Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Just Getting Started

Michael Clayton, one of the most prolific rookie receivers in NFL history, has put together a season to remember – and, more importantly, to build upon

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Michael Clayton has put together a rookie season that ranks among the best in NFL history for receivers

Michael Clayton completed his record-book trifecta on Sunday against the Panthers, catching two touchdown passes to push his 2004 total to six, the most ever by a Tampa Bay Buccaneer rookie. He had already rocketed past Mike Alstott's receptions mark (65 in 1996) and Lawrence Dawsey's receiving yardage standard (818 in 1991), so eclipsing Kevin House's five scoring catches in 1980 completed the sweep.

Obviously, there can be no argument that his is the finest rookie campaign by a receiver in franchise history. Indeed, you could take the word 'rookie' out of that previous sentence and not be too far off the mark.

However, we do Clayton a disservice by confining the accolades to Buccaneer terms. Simply put, his rookie season has been one of the finest introductions by a receiver in NFL history.

Head Coach Jon Gruden obviously thought highly of Clayton before the season, as his Bucs made the LSU receiver the 15th player drafted overall. However, Gruden acknowledged early in the fall that he had expected to bring his first-rounder along at a slower pace. Instead, injuries to Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius and the decision by Keenan McCardell not to report thrust Clayton into a significant role from day one. Clayton's numbers have been so consistently outstanding that they have masked whatever rookie growing pains must be there.

"It is odd, strange that a rookie comes in and plays like Michael has played – [uncommon] in the history of this league, that I am aware of," said Gruden. "Not many receivers in the last 30 or 40 years have come in and caught 80 balls for 1,200 yards, whatever he has."

Not many at all.

Clayton needs just two catches to become the fifth rookie in NFL history with at least 80 receptions. He needs just 25 yards to tie for the fifth most receiving yards ever by a rookie. And this Sunday, he will be on the opposite sideline from the last rookie to crash those lists, Arizona's Anquan Boldin. Boldin's 101 receptions and 1,377 yards last year were the first and second-most ever, respectively, by an NFL rookie.

Here are the top five lists in both categories:

ReceptionsPlayerTeamYear
101Anquan BoldinArizona2003
90Terry GlennNew England1996
83Earl CooperSan Francisco1980
81Keith JacksonPhiladelphia1988
78Michael ClaytonTampa Bay2004
*( through 15 games)*

**Rec. Yards****Player****Team****Year**
1473Bill GromanHouston1960
1377Anquan BoldinArizona2003
1313Randy MossMinnesota1998
1231Billy HowtonGreen Bay1952
1132Terry GlennNew England1996

Note that Cooper was a fullback/tight end for the 49ers and Jackson was a tight end for the Eagles. Thus, Clayton is already the third-most prolific receiver, in terms of catches, in league history.

Based on his current pace – which after 15 games is fairly trustworthy – Clayton would finish the season with 83 receptions for 1,180 yards, and perhaps he can add a touchdown or two against the Cardinals. He is a very good bet to finish in the NFC's top 10 in both receptions and receiving yardage, and in the top 20 in combined yards from scrimmage – among all players, not just rookies.

Of course, it is accomplishment enough to break all of his team's rookie records, and Clayton was able to appreciate what he had done, at least in some small measure, after Sunday's game, the first two-touchdown effort of his young career.

"Years to come, years down the line, I'll look back and say, 'I accomplished this,'" he said. "And one day the records will be broken, just like the ones that were held that I broke. You just look and see what you've accomplished. The definition of how wonderful that is is how long that record stands."

He can add to his marks next Sunday in Arizona, put them a little farther out of reach, but after that Clayton will have to stand back and watch the next rookie take his crack at them. However, the former Tiger should have many more chances to assail the Bucs' overall receiving records. He already has the fifth-highest totals in team history in both receptions and receiving yardage, and might realistically get as high as second and third on those lists, respectively, with a big day at Arizona. Nine catches and 70 yards would do it.

Next year, Clayton can try to join Keyshawn Johnson and Kevin House as the only players in Buc history with two 1,000-yard seasons.

That might be the best thing about Clayton's rookie breakthrough – Gruden thinks he is just getting started. In the original plan, a modestly successful rookie year would have been followed by a big step up in season two.

"The leaps and bounds that a player makes in his second year, at least the ones I have been around, is tremendous," said Gruden. "They understand how it is going to be. They understand how training camp is going to go. They're in different mental condition. They are in different physical condition and they are in different status with the team. I assume Michael Clayton will blossom, not only as a football player, but as a leader and as a guy that will give us, as an offensive football player, a go-to, clutch guy in the clubhouse and in-between the lines. We are encouraged by what he is and what he is going to do here."

Clayton impressed Gruden with his work ethic and intelligence as soon as he arrived in Tampa after the draft last spring. The work the receiver put in over the next four months certainly laid the foundation for what he would do during the fall. The reason Gruden feels confident that Clayton will rise even farther in 2005 is the approach the soon-to-be second-year player is planning to take this next offseason.

"I'll take some time off, but the time that's given to us to take off," said Clayton. "When it's time to go to work, I'll be here, leading the pack. I'll just wait for this incoming draft class. I want to get with those guys and teach them everything that I've learned about life, about football, so they have an easy transition. Just to get those young guys coming in to help this ball club. Be around, show my face here, it's going to be real important. So, I really look forward to that."

As do we all.

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