Clifton Smith left the 2009 season with unfinished business. He'll get a chance to continue his work with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010.
On Tuesday, Smith re-signed with Tampa Bay, accepting the one-year tender offer he had received in March as an exclusive rights free agent. As a free agent in that category, he had been free to negotiate only with the Buccaneers.
Smith famously rose from undrafted rookie in the spring of 2008 to Pro Bowler by the end of that campaign, become just the third player since 1970 to accomplish that feat. He first joined the Buccaneers as a tryout player during the team's '08 rookie mini-camp, was then signed to the training camp roster and opened the season on the practice squad. Smith was promoted to the active roster at midseason and promptly emerged as the NFC's most electrifying return man.
In nine games as a rookie, Smith averaged 27.6 yards on 36 kickoff returns and 14.1 yards on 23 punt returns. He also scored a touchdown on both a punt and a kickoff runback, becoming the first player in team history to reach the end zone on both types of returns in the same season. In fact, he and current teammate Micheal Spurlock are the only Bucs to ever have both a punt and kickoff return touchdown in their careers.
Smith earned the NFC's nod as the return man in the Pro Bowl following the 2008 season and obviously went into 2009 with that job in hand for the Buccaneers. He didn't disappoint, averaging 29.1 yards on kickoff returns and 10.1 on punt returns, but he was limited by a pair of concussions to a total of 11 games, including two he only played briefly before being hurt. Smith's exploits, which included a key 83-yard kickoff return in Tampa Bay's win over playoff-bound Green Bay in November, indicates he was on his way to another Pro Bowl-caliber season.
It has taken Smith, the former Fresno State running back, only 20 games to rewrite much of the kick return section in the Buccaneers' record book. He is the team's all-time leader in punt return average, taking a mark of 12.1 yards on 46 returns into his third campaign. On the kickoff return chart, his pace of 28.3 yards per runback is second only to Sammie Stroughter's 29.5, and Stroughter has returned only 11 kickoffs so far. Among all players with at least 20 kickoff returns, Smith is far and away the leader.
Last year, Smith's average of 29.1 yards per kickoff return ranked first in the NFL, marking the first time a Buccaneer had led the league in either return category.