WR Brian Clark finished the 2008 season on the Bucs' active roster and followed with a strong 2009 offseason
Earlier this week, we introduced a short pre-training camp series on Buccaneers.com called "Hot Spots," in which we will look at a handful of positions on the depth chart that will find new starting names in 2009.
These aren't bold predictions of lineup overhaul but rather statements of fact. When Jeff Garcia departed via free agency this past spring, it didn't necessarily mean that there would be a quarterback battle in Tampa, but it did mean there would be a new starter under center in 2009.
There are no shortage of such positions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, thanks to a series of conspicuous roster moves made earlier this year. For the purposes of this series, we counted 28 starting and high-impact non-starting positions (the 22 offensive and defensive starters plus the two kicker spots, two kick return spots, third wide receiver and nickel back) and found that at least nine would definitely have new occupants in 2009.
After opening with the left cornerback and nickel back spots earlier this week, we now consider another key position that will be filled by a new player this year, one who could make a significant impact on the Bucs' fortunes in 2009.
Hot Spot: Third Wide Receiver
Most NFL teams use a standard depth chart that lists two starting receivers, one considered a flanker and one a split end. And, in fact, most offenses do start a game that way, with two receivers on the field among the five eligible targets to which the quarterback can distribute the ball.
But, obviously, teams use a variety of personnel packages during a game, increasing and decreasing the number of backs, tight ends and receivers on the field. One of the most common packages, of course, is a three-receiver set, particularly on third down. Teams also sometimes split four or five eligibles out on the line, but often several of those are backs or tight ends. In short, the third receiver on a team's depth chart usually plays quite a bit while the fourth and fifth often see only a few plays.
Depending upon how adept that third receiver is in running routes out of the slot and in traffic, and finding open spaces on third downs, he can sometimes have as much or more impact (statistically at least) as one of the starters. Last year, for instance, Antonio Bryant was the Buccaneers' starter at split end for virtually the entire season while Michael Clayton made the highest number of starts at flanker. Clayton, an all-around contributor who takes great pride in such aspects of a receivers' game as blocking, had a fine season for the Buccaneers but he had fewer catches than "third receiver" Ike Hilliard.
Hilliard, always an effective player on third down, finished second to Bryant on the team in receptions last year, actually tying running back Warrick Dunn with 47 catches. Clayton came on strong at the end of the year to finish with 38.
Hilliard – and Dunn, for that matter – were released in February shortly before the start of free agency. Bryant and Clayton are expected to claim the starting spots with which they finished the 2008 campaign, but there will definitely be a new player joining them in three-receiver packages, and occasionally replacing one or the other in normal two-receiver sets.
Who will it be? That will be determined in training camp, but in a surprisingly forward answer to just this question at the Buccaneers' FanFest in June, Wide Receivers Coach Richard Mann did identify a front-runner. That would be Tampa native and former Chamberlain High star Brian Clark, the third-year receiver who began his career in Denver.
Clark has appeared in 20 career regular-season games, 10 of them with the Buccaneers. He has spent time on Tampa Bay's practice squad in each of the last two years but finished each of those campaigns on the active roster. Clark, also a fine kick returner and special teams player, had four catches for 23 yards in 2007 and one for 12 yards last fall.
More importantly, the North Carolina State product had an outstanding offseason in front of the team's new coaching staff, particularly impressing new Head Coach Raheem Morris. On an offense that could field a corps of very sizeable pass-catchers (Bryant, Clayton and tight ends Kellen Winslow and Jerramy Stevens average to 6-4 and 233 pounds), Clark fits right in at 6-2, 204, but he also has the speed to get downfield.
Of course, even if Clark holds on to his frontrunner status in the race for the third receiver spot, the Bucs might end up with several players they use in that role, depending upon situation. Another notable candidate for playing time in three-receiver sets is rookie Sammie Stroughter, a seventh-round pick out of Oregon State.
While seventh-round receivers make an immediate impact somewhat infrequently (New Orleans' Marques Colston is a notable exception), Stroughter may find a way to do so because he fits a specific profile the Buccaneers were looking for. According to new Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, the Bucs came to believe that Stroughter would be excellent in the slot from their scouting of his Oregon State tapes. The young receivers' work on the practice field this spring and summer (before he was slowed by a minor leg injury) did nothing to dissuade the Buccaneers of that notion.
As always, there will be a large number of receiving candidates at training camp. The Buccaneers currently have 10 on their 82-man roster (two players will have to be trimmed before camp begins), including the four already mentioned. Among the other candidates are speedster Kelly Campbell, a former big-play threat for the Minnesota Vikings and, more recently, in the Canadian Football League; and 2008 second-round pick Dexter Jackson.
Campbell and Jackson were singled out for their strong practice-field work earlier this spring by Morris, as was Cortez Hankton, the sixth-year veteran who spent all of last year on injured reserve. All three are very much in the running for that third receiver spot. Given the spirit of competition that Morris intends to foster beginning with the opening practice of training camp, the same also holds true for receivers Maurice Stovall, Patrick Carter and Joel Filani.
In fact, one could make a case for just about any of the eight pass-catchers behind Bryant and Clayton, just as Mann did for Clark during FanFest. Stovall, for instance, remains an intriguing figure given his size (6-5, 220), sure hands and untouchable work ethic. The 2006 third-round pick could finally put it all together following unusual seasons that have been frequently interrupted by injuries.
Perhaps the third-receiver position will prove to be Stovall's story in 2009, or Clark's or Stroughter's or Campbell's. Whoever takes that hot spot, it will definitely be a new story.