Older and wiser Clayton looking to rediscover rookie form

TAMPA, Fla. -- When he came into the NFL four years ago, Michael Clayton made it all look so easy.

A big and physical receiver out of LSU, Clayton was selected No. 15 overall in the 2004 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (the highest the team had ever taken a wide receiver). Right away, Clayton responded with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. Statistically, that season was one of the best in history by a rookie wide receiver, a position where young players frequently struggle for a year or two.

Pro Bowls and 100-catch seasons seemed just around the corner and the future seemed limitless.

Instead, here's what the future has brought: In the three seasons since Clayton looked like Keyshawn Johnson in his prime (with a little more speed), the totals are mystifying -- a combined 87 catches for 1,029 yards. Those three-year totals are essentially what Tampa Bay fans and, perhaps, coaches expected out of Clayton in Year 2.

Oh, and throw in one other number to shed some light on the sophomore (as well as junior and senior) jinx. In the past three seasons, Clayton has scored exactly one touchdown, and that came in 2006.

This has made Clayton the No. 1 target for Tampa talk radio and message boards, and he doesn't even have the baseball team formerly known as the Devil Rays to be his lightning rod because they are now winning.

So why was Clayton smiling and very much at ease as he walked off the field following Tuesday's organized team activity?

"I want to play in this league for a long time and I believe I have the ability and have what it takes to be here for a while,'' Clayton said.

That kind of talk is always commendable, but consider Clayton's current situation and his confidence might have the kind of significant meaning that could give hope to the Bucs and their fans. Clayton is about to enter the final year of his contract and the Bucs are searching for answers at wide receiver.

"We've got to establish ourselves at that position and it's wide open right now,'' coach Jon Gruden said. "Joey Galloway obviously is the starter at split end but we've got a lot of competition everywhere else.''

If that's Gruden's way of asking Clayton to step up, the point appears to already have been taken. If you ask Clayton why his career has bottomed out and it seems his name is on a doghouse in Gruden's backyard, he'll briefly mention some injuries, but put most of the blame on himself.

Part of the reason for Clayton's early success was that Galloway was banged up in 2004. When Galloway returned at full strength in 2005, Clayton clearly was the No. 2 receiver. His growth continued to go in reverse and Ike Hilliard wound up starting with Galloway last year. Maurice Stovall got playing time and remains in the mix. The Bucs took a gamble on the troubled Antonio Bryant and drafted Appalachian State receiver Dexter Jackson in the second round.

But Clayton's not griping. He knows he's still paying for mistakes he made early in his career, mistakes Gruden perhaps has not forgiven. If you talk to folks around the Tampa Bay organization, they'll tell you Clayton's problems began early in his career when he put more energy into nightlife than he did toward football.

Clayton won't dispute that.

"I was young at the time and I was running a little wild and trying to keep up with my teammates as far as extra-curricular activities and not paying attention to my diet at all,'' Clayton said. "I wasn't paying attention to my body at all.''

Extra pounds came and so did a couple of injuries that held him back in 2005 and 2006. Although he still is only 25, Clayton sounds like a wise old man these days. Give much of the credit to his wife, Tina, whom he married on Feb. 25, 2006.

Tina graduated medical school and was working a residency as a pediatrician when she met Clayton. She knows a few things about nutrition and has helped her husband again look more like a wide receiver than the tight end he was ballooning into.

Clayton, 6-foot-4, weighs about 215 pounds and Tina's meals of baked chicken or fish and lots of vegetables have him feeling better than he has since he entered the league.

"I'm paying attention to the details -- everything that you eat, the time you go to bed, what you drink, it all plays a part in your health during the season,'' Clayton said. "You have to find the niche that keeps your body healthy. I've learned about the body and how the body works the last couple of years. Things that I used to do, I don't do anymore because that can cause a definite breakdown in the body. You're not able to come out here and practice full-go and string along three good days in a row. You have to do that. With Gruden, you have to have consistency.''

Gruden's been complimentary of Clayton this offseason.

"Michael Clayton, can he put it all together again?" Gruden said. "I'm confident that he can.''

Clayton also is confident he can get back to his rookie form. The opportunity is there as the Bucs continue their search for a big, physical receiver to complement the speedy Galloway.

The incentive is there because a fat contract could be only a good season away. There still is all that potential Clayton showed as a rookie.

But, for it all to come together again -- for Clayton to get back into the starting lineup as prime target in the passing game -- he has to show he's not a rookie anymore. He has to start showing Gruden he can string together three quality practices and, then, a couple weeks straight of good practices. Maybe then he'll have a shot at starting and getting lots of balls thrown his way.

That's not going to be easy, but maybe Clayton's rookie success came too easily for his own good. Maybe what Clayton needs most is to show Gruden -- every day between now and the start of the season -- that he's all grown up.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.