Like many things unknown at One Buc Place this off-season, the depth chart at wide receiver also falls under that category.
It is difficult to know what to expect from the Buccaneers receiving corps now that the playbook has changed, along with the quarterback. The lack of household names is too intriguing; veterans Joey Galloway (now of the New England Patriots) and Ike Hilliard are long gone, released in the team's purge of veterans in late February.
The only precept of Tampa’s receivers is this: Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton are generally expected to start.
Antonio Bryant had a Pro Bowl-calibre season in 2008 with 83 catches, 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns. He was designated as Tampa Bay’s franchise player for this year, but seemingly as the main aerial threat to opposing defenses and now having to develop a rapport with a new quarterback, his production may suffer.
On the other flank is annual comeback candidate Michael Clayton. The former first round selection had 80 receptions, 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns in his 2004 rookie season but never again reached those heights, citing injury and Jon Gruden’s mistrust as reasons for consecutive disappointing seasons.
New General Manager Mark Dominik resigned the mercurial Clayton to a five-year, $10.5 million deal, believing that new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski can relight his career and bring back the sensation of 2004.
Now in a more vertical attack, the Bucs expect real improvement on his 38 catches and 484 yards of last year. Encouragingly, Clayton caught a 58-yard touchdown in Tampa’s last game of the season, showing he can still be a danger to defenses.
It's likely a third receiver will loom large in this offense. The Buccaneers’ talented tight-end group will catch plenty of passes too, particularly with Kellen Winslow Jr. on the field.
With such a presence, perhaps a slot receiver can become a true threat in the Bucs arsenal. This is where the interest begins; as that position is wide open come training camp. Three of the following are Buccaneer draftees, whilst four are free agents.
2008 second-rounder Dexter Jackson's still on the roster, though he will have to make one amazing leap to escape his status as perhaps the worst draft pick of the Jon Gruden era.
Jackson is under-sized, but his incredible speed (4.33 at the NFL Combine) can be game-breaking if utilised correctly.
If Jackson can be on the field and catch short-to-medium length passes, he can make the kind of impact he made against the University of Michigan, where he hauled in three passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns in a historic upset.
Meanwhile, Maurice Stovall, who has one career touchdown and who is yet to catch more than 10 passes in a season, is coming off an injury—again. Stovall is a special-teams ace with excellent size and in the right system could resemble something of a poor man’s Terrell Owens.
However, Stovall will have to show more drive and intensity to win a higher spot in the depth chart; he was rarely more than a fourth receiver in Jon Gruden’s offense.
Brian Clark, a special-teams worker, returns. Played in 20 career games with the Buccaneers and Denver Broncos, and career numbers include five receptions for 35 yards and 29 kickoff returns for 636 yards (21.9 avg.) Also has 11 special teams tackles, one blocked punt and one fumble recovery.
Clark is an outside shot at the No. 3, but has as much chance as any at claiming the position for his own in this new offense. May not even make it out of camp should others impress.
Little-known Cortez Hankton is still around after going on injured reserve with a knee injury in the '08 preseason. He originally entered the NFL an undrafted free agent from TexasSouthern in 2003.
Hankton played four seasons for Jacksonville and has 34 receptions for 310 yards and two touchdowns in his career. Signed with Tampa Bay prior to last season and again this off-season—may make it to preseason but probably not to the final 53.
The real wild-card of the wide-outs is 2009 seventh-round pick Sammie Stroughter out of Oregon State. At 6 feet and 186 pounds, has a legitimate opportunity not only to make the team, but see considerable playing time as a slot receiver.
Described as "one of the pleasant surprises of the camp" by head coach Raheem Morris; two 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Beavers, a third-team All-America punt returner the previous season (after returning three for touchdowns) and 1,293 receiving yards, fourth most in school history—Stroughter will have more than ample opportunity to break into the rotation.
“He’s a guy who can go inside and make plays and get vertical, he's impressive. I like everything about him”, said Morris. And given the lack of depth at receiver, his selection could yet pay dividends.
Beyond that, we're talking about a handful of so-called street free agents. Among them is former Georgia Tech standout Kelly Campbell and former USF star Amarri Jackson.
Formerly of the Minnesota Vikings in 2002, Campbellled the CFL last season with 22.6 yards per reception average, and he caught 54 passes for 1,223 yards while scoring seven touchdowns.
He managed a 72-yard strike in 2003 and has shown some deep-threat promise. At 28, this may be his last chance in the NFL, so Campbell (like Antonio Bryant last year) has something to prove.
Lastly is Amarri Jackson, former South Florida Bull and Floridanative. He is a serious outsider for a roster spot as (like Campbell) an undrafted free agent and just 26 receptions for 393 and 3 touchdowns in his best collegiate year. Again however, the lack of a true slot receiver in Tampa Bay allows open competition and the chance to impress staff.
Morris’ words best some up his attitude towards the roster, and the receivers are no different. "I'm trying to create the most competitive environment as I can… I'm just running a big defensive back room, that's all I'm doing is creating competition. There just happens to be 66 of them right now rather than 15.''