Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Productive Rookie

Michael Clayton surpassed one Buc record on Sunday and will soon have another in what is one of the finest debut seasons in franchise history...Plus, several sack milestones

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WR Michael Clayton is already the most prolific rookie receiver in franchise history

The numbers, the milestones, are little more than formalities at this point.

With all due respect to Lawrence Dawsey, Mark Carrier, Kevin House and the like, the Buccaneers don't need another record to tell them that Michael Clayton is the best rookie receiver in franchise history.

With five games to go in the 2004 season, Clayton has already recorded more receptions and receiving yards than any rookie receiver in franchise history, surpassing the marks of 55 and 818 set by Dawsey in 1991. He doesn't quite have the rookie receptions record yet, thanks to the 65 catches posted by fullback Mike Alstott in 1996, but he will soon. After his eight-catch, 77-yard outing at Carolina – truly just another day at the office for this unfailingly productive rookie – Clayton has 60 receptions for 828 yards and three touchdowns.

In defense of some past Buccaneer receivers, particularly House and others from the 1970s and early '80s, the NFL has obviously changed in the last two decades. Offenses were more dependent on the running game in House's era, which is why he averaged 22.1 yards per grab in 1980 but caught just 22 passes.

But Clayton would have been right at home in that era, as he is already one of the better downfield blockers the Bucs have seen at that position. He would probably be a favorite of Head Coach Jon Gruden's even if he had only 20 receptions this year, if only for the support he gives in the running game. On the 78-yard touchdown run that Michael Pittman had against Kansas City, for instance, Clayton's block 20 yards downfield was one of the reasons the run went the distance.

Clayton has also impressed Gruden with his quick absorption of the Bucs' complicated offensive scheme, which has allowed him to be consistently productive in his rookie season. Clayton hasn't had fewer than four catches or 60 yards in a game since Week Three, and he has been the team's leading receiver (or tied for the team lead) in six of the Bucs' 11 games.

Also helping Clayton in the comparison against past Buc rookies is his relationship to other newcomers around the league in their shared first year. Many considered the 2004 draft class to be the deepest set of rookie receivers in a long time, maybe ever, which was how the Bucs were able to get Clayton at number 15 despite four other teams in front of them looking for receiver help. Seven receivers were drafted in the first round, and three more went in the second round, including Carolina's Keary Colbert, who had two touchdown catches in Sunday's Panther victory.

Clayton leads all rookies in receptions and is in no apparent danger of giving up that top spot. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, the third overall pick in the draft, came into the weekend second to Clayton in the '04 class with 39 grabs for 557 yards, and Colbert ranked third with 54 for 328. Those are clearly outstanding players as well, and there is evidence that the teams that drafted Roy Williams (Detroit), Reggie Williams (Jacksonville), Lee Evans (Buffalo), Michael Jenkins (Atlanta) and Rashaun Woods (San Francisco) will be happy with their new receivers as well.

Which of those receivers eventually emerges as the best of that strong class may not be evident for several years, and perhaps several of the pass-catchers will have to share the title. But it seems clear already that the Bucs have the best rookie receiver in their history. Clayton, who is on pace for 87 receptions and 1,204 yards, should take care of the rest of the formalities soon.

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Elite Company

Eight years ago, defensive end Simeon Rice was a pretty impressive rookie in his own right. The third overall pick in 1996, by Arizona, Rice put up 12.5 sacks in his first year to tie the then-NFL rookie mark in that category.

Rice has rarely been slowed down since. With six double-digit sack seasons in his first eight full campaigns in the NFL, he has been one of the league's most consistent quarterback hunters in the past decade.

Should he continue with this type of production – and there is no reason to suspect he won't, even though he is on pace for "only" nine sacks this season – Rice will soon find himself among the league's all-time sack leaders. He is, in fact, on the verge of becoming just the 22nd player ever to reach 100 career sacks, a mark he nearly reached Sunday in Carolina.

Rice got his 99th career sack on the third-to-last play of the first half, with his takedown of Jake Delhomme at the Carolina 23 helping to convince the home team to run out the clock instead of trying to work a two-minute drill. He might have gotten his 100th in Bank of America Stadium, too, if not for a desperation grab by tackle Jordan Gross in the fourth quarter that resulted in one of the most obvious holding calls in recent memory. The penalty backed Carolina up to its own 12 and eventually led to a punt that set Tampa Bay up for the potential game-winning drive.

That was not to be, and neither was Rice's sack on this day. Number 100 is only a matter of time, however. After reaching that milestone, Rice can start tracking down some of the NFL's all-time greats.

Tampa Bay's pass rush as a whole has been much more prolific of late, with 14 sacks in the last three games. Carolina had surrendered only 12 sacks through its first 10 games, but Tampa Bay got to Delhomme four times on Sunday.

Four different players got those sacks for Tampa Bay, too. Among them was second-year end Dewayne White, who has made a sizeable impact since being pressed into service as a third-down defensive tackle. White's sack on Sunday gave him five straight games in which he has been involved in a sack. Defensive tackle Chidi Ahanotu also dropped Delhomme once, giving him a sack in each of the three games he has played since returning to the Buccaneers. And defensive end Greg Spires celebrated his 100th career game by recording sack number 4.5 on the season.

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