A five-yard pass became a 75-yard touchdown on Sunday when WR Michael Clayton turned on the jets
On draft day, a little more than eight months ago, they were numbers 11, 12, 15, 30 and 53.
With one NFL season under their collective belt, however, they are the top five rookies in the NFL, as determined by the league for its 2004 NFL Rookie of the Year vote.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Michael Clayton is one of five finalists for the Rookie of the Year award. The winner will be chosen by fan voting on NFL.com, which began on Friday and will continue through January 31, the Monday before Super Bowl XXXIX.
To cast your vote for the NFL Rookie of the Year, please click here.
Clayton's competition for the award includes Seattle safety Michael Boulware, Detroit running back Kevin Jones, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and New York Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Visitors to NFL.com have voted for the Rookie of the Week all season. Clayton, the leading receiver among all NFL rookies, won Rookie of the Week honors in Week 14 and was nominated four other times. The five finalists for Rookie of the Year were selected after tabulating this season's fan voting. Each week, five nominees were chosen and NFL fans voted for the winner on NFL.com. The winner will be announced during a press conference in Jacksonville, the site of Super Bowl XXXIX, on Thursday, February 3, 2005.
The rookies who made the greatest impact on the league this season were not necessarily those taken with the first few picks of the draft. Roethlisberger was the first of these five to be drafted, going to Pittsburgh with pick number 11, followed immediately by Vilma to the Jets.
Clayton was the next of these five off the board, going to the Bucs with pick number 17, but he was only the fifth of seven receivers taken in the first round, following Larry Fitzgerald (3, Arizona), Roy Williams (7, Detroit), Reggie Williams (9, Jacksonville) and Lee Evans (13, Buffalo).
Jones went to Detroit with the 30th pick of the first round. Boulware was a second-round pick of the Seahawks, going 53rd overall.
Not only did Clayton out-perform those four receivers, he recorded one of the best seasons in NFL history for a rookie wideout. Clayton's 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns set a trio of Buccaneer rookie records and ranked as the fourth (receiving yards) and fifth (receptions) best rookie campaigns in league annals.
Though thrilled by his addition, the Bucs had originally planned to bring Clayton along at a moderate pace during his rookie season, mixing him in with Joey Galloway, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius. However, Galloway suffered a serious groin injury in the season opener, McCardell never reported to the Buccaneers and Jurevicius missed the first half of the season following back surgery.
Clayton was thrown into an immediate position of prominence, and he handled it extraordinarily well. A starter by game three, Clayton led the Bucs in receiving in 10 of their 16 games and had twice as many catches as the second-leading receiver on the team by season's end. He had at least one catch of over 20 yards in 13 of the Bucs' 16 games and caught passes of 50 or more yards from three different quarterbacks. His rookie season was capped impressively by a season-long 75-yard touchdown at Arizona, a play in which he turned a five-yard pass into a long score with an impressive romp through the Cardinals' secondary.
Clayton does face tough competition from an impressive group of 2004 rookies. Below are brief descriptions of the 2004 efforts of the other four players nominated for NFL Rookie of the Year.
Boulware tied for second on the team and third in the NFC in interceptions with a club rookie record of five. Two of his interceptions sealed wins for the Seahawks. Against Miami in Week 11, Boulware returned an interception 63 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute. Three weeks later, he made a diving interception in the corner of the end zone against Minnesota to preserve a Seahawks' win with 2:09 remaining. Boulware finished the season with 63 tackles and one sack. He was nominated for Pepsi Rookie of the Week five times.
Jones led all rookie running backs with 1,133 rushing yards on 241 carries, joining Barry Sanders and Billy Sims as the only rookies in club history to surpass 1,000 yards. He recorded four 100-yard rushing games, including two 150-yard games, and scored six touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving). Jones finished the season with 825 yards in his final seven games, the most of any NFL running back in that span. He was nominated for Pepsi Rookie of the Week five times.
Roethlisberger won all 13 of his starts in 2005, leading all rookie quarterbacks with 2,621 passing yards and 17 touchdown passes. He posted a passer rating of 98.1, fifth among all NFL quarterbacks, and led the Steelers to a 15-1 record and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. In leading his team to back-to-back wins over the defending-champion New England Patriots and the NFC's top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in Weeks 8 and 9, Roethlisberger recorded passer ratings of 126.4 and 109.3 respectively, throwing two touchdown passes in each game. He was nominated for Pepsi Rookie of the Week nine times, winning the award every week he was nominated.
Vilma finished second on the Jets with 116 tackles and added two sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. In Week 12 against Arizona, Vilma had one of his best games of the season, recording 10 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in the Jets' win. In Week 17 against St. Louis, Vilma scored his first career touchdown, returning an interception 38 yards for a score. He was nominated for Pepsi Rookie of the Week two times.