The first game of the preseason is always preceded by the first depth chart of the season, and the most interesting thing about the depth chart the Buccaneers released this week centered on WR Michael Clayton.
Coming off the worst statistical season of his career, the former first-round draft pick is listed as one of the team's "other" receivers in a group that includes two undrafted rookies and an undrafted second-year pro.
Clayton, who was re-signed to a five-year, $24 million contract before last season, is behind at least six players on the depth chart, but he says his bubble status doesn't come as any surprise to him.
"They let me know coming in what it was," Clayton said Wednesday. "And it's not like I haven't been in this position before. I had to climb from being sixth on the depth chart once, so I know how to handle it."
So it seems. Coaches and General Manager Mark Dominik have said repeatedly Clayton has looked as good as any receiver in camp this year. The likelihood then is that Clayton's play in games will decide his fate.
"I don't know how it's all going to pan out, but we still have another month before the season starts," he said. "I mean, we haven't played a game yet and that's something I've (got) experience in."
Clayton's performance in regular-season games has often been disappointing. That's why he's on the bubble. But with so many young receivers on the roster, the Bucs may find some value in Clayton's experience. Clayton sure hopes so.
"I've been through a lot of different quarterbacks here, but Josh Freeman is the first franchise quarterback I've had a chance to play with," Clayton said. "To have a chance to grow and develop with him would mean a lot.
"I definitely want that opportunity. I really want a chance to grow with this new team and be the guy that once caught 80 balls again. I really hope that happens.
"But I wouldn't be disappointed if it went the other way. I would let the chips fall and I'd just have to do my best to take it out on the Bucs every single time I got the chance to play against them."
Looking even deeper into the Bucs' depth chart, there were few real surprises. Rookie Mike Williams and veteran Maurice Stovall are listed as the starting receivers and Jeremy Zuttah is listed as the starting left guard.
On defense, Sabby Piscitelli is listed as the starting strong safety, Roy Miller is listed as the starting nose tackle alongside Gerald McCoy, and Dekoda Watson is listed as the backup strongside linebacker behind Quincy Black.
Former Steelers coach and current CBS analyst Bill Cowher dropped by One Buc Place on Wednesday, and in addition to saying that he likes what he sees of the Bucs he said he likes their chances to get off to a good start this year.
"I look at the (schedule), at those first three games, and this is a team that could come out (strong)," he said. "If I was them, I'd have a very short-term focus, because I look at those first few games as being very important in terms of building some confidence with a young football team."
Cowher said what impresses him most about the Bucs is Freeman, the offensive line, the depth at running back and the young players on defense. On the downside, Cowher said, the Bucs are so young that they will inevitably suffer through some growing pains this season.
"There are going to be some growing pains," he said, "but if they can develop an identity, find out what it is that these young guys do best and commit to that and not get swayed by the results, they'll be OK."
Bucs coach Raheem Morris said Wednesday the amount of playing time Freeman gets in the preseason games will be tied directly to the amount of time his first-team offensive line gets.
"You can't penalize your front five because Josh is young," Morris said. "If you send Josh out there, you better not send him out there with the (second-string) line or someone is going to have a conversation with me."