TAMPA — It wasn't long ago that receiver Antonio Bryant was the Buccaneers' most feared offensive player.
In 2008 he caught practically every pass, racked up yards after his catches and was the focal point of each offensive game plan.
This was to be the season Bryant made 2008 seem routine. Yet days before the final game of a lost season, Bryant sits with less than half of the receptions and yards he had one year ago, the result of a gimpy knee and a sometimes directionless offense.
What's more, Bryant faces free agency in the offseason with nary a clue whether the Bucs intend to re-sign him after designating him their franchise player for 2009.
"Nothing is guaranteed," he said. "I pray next year comes and it's a good year and I can just go out there healthy. If not here, then it'll be somewhere."
This is what Bryant, 28, feared could happen when he stood his ground during the offseason and demanded a long-term contract extension. The team opted for the franchise-player designation at a $9.88 million price tag, but that was only a one-year guarantee.
Now Bryant will be on the market again. Had he put together a season like 2008 — when he had 83 catches for 1,248 yards — he would be among the most intriguing free agents. Instead, he is a good player whose value is difficult to determine after a season of 37 catches for 585 yards.
His preseason right knee injury was an impediment for half the season, so even as his health improved, he had become something of an afterthought in coordinator Greg Olson's offense.
Still, he has strong performances. In recent games against the Falcons and Panthers, he totaled 207 yards on eight receptions, including a handful of circuslike catches.
"I'm not worried about (teams) judging me," Bryant said. "If it's not one thing, it's another. First it's, 'Oh, he has an attitude. Oh, he has baggage.' Okay, now you don't see that. Now, what is it? 'Oh, he got injured.' Man, turn on the (game) film and let it play."
The free-agent landscape works in his favor. If 2010 is season without a salary cap, as expected because of slow progress in labor negotiations between the players union and league, players will need six seasons of service to become unrestricted free agents. That means the most appealing would-be free-agent receivers, including Brandon Marshall, Miles Austin and Braylon Edwards, would be restricted free agents and difficult to acquire.
Bryant will be unrestricted. If a team pays what he seeks — a long-term deal with substantial guarantees — the seven-year pro could see a windfall.
Bryant is perhaps more valuable to the Bucs than anyone. Tampa Bay lacks depth at receiver, and though the draft could provide help, rookie receivers often struggle. And general manager Mark Dominik committed nearly $10 million to Bryant for 2009, so it presumably would be difficult to lose him.
"I know he'd like to be here," coach Raheem Morris said. "And we would like to have him."
Despite complaining about wanting more passes, Bryant says he wants to come back. "My biggest motivator is my position coach," he said, "and (quarterback) Josh Freeman."
That position coach is Richard Mann, with whom Bryant has developed a close relationship. He hopes to develop something similar with Freeman, whom Bryant had no opportunity to work with in the preseason. Bryant was asked how good Freeman could be with stability in his coaching staff.
"And to have Antonio Bryant to throw to in the offseason?" he said. "That sounds good. That's stability."
But only if he's back in a Buccaneers uniform.