At the start of training camp, Joey Galloway, the veteran of Tampa Bay's wide receiving corps, called this unit the best he had ever worked with in his career.
At the core of this unit are two players locked in one of Buccaneers training camp's most watched position battles — No. 2 wide receiver.
In one corner is Michael Clayton, the fourth-year pro who is trying to reclaim the form that made him an 80-catch rookie in 2004. In the other is Maurice Stovall, a second-year pro with the great leaping ability and his eye on a larger piece of playing time.
To Galloway, the competition to be his opposite can't be anything but a good thing.
"We have some very good, young talent that's coming on," Galloway said.
So far in training camp the pair are locked in what looks like a dead heat. It seems whatever one does, the other follows.
Stovall makes a great leaping grab, and Clayton counters with a masterful catch of his own. If Clayton stays after practice to take extra receiving reps, so does Stovall.
It seems no one wants to give the other the upper hand. It's friendly, Clayton said, but intense.
"The guy is good," Clayton said of Stovall. "He's ready to play right now. He can do some things in the red zone that not too many guys can do across the league."
Stovall is the upstart, and thus far has gotten a little more attention, simply by the newness of his presence on the team.
The second-year pro from Notre Dame is only an inch taller than Clayton (Stovall is 6-foot-5, Clayton 6-foot-4), but jumps as if he has springs in his legs. He's already made several leaping catches in this training camp, ones that leave clues as to how the Bucs might use him. His body control in the air is impressive. He towers over defenders and could become, as Clayton inferred, a reliable red-zone target.
"He's 6-foot-5," veteran receiver Ike Hilliard said. "You can't coach that."
Stovall started the final two games of last season, catching 7 passes for 102 yards. He showed enough promise that Gruden began mentioning early this offseason that Stovall was someone the Bucs were high on.
After Saturday's workout, he actually mentioned Stovall in the same breath as Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin and future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice — in terms of work ethic, not talent.
"I'm not comparing him to those guys, but from a work-ethic standpoint this guy's insane," Gruden said. "He is a great worker. He's faster, he's much more in shape than he's ever been and he can move for a big guy."
Stovall doesn't buy that the competition is solely between himself and Clayton. He sees nearly 15 other receivers in camp with him, all vying for the same roster spot. The low-key, religious receiver — he kneels and prays for his late mother every time he leaves the practice field — is more focused on himself.
"I look at it as me versus myself," Stovall said. "We all know what we're competing for. There are only so many spots."
The attention prompted one reporter to ask Clayton on Tuesday if he felt overshadowed on Stovall, an assertion he laughed off.
"I think he's going to have an opportunity to play a whole lot more than he did last year," Clayton said. "He's capable of making plays in the red zone. He's capable of making plays down the field and when you have an athlete like that, you have to use it."
Where Stovall is in many ways a blank tableau, Clayton is trying to re-write his own history with the Buccaneers. He doesn't have to prove he can catch the football. He has to prove he can stay healthy.
|Buccaneers wide receiver Michael Clayton (Getty)|
Clayton has caught just 65 passes the past two seasons, after catching 80 his rookie year in 2004.
6-foot-4, 215-pound LSU product's style of play is a possible reason for his injury woes. He's physical and invites contact — Gruden loves his ability to block downfield — but it leads to injuries.
He's finally realizing that sometimes the best plan is to make it to the next play.
"I've definitely grown and matured, learned some things about getting down on the ground when it's possible," Clayton said.
Clayton — along with going to a pair of new hairstyles, a mini-afro during mini-camp and now a weave — worked himself into a chiseled physique this offseason with the idea of getting stronger so he could avoid the physical breakdowns that have plagued him the past two years. He's leaned on the advice of Galloway.
He's seen Clayton endure the tougher times and wants to see him overcome the past two seasons.
"I talk to him and tell him to keep his head up, those things happen," Galloway said. "He's a young guy and hopefully there's a lot of football left for him to play."
Clayton knows it's up to himself to try and be more productive this season. The word "Bust" is beginning to be whispered about the former first-round draft pick.
I'm trying to stay healthy by doing the things with my body to put myself in the best position to play for 16 games," Clayton said. "It's something I haven't done the past two seasons."
The best-case scenario is that each earns a larger slice of playing time this season. But one of them will likely be opposite of Galloway on opening weekend in Seattle. Whoever it is will face the pressure of taking the heat off of Galloway, who hasn't had a reliable, healthy receiving complement in two years, but has still put up consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Clayton, for one, invites the pressure.
"I think the more the merrier," Clayton said.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.