how to prepare myself during an offseason and knew how to get ready for camp. The season is really long and you have to take care of your body better.”

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden downplayed the significance of Stovall being listed ahead of Clayton on the team’s depth chart, but he did acknowledge the fact that the competition is bringing out the best in some of his players at that particular position.

“I don’t know who’s ahead of who,” Gruden said, “Clayton has come on. Ike Hilliard no one ever talks about him and he might have been our most productive receiver out at camp. David Boston is having a great camp as well. Clayton is picking it up and that’s a good sign for us. Stovall had a great start and I think he’s got some lower soreness right now that shows, but we’re really high on Maurice as well and it’s real competitive at receiver.”

When asked for his reaction to Stovall being listed ahead of him on the official depth chart, Clayton didn’t seem too surprised and suggested he would use it as extra motivation to return to his rookie form.

“Everybody is out here competing,” said Clayton. “Things happen for a reason. The past two years haven’t been production-wise what I want it to be or what the Bucs want it to be. It definitely gives me an incentive to go out there and fight back to my normal self.”

Clayton has turned in an impressive training camp, but the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Stovall’s has been even better, which according to Clayton is a credit to the former Notre Dame standout.

“It’s [definitely a credit to him],” Clayton said. “As a young guy he’s come in and performed. With his size you want a guy like that to be out there to help your team make plays. He’s displayed the things that he can do in crowds in the red zone that gives him the ability to make plays. Man, I wish the best for the kid and I’m definitely going to support him. The most important thing is about winning games and whatever our role is we have to fulfill it as players because we want to bring a championship back to Tampa.”

Stovall, who is typically the last player off of the practice field, insists he has a lot more work ahead of him, but he’s pleased that his abilities are being noticed by both his coaches and teammates.

“It definitely reflects that my hard work is being recognized,” Stovall said. “At the same time I have to take advantage of my opportunities. I have to show up, execute all of my plays and make plays when called upon and carry myself as though I’m a starter.”

In addition to competing with Stovall for a starting job, Clayton has spent more time getting cross-trained at multiple receiver positions. Even if he doesn’t beat out Stovall for the starting flanker job, Clayton is confident he’ll see action on offense in another capacity.

“It’s been pretty good for me physically and mentally,” said Clayton. “It’s an opportunity for me to learn some other positions. In the past I was just flanker, but I’ve had the opportunity to learn the X and the Z – some other positions that allow me the opportunity to get on the field and help this team win.”

Tampa Bay moved its training camp practice indoors to a ballroom at the Omni Hotel on Tuesday morning.

This marked the third time this training camp that the Bucs have moved their practice from Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex to the Omni Hotel.

This time, however, the practice was not moved indoors due to inclement weather.

“We had a final examination for some guys. We got about 170 reps, looked at a lot of things,” said Gruden. “A lot of above-the-neck work today. There were some guys, quarterbacks, that I wanted to stay away from throwing. Guys like [defensive end] Patrick Chukwurah, [linebacker] Cato June, [defensive tackle] Chris Hovan there were some guys I wanted to keep off of their feet a little bit. It really was a final examination for us. We had about a two-hour walk through. A lot of good reps and a lot of good tape to learn from. We got a new opponent, a game we have to get ready for so we used this morning to prepare a little bit.

While there’s nothing like playing football on grass, the Bucs players feel like they benefit from the walk-thru-type of practice.

“We’ve done it before,” said Clayton. “We do it at the hotels before games, so it’s no problem. It’s a good opportunity for guys to get their legs back before the game. I think we’ll definitely take advantage of it.”

Tampa Bay will play its first preseason game of the year against the New England Patriots at Raymond James Stadium at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday evening.

After two weeks of going up against their own teammates, the Bucs players are ready to battle another opponent.

“I hope they are itching [to play their first game]. We had a great offseason,” said Gruden. “We have been pushing sleds and studying film and working hard and that’s why you do that to get ready to play games. New England will be a great challenge and they are very talented and we think we have some talent here and some real high effort players and hopefully it shows Friday night.

If Clayton’s thoughts about playing the team’s first preseason game of the year mean anything, Gruden should be pleased.

“I was just telling Coach [Gruden] that it’s a good opportunity to release some of the steam you’ve built up from all of these practices,” said Clayton. “You get to go out on a kickoff team or the special teams or you get the chance to release something on a defensive back that you’ve been holding back. It’s a great opportunity to get that off your chest.”

Tampa Bay will be without at least two players – quarterback Chris Simms and offensive tackle Luke Petitgout – for its first preseason game of the year.

Petitgout has missed a significant amount of practices due to a back strain. He did not accompany his teammates to the Omni Hotel for Tuesday morning’s walk-thru.

However, Gruden expects Petitgout to return to practice next week and play in Tampa Bay’s second preseason contest, which is at Jacksonville.

“Luke is doing fine is what I’m being told,” Gruden said. “We expect him to be ready to go for the next preseason game. We are just taking our time, it’s been a little bit frustrating, but we feel like we are on schedule for the next week’s ball game.

“He has some back pain and it’s been treated and it’s improved tremendously. He probably could have practiced today, maybe this morning, but we are going to let this thing heal. He’s been through this before, he’s played a long time with it and there are a lot of players like him in pro football that have had similar circumstances. Look for Luke next week.”

Although Simms has been deemed healthy, his mechanics and throwing form have been off this offseason, and those problems have carried over into training camp to the point where Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown and Bruce Gradkowski have been receiving the majority of passing opportunities.

Gruden suggested Simms, who took a a good portion of reps as a scout team quarterback during Tuesday afternoon’s practice, has a long way to go before he climbs back into the quarterback competition.

“Yeah [scout team] is going to be his role for a while until he regains his overall confidence in what he’s doing,” Gruden said of Simms. “He had some balls tipped, he missed some throws, but he also stood in there and made some nice deliveries and he will be a work in progress for the rest of this week and like Petitgout, hopefully we get him ready for the next ballgame.

“He needs to regain his confidence and his stroke and he certainly needs to round himself back into football shape. The quickness of his decisions and the delivery of the ball has to be accurate and on time and the only way you do that is to get reps.”


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