TAMPA — While many of his contemporaries were dressed in jeans and T-shirts, Maurice Stovall arrived at One Buc Place the day after being drafted in 2006 wearing slacks and a pressed dress shirt.
The Bucs receiver walked in the door looking like he meant business. Now, Stovall is about to find out all about the business side of his chosen profession.
Since that day, he has experienced a series of highs and lows, bumps and bruises, successes and failures.
It all has brought him to this point, where, with his contract expiring after this season, the Bucs likely wonder what they have in Stovall, and whether his body of work warrants a return.
The evaluation starts with the physical. At first glance, you see a prototype receiver. He is tall (6 feet 5) and big (220 pounds), and he has catcher's-mitt-sized hands.
Then he takes the field, and there are moments when you see why former Bucs coach Jon Gruden thought the team got a third-round steal out of Notre Dame nearly four years ago. Take the great route and catch in Miami two weeks ago, Stovall hauling in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Josh Freeman that gave the Bucs a chance to rally. But Stovall also dropped a ball he should have caught that would have set up the go-ahead touchdown on Tampa Bay's next possession.
There haven't been a ton of moments like that. But there have been far too few like the aforementioned touchdown, too.
So, what is Stovall? A special teams ace worthy of only occasional snaps at receiver? Or is he a player the Bucs can develop into a consistent threat?
Really, it's hard to know. The Bucs have six games left to find out.
"When Antonio (Bryant) was down, Maurice did some very good things," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We kind of feel like we need to play Mo and see if he's a guy we want to bring back. We, of course, know his contract situation. We need to see him."
No one, particularly Stovall, is oblivious.
"Not at all," Stovall said. "It's a business. Each year, you have to treat it like it's your last year and treat each day like it's your last day because, in this profession, you can be done just like that. I've been injured before. I know what that's like. I think, 'Yes, it's a contract year. Where am I going to be next year?' But at the same time, I don't let it affect me to the point where it affects how I'm playing. I can't let it affect my mentality."
Stovall, like a lot of young players, is in an uncertain situation. Because NFL owners voted to opt out of the league's collective bargaining agreement, 2010 is currently scheduled to be an uncapped year. As a result, players with less than six years of credited service can only be restricted free agents. That means the Bucs will have every opportunity to retain Stovall at a price they can probably live with.
Regardless, there's still a decision to be made. And Stovall can make it an easier call with his play down the stretch.
"When you get in the game, you have to make yourself known out on the field, whether that's by blocking, running the right routes and, when the ball is thrown to you, making a play," Stovall said. "In the NFL, there's a very small window of opportunity. When you're given that opportunity, you have to take advantage of it and be the best you can."
Stovall's career numbers suggest he has not made himself known. But there are reasons he has caught just 31 passes in four seasons, including a career-high 11 in 2009. He played only sparingly his first two seasons, in part because of injuries. His role figured to grow in 2008, until a hamstring injury cut his season short. He played just five games before being placed on injured reserve.
This season, his contributions have been more noticeable. His 16.9-yard average per catch is indicative of a player capable of big plays. It's a better average than receivers such as Greg Jennings of the Packers (15.6) and Andre Johnson of the Texans (15.1). His special teams play always has been outstanding, something Olson said makes him unusual among NFL receivers — even backups. Stovall is now trying to grow as a player, working to improve his ability to read defenses. At 24, he has plenty of time to grow.
So, there's a lot to like.
Where do the Bucs stand? Time will tell.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]