TAMPA — An emotional Michael Clayton summed up his six seasons with the Bucs on Saturday night, from a savior as a rookie to a survivor as a veteran.
"It was an experience," Clayton said. "It was good, it was bad, it was ugly, it was pretty. It was a life experience. But I don't regret it, not one experience, because I gave it my all."
The Bucs kept seven — count them — seven receivers when they reached the NFL's 53-man roster limit Saturday.
Clayton wasn't one of them.
Tampa Bay ended the relationship with its enigmatic receiver by releasing Clayton, whom they will pay not to play this season.
It was the closest thing to an admission by general manager Mark Dominik that the organization made a mistake last year in signing Clayton to a five-year, $26 million extension with $10 million guaranteed, including $3 million for 2010.
Clayton struggled again last season, catching only 16 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown. He had two receptions for 17 yards this preseason but did not play against the Jaguars in the third exhibition.
Although he knew his release was a possibility, Clayton said he tried to convince himself otherwise.
"I was a little surprised," Clayton, 27, said. "But at the same time in training camp, with so many young guys starting to emerge as players, I found myself competing with their desire to go with all the young guys. I guess I expected it, but I didn't want to believe it would happen, but it did happen."
Dominik, who released veteran running back Derrick Ward on Tuesday, was careful not to admit that re-signing Clayton was a mistake.
"I hate to characterize a person as a mistake," Dominik said. "I will say this: Some of the people I have the most respect for in the National Football League are the people that make the decisions for the right reasons for their organization. I've always kind of followed that mind-set.
" … He handled it as good and as well as you would expect a person to handle tough news for his family and for him. Obviously, with the emergence and the play of Sammie Stroughter, with Mike Williams, we were able to make a decision like that where we felt like in the best interest of this football team, we're going to keep seven receivers and let Michael seek an opportunity elsewhere."
Clayton was the 15th overall pick in 2004 out of LSU, and he led all rookies in receiving with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. But after reaching the end zone just three times over the past five seasons, he learned of his fate Saturday morning upon arriving at One Buc Place for the team's walk-through.
Typically, teams keep four to six receivers. The seven sticking with the Bucs are rookies Williams, Arrelious Benn and Preston Parker; and rookies Sammie Stroughter, Micheal Spurlock, Maurice Stovall and Reggie Brown.
Parker, who starred at Florida State before off-field incidents forced him to finish his career at Division II North Alabama, could serve as the Bucs' primary kickoff returner.
"He had a very good preseason, and he learned how to do the right way because he had to do it on fourth down," Dominik said. "Preston played very well on special teams, and that got him the opportunity to earn a roster spot at this time, and that's great."
The Bucs kept five safeties: Tanard Jackson, Sean Jones, Sabby Piscitelli, Cody Grimm and Corey Lynch, who likely sealed the deal with two interceptions in the final preseason game Thursday at Houston, including one he returned 91 yards for a touchdown.
One player who was probably relieved Saturday was Pro Bowl kick returner Clifton Smith, who was among five running backs kept. He missed two preseason games with goutlike symptoms.
Of course, the roster released Saturday could change before the Bucs open against the Browns on Sept. 12 as Dominik scans the waiver wire.
Teams will form an eight-man practice squad today, and some players cut are good candidates for that.
"We're going to keep all options open to make sure we get the best 53 players for this football team at all times," Dominik said. "(Saturday night) is a good night for those 53 men. They worked really hard."
But it was a bad night for Clayton, who was celebrated as a rookie, struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness under coach Jon Gruden and never fulfilled his promise before being released.
"At one point, I had to fight just to stay in the league when I wasn't given an opportunity to play," Clayton said of his career. "I made it about being a football player. I was a leader by example.
"I had that mentality, and every coach was consistent in saying that's what I was. At the end of the day, it was bigger than football for me. I was helping young receivers make good decisions. It was about molding players, mentoring them. I gave the Bucs everything I had. And I still think I'm a hell of a receiver."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]