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Buccaneers WR Clayton facing a fight to retain his roster spot

TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Clayton pondered a question about his future with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hesitated for a moment and then smiled.

He knows he's in for a fight for his job, but he isn't worried.

"Every year has been about work," Clayton said Thursday. "I've been in a lot of positions where I've had to climb from the bottom of the totem pole. It's no different from this year. I believe in my talent, and what I can do to help this football team."

The 27-year-old wide receiver, who's entering his seventh NFL season, says he wants to be a leader and mentor for younger players. He'll have to tidy up his own house first.

Clayton is coming off the least productive season of a largely disappointing career -- and he's one of the team's highest-paid players.

Throw in the fact that the Bucs, seeking help for young quarterback Josh Freeman, selected wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in last month's draft, and it's easy to envision Clayton struggling to make the team.

An underachiever for much of his career, Clayton's production has sharply declined since he had 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie in 2004. He has only gotten into the end zone three times over the past five seasons. He bottomed out with a personal-low 16 receptions for 230 yards and one TD after signing a five-year contract worth nearly $26 million before last season.

After trading for former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Reggie Brown in March, the Bucs drafted Benn in the second round and Williams, a talented player whose stock dropped because of off-the-field issues at Syracuse, in the fourth round.

Clayton, a first-round selection six years ago, welcomes the competition, which also figures to include Sammie Stroughter and Maurice Stovall, who both had more receptions than him in 2009.

"I'm here as a mentor, a leader. ... The best guy is going to play," Clayton said. "Regardless of what happens, we keep a positive attitude. We're here to help each other to make sure this team is going to be the best team possible."

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Clayton said several factors contributed to his lack of production last season, including the Bucs using three different starting quarterbacks and changing offensive coordinators on the eve of the final preseason game.

Freeman became the starter as a rookie midway through 2009, and Clayton is excited about what finally having some stability at the position will mean to him and the other receivers.

"We had a lot of things going on last year. ... We were going week by week," Clayton said, reflecting of the frustration on a 3-13 finish. "The positive things that we take from last year is everybody still continued to work. We didn't give up, regardless of the situation."

Not surprisingly, offensive coordinator Greg Olson liked what he saw from Clayton this week as the Bucs began an initial round of organized team activities. This is the time of year when Clayton dazzles, raising expectations rarely met during the season.

A year ago, Clayton was excited about the prospect of becoming a bigger part of the offense under incoming coach Raheem Morris. Clayton had five receptions for 93 yards during a season-opening loss to the Dallas Cowboys, then was held to 11 catches for 137 yards the rest of the way.

"Mike always looks good this time of year," Olson said.

Clayton said his work ethic will not change, nor will his belief that if the Bucs decide he no longer fits into their plans, other teams will be interested.

"Business-wise it could be (he's on the way out)," Clayton said. "But I know regardless of what happens, I'll be on a team next year."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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