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Tampa Bay Buccaneers relying on youth at wide receiver

TAMPA — The Bucs are committed to playing young receivers this season with quarterback Josh Freeman, who barely is out of the bubble wrap himself.

With newbie wideouts, you get fresh-legged guys who won't miss practice, have open minds and a competitive spirit.

You also get players who are shocked by the speed of the game, hit the rookie wall about Week 12 and occasionally run wrong routes.

An NFL team willing to live with the mistakes might perish by them as well.

"I kind of got on Mike Williams today," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said of the team's fourth-round pick from Syracuse. "He messed up a play, he had an error, he was on the wrong side. It was supposed to be a play for Sammie (Stroughter)."

The bloom is not off the rose for Williams, who was so impressive during the offseason he began training camp as the starter at X receiver (on the line of scrimmage, opposite the tight end). Arrelious Benn, a second-round pick from Illinois, has not risen as quickly on the depth chart but the Bucs believe he could develop into a Anquan Boldin-like player.

It's not unusual to see a veteran quarterback with young receivers or a young quarterback with veteran receivers.

But this?

"That's the direction we're taking here," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "Because of the potential of these guys, we feel like, hey, there may be some growing pains along the way, but the payoff down the road we think is going to be great because of the growth of the group. Being able to keep these guys around here. The contracts are about the same years. If we can just keep them around here, keep a good, solid group of young guys around here.

"… A lot of times, as you see when guys get older in this league, you struggle to have guys practicing, you struggle with injuries. We're probably banking on these guys staying healthy throughout the season. They're young, fresh-legged kids and eager to learn and eager to play."

On many occasions, Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have referenced the model in Indianapolis with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

But when Manning arrived as the first overall pick in 1998, Marvin Harrison already had played two seasons and had 137 catches for 1,702 yards and 14 touchdowns. And Manning still threw 28 interceptions as a rookie.

Certainly, the Bucs needed to invest at receiver. In 2009, tight end Kellen Winslow's 77 receptions were more than their top two receivers combined (Antonio Bryant had 39, Stroughter 31).

Williams and Benn appear to have all the tools to succeed. They're big (6 feet 2), physical receivers who can gain yards after the catch. But early fame can be fleeting.

Sunday after practice, Michael Clayton spent three hours watching tape with Williams and showed him every game from the 2004 season, when Clayton led all rookies with 80 catches for 1,193 and seven touchdowns. But in the past five years, Clayton never has had more than 38 catches in a season and had a career-low 16 in 2009.

"His first year, he thought he was All-Everything," Williams said. "All-Rookie, led all rookies in receiving, the fifth-best rookie receiving performance ever. He just thought he was the man. He said he came back his second year and it all went away. So he had to adjust to things like that and he just wanted me to be ready for that."

Clayton, whose $3 million salary is guaranteed this season, isn't sure if he will stay with the Bucs this season. But he says his role is to mentor young receivers.

"Basically, I gave him my whole life story," Clayton said. "It was about handling the ups and downs, the mentality that every yard matters. When you catch the ball, get vertical. Take care of the football. It wasn't about boasting on my rookie year but teaching everything matters. Whether I'm here or not, that's a part of my title, being there for him.

"He's a guy who is capable of being great. I really believe that."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers relying on youth at wide receiver 08/02/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 2, 2010 9:46pm]
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