TAMPA — As he left Cowboys Stadium with ice wrapped around his right leg after a Week 3 loss to Dallas last season, Adrian Clayborn tried to mask the pain. But it was hard to determine what was more numb — his injured knee or the Bucs' coaching staff.
As a rookie, Clayborn led the team in sacks with 71/2 and showed promise as a pass rusher with an unstoppable motor. But when his season was cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Bucs had few players left to rattle opposing quarterbacks.
Defensive end Da'Quan Bowers still was more than a month from recovering from torn Achilles tendon. With all due respect to Daniel Te'o Nesheim, Clayborn's loss was big for a team that has not had a player achieve double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice in 2007.
Clayborn, a first-round pick from Iowa, was healthy enough to participate on a limited basis in practices and mandatory minicamp. The Bucs might limit the amount of contact drills for Clayborn when training camp workouts begin Thursday. But having their premier edge rusher back is an enormous relief for a team that tied Kansas City for 29th in the league with 27 sacks.
"The plan is to be ready to go full-speed in camp," Clayborn said. "Being a year in, I know myself, I feel like I know the defense a little bit more, and I know Bowers does. I feel like we're going to make that next step."
Clayborn used his rehab time wisely, packing on upper body muscle while his legs took a rest.
"He was out with an injury that kept him from playing football and he took it as an opportunity to improve his entire body, not just the rehab," coach Greg Schiano said. "So when I look at Adrian, that's a different looking guy right now than it was six, eight months ago. I think that is really going to pay benefits when he gets back to going."
Clayborn is one player the Bucs are counting on to have comeback season. Here are a few others:
DA'QUAN BOWERS: Without the benefit of training camp or a preseason, Bowers made it back as a rotational pass rusher, spelling Michael Bennett at times and playing on both ends of the line.
But after two NFL seasons, he has only 41/2 sacks as a part-time player. The Bucs let Bennett, their sack leader, leave via free agency to provide more playing time for their former second round pick from Clemson.
Is Bowers up to it? He certainly thinks so. "Anything less than double-digit sacks is a failure for the season," he said.
Schiano thinks Bowers is capable of being an every down player. But talk is cheap.
"Da'Quan, he hasn't played any consistent amount," Schiano said. "So if he wants to be more than just a situational pass rusher, he's got to grind through it, he's got to go through the pain of being an every-down player. … I think this training camp will be critical for him, to establish what he's going to be for us. Is he going to be an every-down player? I'm sure banking on it. But you've got to do it."
DAVIN JOSEPH, CARL NICKS: Losing Pro Bowl guards Joseph, who suffered a torn patellar tendon in the final preseason game, and Nicks, who shut it down with a foot injury after seven games, had an enormous impact on the line.
Sure, Doug Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards and quarterback Josh Freeman set club records for passing yards and TDs. But Joseph and Nicks form the best tandem of guards in the NFL. Moreover, their leadership was missed.
Neither player participated in practices or minicamps. Both are expected at training camp.
"Missing the locker room and being able to interact every day, that was the hardest part," Joseph said.
"We're shooting for the stars. We've got to come together and make Freeman the player he can be. We have the right quarterback who can take us to the next level."
MARK BARRON: Comeback player? Come back from what? As a rookie, Barron started all 16 games, but he did not perform the same in each of them.
Not all of it was his fault. The first-round pick from Alabama was asked to remain in coverage more toward the end of the season. He also seemed to hit a rookie wall around Week 12 but finished strong, with 20 tackles and two passes defensed in the final three games.
Barron essentially preserved wins over Carolina and Atlanta with fourth-quarter deflections. He learned a lot from Ronde Barber in the film room. He'll learn more playing with safety Dashon Goldson.
"I just feel like I am in a great situation where I can learn from different players and pick up a lot of things," Barron said.
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected] and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.