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Tampa Bay Bucs' rookie receivers make veterans vulnerable

By Rick Stroud

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — Michael Clayton doesn't have to take a head count to know the numbers at the wide receiver position simply won't work.

"He sits up in our meeting room and says, 'Hey, listen, guys. We have great competition here,' " receivers coach Eric Yarber said. " 'But all of us can't make this team.' "

Clayton believes he will likely be among the players headed elsewhere, although his $3 million salary is guaranteed, making him difficult to trade. He is listed as the fourth-team flanker in the first preseason depth chart, released Tuesday.

But with the Bucs this year investing a second-round draft pick in Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn and a fourth-rounder in Syracuse's Mike Williams, the veterans are most vulnerable.

Williams is working as a starter — he was No. 1 on the depth chart — and second-year pro Sammie Stroughter could earn the other spot by opening day.

Where does that leave players such as Clayton, Reggie Brown and Maurice Stovall? Maybe in another uniform by September. But don't think for a second they're conceding anything.

"They're fierce competitors, and they're not going to just roll over," Yarber said.

Stovall, 25, is listed as a starter heading into Saturday's preseason opener at Miami.

Clayton, 27, has watched his production drop every season since leading rookie receivers in 2004.

The Bucs re-signed him to a five-year, $26 million contract before the 2009 season. But after a promising start, he finished with career lows in receptions (16) and receiving yards (230). This year, he's looking up at Stovall, Stroughter and Benn on the depth chart.

The Bucs will attempt to trade Clayton before the final preseason game Sept. 2. But most teams know he likely will become a free agent and will wait for his release. Only lower-rung organizations such as the Bills or Rams — teams Clayton probably wouldn't want to go to as a free agent — might be enticed to trade for him and take on that salary.

But Clayton hasn't stopped working — or leading.

"That's my job, whether I'm here or not. That's a part of my title, whether I'm here or not," Clayton said.

"For me, being in the position I was my rookie year, I know that this year it can't just be one guy. Winning this year depends on what we do. If we're not all the best players we can be, a lot of people can suffer."

Brown, 29, was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia for a sixth-round pick. He had slid down the Eagles depth chart because the team invested high draft picks in receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. A month after arriving in Tampa Bay, it had to be like deja vu for Brown. Still, he immersed himself in learning the offense and attempting to play multiple receiver positions. He is backing up Williams as the No. 2 split end.

"First of all, he's a consummate professional," Yarber said of Brown. "He has great work ethic to go along with tremendous talent. One of his best skill sets is his quickness, getting in and out of breaks and his change of direction. … I like what he's done."

Brown has zero regrets about the trade and figures to be in the mix during the regular season.

"It's very competitive," he said. "When there's a switch on offense, everyone is trying to jump in there, and that's good. You want to see guys having enthusiasm to get out there and compete and show what they can do. The more people you have who will go out and try to make plays, the better off you're going to be as a team."

Stovall caught a career-high 24 passes for 366 yards and one touchdown last season while being among the team leaders in special teams tackles. Injury has been his downfall. In two of his four pro seasons, he failed to play more than nine games.

"I believe if I'm consistent with the way I work, the way I practice and the way I prepare, I should be fine," Stovall said.

"I feel like we have a lot of talent, but each year we've been here, it's always been very competitive. That's the way it should be. Like I said before, we can't control the decision the coach and the organization makes, but we can control the way we play. We try to put good things on tape. I try to tell the young guys, what you put on film is your resume. If we don't have any room for you on the team, another team will."

Tampa Bay Bucs' rookie receivers make veterans vulnerable 08/11/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 1:24am]

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