WR Joey Galloway has impressed the coaching staff early with both his speed and his toughness
The process began last November 18, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to deactivate Keyshawn Johnson for the rest of the season. It continued through free agency and the NFL Draft, is being fomented even now during the organized workouts of May and will probably still be in progress as the 2004 season begins.
The Bucs are retooling their wide receiver position.
To be sure, such holdovers as Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius and Charles Lee are still very much a part of the plans. But Johnson has been swapped for perhaps the NFL's fastest receiver, Joey Galloway, and the team's first pick of the draft was spent on LSU's Michael Clayton, a big, physical target with great hands and good moves.
Other newcomers who will battle for roster spots include Chris Collins, Danny Farmer, Mark Jones, Marcus Knight, Sylvester Morris, Frank Murphy and Justin Skaggs. Second-year men Edell Shepherd and Fabian Davis are also very much in the mix.
It's only mid-May, but the Bucs are cautiously excited about what may prove to be one of the deepest positions on the roster.
"We like the nucleus of receivers that we have," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after Wednesday's 'organized team activity' workout. "We've got size, we've got some speed and we've got some experience. We like the size and the strength of our receiving corps. Hopefully it's much improved."
Reworking the receiving corps means downloading the Bucs' system into the heads of Galloway, Clayton and the other newcomers and continuing the development of such raw talents as Lee and Shepherd. But it's not as if this is a new process. Tampa Bay brought in McCardell and Jurevicius in the spring and summer of 2002 and quickly worked both into key roles for a Super Bowl team. Last year, injuries and the Johnson decision forced the Bucs to find unexpected production from Lee, Shepherd and others. In a way, the receiving corps' facelift is standard operating procedure.
"We've had a lot of interchanging parts in the last two years," said Gruden. "That's just how we've done business."
Business appears to be good this spring. Even with McCardell not participating and Jurevicius still rehabbing from last year's knee injury, Gruden has been pleased with what he has seen from the receivers so far. Perhaps most exciting is the work of Galloway, who could truly give the Bucs a new dimension to their passing game.
On Wednesday, Galloway got deep so quickly on a seam route that he not only got behind all the defenders but also outran the field of play, if you will. Just after catching the pass, Galloway glanced off a stack of garbage cans that was still in place near the far end zone from an earlier quarterbacks' drill. He was not hurt.
In fact, it is Galloway's less-publicized toughness that particularly impresses Gruden. The coach loves his new burner but points out that speed itself does not 'entitle you to first downs or anything like that.'
"Man, he ran right through those garbage cans today," said Gruden. "I couldn't believe it. The speed is different. It's rare. Yeah, we're going to find ways to creatively use him, and we're excited about having him here. We really are. He's a great guy and he's having a lot of fun, I think, learning our stuff. He's a natural fit. He runs after the catch, he's physical and he's extremely fast.
"He's a nasty player. I think he's physical, he'll run back punts and he can play in any formation and any situation. He seems to like what he's doing, so that's exciting for us."
Galloway has had two consecutive strong practices during the Bucs' current run of 'organized team activity' days, and Gruden also professed to be stimulated by the work of Clayton, the rookie.
If those two can assume significant roles this fall, and McCardell and Jurevicius perform at the peak levels they've established as Buccaneers, the Bucs would have more weapons in the passing game than ever before. That would be especially true if Lee, the breakout player of the last half of 2003, continues his ascent.
"He's doing good," said Gruden of Lee. "He's moving around a little bit more. I think his versatility is increasing. He can play more than one position effortlessly now. He has size, he has speed and run-after-the-catch (ability). He proved last year that he belongs in the NFL and can definitely play.
"He's a guy who blossomed last season, given his opportunity to play. He's a big guy, physical, can run after the catch, can play multiple positions, we expect him to be a contributor in the kicking game."
Gruden had no update on McCardell but did speak encouraging words regarding Jurevicius' return. The seventh-year receiver was a huge part of the Bucs' stretch run to Super Bowl XXXVII, and he turned in an outstanding performance in the 2003 opener, but a knee injury in the second game virtually wiped out the rest of his season. That was tough on the Bucs' offense, especially in the red zone.
"We're very optimistic about Joe coming back and participating in a mandatory mini-camp (in June) and being full-go ready to go for training camp," said Gruden. "The bottom line right now is he's got to put back-to-back rigorous days together. He's closing in on doing that. But we're going to make sure this time that he's 100 percent ready to go in his own mind, and so far so good."
As individuals, these 2004 Buccaneer receivers are an impressive group. Gruden and his staff are trying to mold them into a highly-productive unit, along with the rest of the offense. If the Bucs' retooled receiving corps is indeed going to be an improvement over last year's group, then these instructive days of May must go well.
"We're in good shape in terms of learning the system," said Gruden. "Joey Galloway has really been impressive the last few practices and we're really excited about Michael Clayton. Other than that, we've got great continuity and we've just got to continue to unify our football team."