TAMPA — It's early, and the Bucs haven't played so much as a preseason game, much less a regular-season one.
But nothing seen to date suggests the player streaking across the middle of the field, the one making athletic catches look easy, is the guy some predicted would never play again.
If you were among those who bet against new Bucs tight end Dallas Clark, what he has displayed so far in training camp strongly suggests he does have something left in his tank.
"I think a lot of people had those negative thoughts about me that were going around," Clark said. "But that's the game. You can't listen to things that aren't always true. That's why I'm grateful the Bucs took a chance and believed in me. I'm going to do everything I can to prove them right. I can't imagine being anywhere else."
Clark has missed 16 games (including one in the playoffs) over the past two seasons due to a displaced tendon in his right wrist (11 in 2010) and a pinched nerve in his neck and broken left fibula (five in 2011).
After last season, the rebuilding effort in Indianapolis left Clark on the outside looking in. After drawing little interest, the Bucs signed him to a one-year, $2.7 million deal in May to replace the traded Kellen Winslow.
Tampa Bay did its due diligence, but reports that other teams passed after doing theirs couldn't be ignored. The Bucs opted to wait and see. So far, they have been encouraged.
"I think he looks really good," coach Greg Schiano said. "He's working his tail off, and he's a true professional. Like anybody else, you keep your fingers crossed until the final game. But I'm very pleased he's on our team."
Even teammates were uncertain what to expect from the 33-year-old. Quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Dan Orlovsky watched film of a practice the other day. Said Orlovsky: "(Freeman) said, 'You know, Dallas is faster than you think he is.' "
Not that he'll sneak up on opponents if he stays healthy. Clark caught a career-best 100 passes in being named an All-Pro in his last full season (2009), when the Colts reached the Super Bowl. He and Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez are the only tight ends with 100 catches in a season.
At this stage of his career, whatever Clark does on the field probably will be matched — or surpassed — by what he does off it. He is with Tampa Bay as much for his ability to influence its young tight ends as for his talents between the lines.
Clark, who took his cues during his nine previous seasons from former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, prepares and works like every day is his first.
"Every tight end is going to look up to a guy like that," second-year tight end Luke Stocker said. "He's just got a wealth of experience."
Orlovsky, a teammate of Clark's last season, said, "Dallas has been in a lot of rodeos and played football on its biggest stage and performed well. He's been around a long time and made a great career for himself by doing the little things."
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The examples come in many forms, from the way Clark handles the media to his game preparation to the maintenance of his body that has allowed the 10-year veteran out of Iowa to last despite his recent injuries.
Clark, 6 feet 3, 252 pounds, does not espouse much advice to his younger teammates: "I'm not a big, vocal leader. I try to make my play speak for itself."
But Stocker and others have been smart enough to follow.
"When you think of a pro, he's what you think of; just with the way he goes about his day," Stocker said. "As a young player, you can really appreciate being around that, and it makes you want to do the same thing."
The role of the tight end in new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's system remains unclear. But when the team's primary targets aren't available, chances are Clark, if healthy, will be.
"It's extremely important when you can drop back and you know you have an instant mismatch more often than not," Orlovsky said. "He's going to be where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there.
"If you throw in the vicinity, either he's catching it or no one's catching it. That's comforting, especially when bullets are flying and you're getting hit in the mouth. It's just great to have him here."