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Clayton: reputation among foes surpasses raw receiving numbers

Receivers, perhaps more than players at any other position, are judged by their measurables: receptions, yards, touchdowns.

It's what defines them. It's how they validate themselves. In the public's eyes, they are as good as their numbers say they are.

All of which presents a problem for Bucs receiver Michael Clayton. In the midst of a second straight miserable season, he has little to show in those aforementioned categories.

For a former first-round pick who nearly won league offensive rookie of the year in 2004, that's difficult to digest. But Clayton wants you to know he isn't a 29-catch, one-touchdown sort of receiver. He believes he is capable of passing the splashy numbers he had as a rookie (80 catches, 1,193 yards). He believes he can again be a top-tier receiver, even if the combination of his declining performance and limited opportunity indicate otherwise.

"When it comes down to it, the Bucs have a football player," Clayton said. "Every time I step on that field, I can make a difference. And everybody in the league will tell you the same thing."

Of late, his impact comes through downfield blocking, for which he is highly regarded. But what about his stock as a player?

"When I come into the meeting room and they put me up on the screen and say, 'Look at this block by Clayton,' and everybody's pounding on the table like, 'Whoa!,' '' Clayton said, "that's what I get out of it.

"There's not one game we play where the opposing coaches or players don't come up to me after the game and say, 'Hey, we love how you play, man. Keep your head up.' And I don't even know these coaches most of the time. ... You have to hear that. That's one of the reasons I can come in here and smile even though things are the way they are."

It's not much, but Clayton will take whatever recognition he can get this season. How bad is it? Not only has Clayton dropped an alarming number of passes, he has seen fewer come his way. His 29 catches rank 85th in the NFL. For some perspective, consider that 12 running backs and 15 tight ends have more receptions.

One day soon - he has two years left on his rookie deal - Clayton, 24, will look to establish himself as a coveted free agent looking for that all-important second contract. Asked if he believes his drops and limited involvement in the offense could lead to him being labeled as a bust, Clayton rejected the theory.

"I know the nature of this business and I don't know where I'm going to land," he said. "But I do know that my resume, what I put on the field, is being respected. Any team in the league is going to look at No. 80 and say, 'He's done it before. We know he can do it again. This guy is a football player - point blank.' That's going to determine what I'm worth right there."

Clayton said he does not harbor ill feelings toward coach Jon Gruden, whose decision to feature Joey Galloway as the primary receiver has had the greatest impact on Clayton. He could be more vocal about his displeasure as he was earlier in the season, but he doesn't see that as a solution.

"If I took that route, what am I to do to make this situation better?" he said. "Do I (argue) and complain about it? Is that going to make this situation better? No. Is that going to make the situation with my coach worse? Yes. So, obviously, there is no out. If I looked at it like that, I would be frustrated as hell every day coming to work. If I come to work and I don't catch but two balls, then that's what it is."

So, for the rest of this season, Clayton vows to keep a positive attitude, though the situation appears overwhelmingly negative.

"I've had it good," he said. "I'm blessed. I was a first-round pick. I have a big signing bonus. In years to come, I believe I'm going to have a big contract. A lot of guys get caught up in that, but I'm okay. That's what I hold close to my heart. It's the only way to block out all the (negatives)."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at (813) 226-3377 or sholder@sptimes.com.

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