WR Antonio Bryant had the best stats of all receivers signed as free agents in 2008
In his first year in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform, wide receiver Antonio Bryant dazzled, displaying all the skills that led the team to extend an opportunity his way even after he sat out the entire 2007 season.
And according to Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen, there is optimism at team headquarters that Bryant will get a chance to continue his success in pewter and red.
Allen gave his annual postseason press conference on Friday morning, and when asked about Bryant – a free agent this coming offseason – he sounded hopeful that something will work out to keep Bryant a Buccaneer.
"Well, obviously Antonio Bryant is a free agent and so what we're lacking we have to acquire or re-acquire, and that's part of the plan," Allen said.
The notion of placing the franchise tag – a designation that allows a team to prevent a would-be free agent from signing elsewhere for one more season – was floated Allen's way, but he stressed that it is still too early for that sort of speculation.
Rather, he simply expressed hope, without any specifics, that the Bucs will be able to keep Bryant around after an outstanding season in which he led the team and set career highs with 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns.
"We haven't even talked about [a new contract] yet," Allen said. "Antonio had a successful year for Antonio Bryant and he had a successful year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It is something that he ought to be very, very proud of and we are proud of his accomplishments. It seems like something that should work out between the two of us."
One thing is certain: The decision to give Bryant a chance last year was a good one. It can only get better.
"Our free agent class has some really good success when you compare it to the other free agents that were available," Allen said. "Antonio Bryant, as you all know, had a spectacular season and was better than any other free agent, production-wise, at wide receiver."
Expectations for Caddy
Allen also discussed another Buccaneer on Friday whose future isn't set in stone – injured running back Cadillac Williams.
After suffering a second severe knee injury in as many seasons, Williams has already begun the rehab process in an attempt to return to the field once again.
Williams' 2007 patellar tendon injury cost him the first half of the 2008 season, but there is hope that his second such mishap – this time to the other knee – won't carry quite as long of a rehab process. Given how diligently Williams attacked his last comeback, Allen isn't about to count the young back out for 2009.
"I think it's a very uncommon situation and let's be clear, it's a left and a right, it's not the same knee," Allen said. "I saw Carnell [Friday] morning. He's in the training room with that same wonderful, positive attitude that says, 'Watch this. You didn't think I was going to do this before – watch this.'
"When he got hurt, it was heart wrenching. You could feel not only our bench, not only Cadillac, not only his family, but you could feel the fans just feel for the young man. We didn't count on Cadillac for the first half of the season last year and as the offseason continues, we'll continue to get the medical updates and you'll continue to ask if he has started running the stairs over at Raymond James yet. We'll have time, but obviously we can't count on him for at least the first half of the season."
The Bucs selected Williams with the fifth-overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft, and the early returns were outstanding. Williams was named Rookie of the Year in 2005 and set an NFL record for rushing yards in a player's first three games.
A frustrating string of injuries has kept Williams out of action for the better part of the last two seasons, but Allen said that hardly means an ending has been written for Williams' story in Tampa.
"We evaluate everybody each year on the Buccaneers," Allen said. "His first year, he's Rookie of the Year in the NFL and you really can't ask for much more then that. He does suffer some injuries after that. His performance in that Raider game was really exciting.
"But whether or not he finished the season healthy or not, we don't look at it as where we [drafted] you means you have a roster spot or play time associated with your draft selection. We're going to look at that position obviously, and make sure we can be as deep as you can with an 80-man training camp and a 53-man roster."
**Draft Day Projects
The Bucs enjoyed some remarkable results from rookie players in 2008 – both drafted and undrafted.
Draftees like cornerback Aqib Talib and offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah played big roles on their respective sides of the ball, while undrafted first-year players like cornerback Elbert Mack and NFC Pro Bowl kick returner Clifton Smith came out of nowhere to make contributions of their own.
However, not every rookie the Bucs added was able to make his mark – at least not yet. Asked about second-round pick Dexter Jackson and fourth-round pick Dre Moore, Allen cautioned that labeling these two players "busts" is premature.
Jackson struggled as the team's return man for seven games before spending the remainder of the season on the game-day inactive list, and Moore was cut after training camp but returned to the practice squad for the entire season.
While the team didn't get much on Sundays out of Jackson and Moore in 2008, Allen says that isn't necessarily as bad as it seems.
"You know, it's interesting," Allen said. "The responsibility is mine, and Dexter Jackson, he didn't develop like we hoped he would his rookie year as a returner. Clifton Smith comes out of undrafted free agency and beats out your second-round draft choice. I'm happy about that. Because you're a second-rounder or a third-rounder or a first-rounder does not give you play time. Performance gives you your play time. We were open to anybody making the team.
"Dre Moore we drafted because we have two defensive tackles who are free agents. We drafted him with the idea that he was going to be a 'redshirt' player [who] wasn't going to play. [I] don't know what's going to happen with Jovan Haye and Ryan Sims in free agency and there was no depth at the position. Now, he worked with us the entire year and he's going to be given an opportunity to compete this year. So we'll see what happens with him this year."
Jackson and Moore will still likely get their opportunities to continue developing and make an impact, and Allen repeated an oft-used maxim when giving his final thoughts on the matter – it's all about getting the best players on the field.
"Clifton Smith appeared on the scene and dominated, dominated the NFL both in the punt and kickoff return," Allen said. "We will play whoever is the best player, and that's our code within the locker room, that's our code upstairs. We don't care where you came from. If you're the best player, we owe it to the other players on the team to play the best player."