WR Charles Lee, who came on strong down the stretch in 2003, is one of the many options the Bucs have at receiver as camp opens
According to a poll on Buccaneers.com, roughly 40% of respondents believe that the strongest position on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster is wide receiver.
The results weren't particularly close. The next favorite position was linebacker, with Derrick Brooks and company drawing less than half of the support favored upon the pass-catchers. No other position garnered more than 10% of the votes.
Why? The obvious answer is depth.
The Buccaneers are aware that their top receiver from the 2003 season, Keenan McCardell, is a possible training-camp holdout. McCardell has not participated in any of the team's off-season activities, including June's mandatory mini-camp. Even with that potential development, the Bucs are confident that they have the makings of a strong receiving corps in 2004, beginning with trade acquisition Joey Galloway and first-round draft pick Michael Clayton.
"I'm feeling good," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, when asked about the strength of the position. "Obviously, Keenan's situation disturbs me, as it does [General Manager] Bruce [Allen]. We're concerned. Clearly, there appears to be a holdout [coming]. But once again, we're very excited to have Mike Clayton. We did not have Clayton last year; we didn't have Galloway. I think he's the guy that hasn't been talked about enough. Joey Galloway has made an unbelievable impression on me in the first three months of our relationship."
Gruden's appreciation of what Clayton and Galloway did during the various offseason practices was evident. The former impressed Gruden with his rapid absorption of the team's offense and the latter proved that his game-breaking speed was still very much on tap. Still, a receiving corps must go deeper than two players, as the Bucs learned during their Super Bowl run, when Joe Jurevicius played such a pivotal role.
Jurevicius was unable to reprise that role in 2003 due to a knee injury suffered in the team's second game, and he's still working to overcome that ailment. The Bucs hope he can once again provide the 45 catches and five touchdowns he did in 2002 (playoffs included). One other possible option is Bill Schroeder, the eighth-year veteran with 4,400 career receiving yards who was signed on Tuesday.
"We hope to get Jurevicius back; there still is some concern as to his physical status," said Gruden. "We'll find that out next week. The addition of Bill Schroeder gives us another guy who can play the game. He played nearly 90 percent of the plays for the Lions last year. He's another big, athletic receiver with over 300 catches."
The Bucs begin training camp practices on Friday hoping that Jurevicius will be able to participate at full speed. He came back for a spell during the second half of 2003 but had to shut it down again after making a total of 12 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
"Joe has had a long battle with the rehabilitation," said Gruden. "All signs are good, but once again we'll know the finality of it all next week."
The Bucs have 14 receivers on their roster, including McCardell but not counting Sylvester Morris, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in June. There is an intriguing mix of past and potential in that group. Gruden touched on a few of those pass-catchers on Friday.
"We like the progress that Edell Shepherd has made," he said. "Marcus Knight has come in here and turned some heads. It's a deep group of receivers. Charles Lee is a guy who played very well for us in the last half of the  season. We're encouraged, but we're obviously excited to see what happens with Keenan's situation."
Shepherd was brought up from the practice squad late in 2003 in part due to quarterback Brad Johnson's urgings. He had four catches for 38 yards in last year's season finale. Knight has three career receptions for 26 yards, all in 2002, but he has game-breaking speed and has excelled as a kick returner. Lee was one of the Bucs' most effective players down the stretch last year, catching 33 passes for 432 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. On several occasions, he showed game-breaking ability by turning short passes into long gains.
None of those players are sure things, of course, but all have shown enough to be considered serious options in 2004. The biggest wild card is Clayton, who obviously has serious raw talent but, as a rookie, is also the most unproven. Not many rookie receivers catch 101 passes, as Arizona's Anquan Boldin did last year, but a good number of them make significant contributions.
"Players have exploded onto the scene quickly; some others have taken some time," said Gruden. "Mike Clayton will get every opportunity to be a player here for us and make an impact on our games."
The Bucs have a lot to sort out with their receiving group, if only because they rarely carry more than five or six wideouts, and there are more than twice that number vying for jobs at this point. Camp opens on Friday and the team is hopeful that 14 receivers will be there, including McCardell. Regardless, work will begin in earnest in order to sort out the pass-catching crew for 2004.
"The message that we're sending as a football team is: We're going to work, now, July 30th," said Gruden. "That's a mandatory reporting date. We're going to roll up our fist and start to pound that rock and dig ourselves out of a 7-9 hole. That's all I'm really concentrating on. Whoever's there, we'll welcome them with open arms."