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Clayton is a leader in training

It might have been his only rookie mistake. A few weeks into the season, after the final roster cutdown created a vacancy in the locker next to him, Michael Clayton decided he could use extra space. So he slid his nameplate between both lockers and tossed half a dozen or so pairs of shoes in the abandoned cubicle.

Clayton felt pretty good about his expansion project until Derrick Brooks did a double-take one day while walking by it.

The Bucs captain knows when a first-year player needs to be put in his place. So Brooks emptied Clayton's belongings and taped his own name across the top of the spare locker.

"What rookie thinks he has the right to two lockers?" Brooks later scolded.

"Everyone else has one locker. He thinks if he has two, he's a big shot or something. That was to let him know everyone is still treated the same no matter who you are. You've got to be one of the soldiers in order to get soldiers' respect."

But there is no denying this about Clayton: If he follows Brooks' lead, one day the entire locker room could be his.

The 6-foot-3, 197-pound Clayton leads all rookies with 78 catches for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns. Only four players have more receptions in their first season in league history.

But the 22-year-old is eager to take more of a leadership role among his teammates next season.

"It's all I think about," Clayton said. "That's one of the biggest things, they really took me in. People like Derrick. We clown. We have our serious moments. But it all works out for positive measures for myself because I'm a guy who's going to have to try on his shoes and become on this team what he has been doing."

There are a few young receivers who are as acrobatic, but not many are as charismatic as Clayton.

The 15th overall pick also benefited from his apprenticeship with 17-year veteran receiver Tim Brown. His politeness and personality make him popular among teammates.

But it's production that counts the most in an NFL locker room and Clayton has been surpassed only by maybe Brooks, Ronde Barber, Simeon Rice and Brian Griese in that department.

"I assume Michael Clayton will blossom, not only as a football player, but as a leader and as a guy that will give us, as an offensive football player, a go-to, clutch guy in the clubhouse and between the lines," coach Jon Gruden said. "We are encouraged by what he is and what he is going to do here.

"The leaps and bounds a player makes in his second year, at least the ones I have been around, is tremendous. They understand how it is going to be. They are in different physical condition and they are in different status with their team."

But Clayton has to be careful. Whereas Brooks had Hardy Nickerson to emulate, the former LSU star is part of an ever-changing cast of receivers. That leaves Clayton to set the bar.

"The first thing is to really forget everything he's done," Brooks said. "Start over. I had somebody at my position that was setting the standard. In his case, no standard has been set at the receiver position. So everything he does, he needs to understand that's going to be the standard and I think that's going to be the challenge that I'm going to have to help him with. I have to make him understand the yards, the catches _ all that stuff is minute. It's the details. Lining up correctly. Are you making your teammates better?

"I tell him it's fine if you go out and get 100 catches. But if the next guys gets 20, are you making your teammates better? Are you making that guy want to hold that block when you get the ball? Are you running your route just as hard if somebody else is the primary read? Are you throwing the block to spring somebody else?"

Clayton already has some ideas about what the locker room might have lacked this season.

"I'm not a doctor, I'm not in people's heads; what I do know, from the program I came from, I've learned how to have success," Clayton said. "You talk to teams that have won the Super Bowl or had great accomplishments, they talk about family and how close the team was. You always have camaraderie. That's the common theme in every situation when I've been a winner. Everybody's close, you have to have that to have a championship team."

But as Brooks can attest, that is easier said than done. He knew having so many veteran free agents would make this a tough team to lead in 2004.

"First of all, you've got to get that same respect as a teammate that they had as an opponent," Brooks said. "I have no way of measuring that. I just try to go about my job every day and really try to be the message. I don't really do a lot of talking, I just kind of show them. Now maybe more guys have bought into it than I realize, but it's tough. It is what it is, and I accept it."

Next season, the Bucs will have at least 12 draft picks. Clayton says he can start there. A rookie needs someone to show him the way.

"I lead in certain ways," Clayton said. "The new guys, they come to my house, hang out with me and I bring them along. It's little stuff like that.

"Next year I'll get another opportunity and it will keep increasing as people leave or whatever it may be. My role is going to increase. It's definitely an issue to me to keep things in line. As the seasons go on, like I said, my role is going to increase."


Bucs at Cardinals, 4, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

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LINE: Cardinals by 3.