WR Ike Hilliard, a first-round pick in 1997, has had at least 49 receptions in every season in which he has played at least 13 games
Before Friday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had numbers at the wide receiver position, but not numbers.
Behind presumptive starters Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway, the Bucs had no fewer than 11 other receivers ready to vie for spots on the 53-man roster. However, those 11 men have a combined total of seven career regular-season catches in the NFL, topped by Edell Shepherd's four.
Perhaps that prompted Tampa Bay to pursue former New York Giants wideout Ike Hilliard, or perhaps the Bucs simply considered the proven receiver too good to pass up. Either way, the 29-year-old Hilliard is the newest Buccaneer, having signed as a free agent on Friday. As is team policy, terms of the deal, including its length, were not released by the Buccaneers.
"Ike has proven what he can do in this league, and we are excited to have him here," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "He is a versatile player, and we expect him to help us. He is a guy that we are really going to lean on."
Hilliard certainly fills the experience void. Over eight NFL seasons he has played in 98 games and started 92, catching 368 passes for 4,630 yards and 27 touchdowns. Though injuries cost him most of his 1997 rookie season and half of the 2002 campaign, Hilliard has been a very consistent producer in his full campaigns. In fact, he has never had less than 49 catches in any season in which played at least 13 games.
Last year, Hilliard played in 16 games and started 15 for the Giants, grabbing 49 passes for 437 yards. In 2003, he had 60 receptions for 608 yards and six scores.
Hilliard's top season came in 1999, when he caught 72 passes for 996 yards and three touchdowns. He then hit career highs in touchdowns (eight) and yards per reception (14.3) the following season, hauling in 55 passes for 787 yards.
Hilliard entered the league as a first-round draft choice of the Giants in 1997, taken with the seventh overall pick. He was the first of two University of Florida receivers selected in the first round in '97; coincidentally, the second went to the Buccaneers, who picked Reidel Anthony at number 16 overall. Hilliard missed all but two games as a rookie due to a neck injury, but he has been a starter since his first NFL contest.
The Bucs made a similar signing three years ago, picking up Keenan McCardell after he was released by Jacksonville for salary cap reasons. Though McCardell was three years older than Hilliard at the times of their respective signings, he was able to approach the numbers he had put up in Jacksonville, catching 61 passes in 2002 and 84 in 2003 for the Buccaneers.
Hilliard is a good bet to do the same. He is a tough and dependable veteran, playing through a variety of injuries during his eight years in New York. Hilliard is considered a polished route runner, and he can provide the big play thanks to good run-after-the-catch skills.
Hilliard is the second veteran pass-catcher signed out of New York by the Buccaneers during the free agency period. In March, the team inked former Jet tight end Anthony Becht, another proven starter. Tampa Bay's 2005 free agency haul also includes kicker Matt Bryant, cornerback Juran Bolden and defensive tackle Chris Hovan. Bucs who re-signed with the team after becoming free agents in March include Galloway, wide receiver Edell Shepherd, tight end Dave Moore, linebacker Ryan Nece, fullback Jameel Cook, tackle Anthony Davis and safety Dexter Jackson.
Hilliard is the fourth-leading receiver in Giants history, second among wide receivers to his long-time running mate, Amani Toomer. Here's a season-by-season rundown of his numbers: