By Jeff Berlinicke
Of all the positions up for grabs when summer camp starts in two weeks, wide receiver is not one of them, at least when it comes to starters.
There’s not much more Michael Clayton could have done during his rookie season last year that could have been better. He was simply the Bucs best offensive player, completing maybe the best all-around season for a wideout in Bucs history.
Clayton barely got off the bench in the first four games as coach Jon Gruden relied on his veterans and that turned out to be a disaster. Veteran Tim Brown was a bench player after starting the first five games, and the Bucs stumbled out of the gate until Clayton got his turn with Brian Griese taking over as the third starting quarterback of the season.
Clayton combined excellent hands, an uncanny knack for running the perfect routes, and just enough speed to make an impact as a deep threat. The Bucs won only five games last season, but not for lack of performance by Clayton.
Joey Galloway proved he still has some speed at the other wideout despite missing the first four games of last season. He says openly that he considers himself the fastest player in the NFL and, while that’s highly dubious, he can still burn it with the best.
The problem for Gruden is that both players underwent off-season surgery and weren’t able to participate in any of the mini camps Gruden said that wasn’t a big deal since it gave him a chance to see who will round out the five receivers expected to make the team, but that both should be ready by training camp.
The Bucs lost valuable third wideout Joe Jurevicius to free agency, but added a bargain with free agent Ike Hilliard. Hilliard’s number slipped a little bit last season with the New York Giants, but the former Florida Gator reminds a lot of people of Jurevicius. He doesn’t have game-breaking speed, but he has good hands and is a nice option for Griese when Clayton and Galloway are covered deep. Fourth receiver Charles Lee also left as a free gent, but the Bucs may have a diamond in the rough with rookie Larry Brackins, a mid-round draft pick from Pearl River (Miss.) Community College. Brackins obviously flew under the radar but the Bucs think highly of him. He’s another burner who had other NFL team quite interested. He’s raw, but the Bucs like what they see.
There are 20 other wide receivers on the Bucs roster, none of whom you have ever heard of except for possibly former University of South Florida receiver DeAndrew Rubin, a St. Petersburg native. One of them will likely stick since, if the Bucs throw any free agent money around, it will likely be for positions with much more of an urgent need. A late training camp cut may also find his way to the Bucs roster.
Heading into camp, the receiving corps is steady if not spectacular. Of course Galloway and Clayton must remain healthy and Hilliard needs to show he take the place of Jurevicius, but the receivers will be more important than last year with Griese starting from the opening of camp rather than Brad Johnson who specialized in control offense. With Griese in control from the start, look for the Bucs to chuck it downfield much more than last season and that’s where Galloway and Clayton will play a huge roll.
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