With Clayton injured, Stovall has chance to shine

If popular opinion were considered statute, he’d be shaken out of town. Armchair head coaches would bench him. He’d earn the league minimum, if he had a job at all, and the NFL would legalize Stickum on a case-by-case basis.

In the real world, he’s No. 2 on the depth chart. His lack of production is matched only by the lack of fan support, and if it were not for the lack of talent surrounding him at the receiver position, he would have been cut long ago.

Instead, Michael Clayton will be on the sideline Sunday when the Buccaneers travel to Carolina, but not on offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s hip, waiting to get back into the game. He’ll be in street clothes, sidelined by a sprained knee. And to the delight of many, he could miss as many as two games. In the meantime, Maurice Stovall will likely start, and see extended playing time in Clayton’s absence.

It could be argued that Stovall should have been that No. 2 all along. Through 11 games, his and Clayton’s statistics are virtually identical. Both have 14 receptions. Stovall has 212 yards; Clayton 204. Both have one touchdown and nine first downs. However, Clayton has been targeted 46 times by Buccaneer quarterbacks; Stovall, just 25. With the ability to produce the same numbers as Clayton with almost half the targets, Stovall has an opportunity to bump Clayton out of the No. 2 slot for good, and maybe even out of town.

At 6’5, 220 pounds, Stovall is a big, physical receiver. His 4.56 40-yard-dash speed indicates he’s well suited to be a possession receiver rather than a No. 1 option to stretch the field, and with Antonio Bryant seemingly healthy, Kellen Winslow becoming a go-to tight end and Sammie Stroughter emerging as a viable No. 3 receiver, Stovall seems to fit right in.

So, where does Clayton fit in? The answer is, he doesn’t. But if Stovall wants the job, he’s going to have to earn it.

This Sunday, Stovall faces the 3rd-ranked Carolina pass defense, allowing just over 181 yards per game through the air. If Clayton were to miss a second game, the Jets would be next, boasting the top pass defense in all the land, allowing just 167 yards per game. However, Stovall may have a slight advantage in that both the Panthers and Jets are among the best at defending the deep ball, potentially allowing Stovall to have in impact in the short game, which has clearly been his strength throughout his young career.

On a 1-10 football team, every player at every position is fighting for their job every week and every day at practice. While it’s an old myth that a player shouldn’t lose his job due to injury, the Bucs will get a sneak preview of what their offense looks like without Clayton on Sunday. If the picture is a little prettier than usual, it could mean the end for Clayton.

Wide receiver is near the top the the Bucs’ offseason shopping list, and the corps will likely look much different in 2010. In the next couple of weeks, Stovall has the opportunity to sway public opinion, impress the armchair head coaches and do something Clayton has failed to do since his rookie campaign: Make an impact.

There’s an open seat at the table, Maurice. Come and get it.
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