TAMPA — He didn't exactly run out of the southwest tunnel of Raymond James Stadium, received by a roaring crowd. But the mere presence of Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn on the field for the start of offseason practices on Monday was, in its own right, reason for celebration.
With the Bucs producing a woeful pass rush for several seasons (they ranked 29th in sacks in 2012), the importance of the starting right end's return from a torn knee ligament last season can't be overstated.
As half of an anticipated 1-2 punch with fellow 2011 draft pick Da'Quan Bowers, first-round choice Clayborn suffered the biggest setback of his college or pro career when his knee buckled in Week 3 against the Cowboys. It was a huge blow, only months after Bowers' severe injury.
As Clayborn left the locker room in Dallas, tears streaming after learning his season was over, he was in a bad place. But the guy who reveled in running around the field on Monday showed a rejuvenated attitude. That should help him tackle the tremendous expectations on him — ones greater than the 7.5 sacks he produced as a rookie.
"I think the main difference going into this year from last year is that I'm a little more appreciative of football and what I've got," Clayborn said. "I don't take it for granted. I mean, another play, I could be out."
So there's no time to waste.
That includes time rehabbing. Clayborn — much like Bowers during his recovery last year from a ruptured Achilles tendon — took advantage of his time off by working determinedly in the weight room. The results are obvious as he has a slimmer waist and more chiseled upper body.
"I feel like this is the strongest I've been upper body-wise in a long time, probably since college," Clayborn said.
Coach Greg Schiano, a big proponent of injured players doing exactly what Clayborn has, lauded his third-year end.
"Like Da'Quan did, when (Clayborn) was out with an injury that kept him from playing football, he took it as an opportunity to improve his entire body, not just rehab," Schiano said. "So, when I look at Adrian now that's a different-looking guy now than he was six to eight months ago. I think that's really going to pay dividends when he does get going."
Trainers are limiting Clayborn to individual drills for now, but he's still well ahead of some others returning from season-ending injuries. Guards Davin Joseph (knee) and Carl Nicks (foot) and cornerback Darrelle Revis (knee) might not participate in offseason workouts.
Clayborn could be cleared for full-team workouts within a couple of weeks, depending on the feedback Schiano receives from trainers. And it won't be a minute too soon, not with the tall order Clayborn faces.
He has to help make up for the loss of the team's leading pass rusher, Michael Bennett (nine sacks), in free agency.
"I think we made some strides last year," Clayborn said. "It (stinks) to lose Mike Bennett, but I think those guys made strides last year. Learning a new defense, being a year in, I know for myself, I feel like I know the defense a lot more and I know Bowers does. So I feel like we're going to make that next step."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377.