WR Michael Clayton clearly enjoyed his first chance to run routes as a Buccaneer
He'd made all of one visit to One Buccaneer Place before last weekend, just a brief stop en route to his introductory press conference in St. Petersburg last Monday. And yet, in the crowd he ran with during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' weekend mini-camp, that practically qualified him as a tour guide.
Of the 44 players who participated in the three-day rookie camp, only five had stepped inside Buc headquarters before a week ago. Most of the players were in town on tryout contracts, and the next largest sub-group was Tampa Bay's draft class of 2004. No veterans were on hand – well, quarterback Brad Johnson did stop by briefly on Sunday to see Clayton in action – and, in fact, no player who had as much as six games of NFL experience was allowed to participate.
That rather strangely threw Clayton into a leadership role, even if he had been a Buccaneer for less than a week. The LSU receiver had proven to be a leader on the Tigers' national championship squad last year, and that quality, along with his obvious physical talents, had impressed Buccaneer coaches and scouts in one-on-one, pre-draft meetings. Head Coach Jon Gruden saw Clayton begin to emerge in that role over the weekend.
"Yeah, no doubt about that," said Gruden. "Clayton stepped up, he backed it up with his performance and he certainly motivated his team."
After the three-day primer, Clayton had to return to LSU to finish up his studies. Players drafted into the NFL are not allowed to join their new teams, with the exception of one mini-camp, until their particular colleges have concluded their school years. In the meantime, Buccaneer veterans will return to One Buc on Monday for more offseason workouts, followed by a mid-May string of 'organized team activity' days (OTAs) and a mandatory, late-June camp for the whole team. Clayton's leadership won't be needed as much with the full team on hand, and he's likely to defer to veterans and work on building relationships.
Still even the youngest players can display leadership in little ways; expect Clayton to do so by eagerly agreeing to whatever role he is given, including special teams.
"Whatever it takes to win," he said. "I think Coach Gruden brought me here because he knew that I was that kind of guy. Wherever I can step in and play, I just want a chance to play as a rookie. Whatever I can help the team, that's what I'm going to do."
The Bucs worked on fairly bare-bones versions of their offensive and defensive systems over the weekend, by necessity, but it was still a valuable opportunity to see their new draftees in action. With Clayton, it was the team's first chance to begin developing a specific role for its newest offensive weapon.
"He's going to start off at flanker," said Gruden. "We have some guys who have some versatility – (Joe) Jurevicius plays both sides. (Clayton) will have a great role model in Keenan McCardell. He'll learn how to run patterns and figure this game out a little bit from an advanced standpoint. We're going to look at (Joey) Galloway and obviously Charles Lee and Jurevicius on the weak side to start with, and we'll adjust that along the way. We've got a long way to decide who's playing where. But we feel like Clayton learning the flanker position will help him in the long run."
When he returns to Tampa, Clayton will have a better feel for the routes and responsibilities of that position thanks to the mini-camp. He may not have McCardell's innate feel for the offense yet, but he should be able to keep up.
"(The camp) allows you to make an easy transition," said Clayton. "If there's anything you can do before you get to the OTAs, you've got to do it, whether it's training back at home when you have time off or anything you can do that's going to help you when that time comes.
"We came down here expecting great things out of all of us and we got a lot of work done in this camp. Everybody did an excellent job of taking what we learned and putting it in between the lines."
As for that Sunday visit by Johnson, it brought a smile to the rookie's face, not to mention a little bit of awe. The 6-3 receiver wasn't expecting to have to look up at his new quarterback, but Johnson stands 6-5, which apparently wasn't obvious on television.
"He's a big guy," laughed Clayton. "I didn't know he was that big.
"He came over and shook my hand. I just know everything's going to work from all the positive things that I've heard about him. He's a guy who wants to win. He's a guy who will sit down and work with you. My situation, being a rookie and not knowing everything exactly at the beginning, I know he's going to be a guy who helps me a lot."