WR Michael Clayton may be a rookie, but he has put himself in position to make a big impact this season
There was silence and suspense as NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue approached the podium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-round draft pick this past April.
What type of player would the Bucs take with that 15th overall pick, their highest starting spot in five years? A flashy running back, or perhaps a run-stopping defensive tackle? Maybe new talent for the offensive line?
Those were popular ideas, all. So when the Bucs chose wide receiver Michael Clayton from LSU, there were some who questioned the strategy.
Now, roughly five months later, the question marks have been replaced by exclamation points. Thanks to Clayton's hard work and steady play since coming to Tampa, the Buccaneers are confident they sent the right card to the podium with Tagliabue that day at Madison Square Garden.
"I think that coming in and viewing the tape prior to the draft, we saw a guy that was very talented," said Wide Receivers Coach Richard Mann. "He is a fine player who we feel is very capable of doing the things that fit into what we want to do on offense."
Clayton was a force to be reckoned with in the SEC from the time he stepped on the field catching 182 passes for 2,582 yards and 21 touchdowns in 40 games at LSU. Still, in a year in which an amazing seven receivers were taken in the first round, it was reasonable to wonder which ones could quickly translate their college success to the pros. No problem there for Clayton; in his few months as a Buccaneer, he has made an obvious impact on the playing field and greatly impressed his coaches and teammates.
Against Washington last week, he led the team with seven receptions for 53 yards, an effort that made him a finalist for Rookie of the Week. Clayton's impressive start to the 2004 season is a product of how he approaches his role on the team.
"I've just tried to work hard," said Clayton. "I've tried to pick up this offense as quickly as possible. I'm trying to do what I can to impress this coaching staff enough so that they'll have the confidence to put me out on the field. When I get out there, I just give 100% effort to make sure they stay confident in what I can do. I just want them to see how hard I work – everything else is coachable."
Clayton's quick maturation on the field can be attributed to much more than his work ethic, though. Between fellow receiver Tim Brown, a 17th-year veteran and sure Hall of Famer, and Coach Mann, he has a plethora of football knowledge at his fingertips. The young receiver can often be spotted working on routes with Mann after practice or picking Brown's brain in the hallway. His willingness to learn explains why he is quickly becoming a reliable weapon in the Buccaneer offense.
"We're showing him some things that great players like Jerry Rice do that are comparable to things we want our receivers to do," said Mann. "Hopefully he can take some things from that and become his own receiver. I think working with Tim Brown has helped a lot as well. If nothing else, he's shown [Clayton] the kind of work ethic that's needed to succeed.
"A lot of times receivers come into the league and don't have that guy to study. We have a guy here who's had a lot of success and can really help the young guy out."
First-round receivers usually have blazing speed, great size or both. Clayton was probably not the fastest of the seven first-rounders this year, but he does have good size (6-4, 197) and he's off the scale on another important quality that is often overlooked: toughness. When paired with his work ethic, that toughness makes for a very dangerous weapon in Head Coach Jon Gruden's attack.
"I think the one thing that makes Mike a good fit in this offense is his toughness," said Mann. "On top of that, I think he is a very aggressive player – he can catch the ball and get it down the field. We need a lot of that in our offense. Speed is good, but a lot of the times quickness and good route running make up for speed."
One caution: even if he is deserving of his growing hype, Clayton is still a rookie. It is asking too much to expect him to have a handle on all of the intricacies of the Buccaneers' complicated schemes.
"I think he has done a good job here so far," said Mann. "He still has a lot of things to learn – we do have a difficult offense that you can't learn overnight. A lot of it takes game experience."
The Bucs hope that, as the weeks pass, Clayton's increasing knowledge of and comfort within Gruden's offense will translate into ever greater success on the gridiron. Clayton is no stranger to success, but handling it and the accompanying expectations may prove to be his greatest challenge yet. He's up for it.
"The best thing that's happened to me is that I'm getting more and more comfortable," said Clayton. "The expectations to perform are unreal – we get paid to do this. It's do or die. You're either loved or you're hated. In college, you have grounds to make mistakes, but here you can be known for just one play. You have to try hard to remain on the positive side, and that's what I'm going to do."