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Monday, Nov 24, 2014
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Slimmer Clayborn hopes playing left DE is right move

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Published:   |   Updated: August 15, 2014 at 07:22 AM

— Adrian Clayborn was born injured.

During an awkward birth, the bundle of nerves running from his neck, through his right shoulder and down to his arm were stretched and strained when his head and neck became twisted as he passed through the birth canal.

The incident left Clayborn with Erb's Palsy in his right arm. He spent years rehabilitating it as a child, but he still cannot fully extend or strengthen his right arm.

To accommodate the arrival of right defensive end Michael Johnson, Tampa Bay moved Clayborn to left end, a position NFL scouts thought he'd never play well because of his right-side limitations. But a quick look at what Clayborn has done in training camp suggests the 2011 first-round draft pick could prove those doubting scouts wrong.

First, there is his work in drills, which has consistently drawn raves from Bucs coach Lovie Smith, who has lauded Clayborn's pass-rushing and run-stopping efforts.

Then there's his performance in Friday's preseason opener at Jacksonville, where he had a tackle for loss and a pass breakup in three series of work.

“Yeah, I felt pretty good the other night,” the soft-spoken Clayborn said. “It was a good start.”

Clayborn needs a good start, or his days with the Bucs might be finished. His arrival in the NFL has been almost as rocky as his arrival into this world.

After an encouraging rookie season in which he had 7.5 sacks at right end, Clayborn missed all but three games in 2012 with a knee injury. He insists he wasn't still nursing that knee a year ago, when he started all 16 games but had only 5.5 sacks.

Once the Bucs added Johnson in free agency, they opted against picking up the $6.96-million, fifth-year option on Clayborn's rookie contract.

That means Clayborn is playing for his Buccaneers life this season, a situation made only more difficult by the demands of a position change. Yet, he doesn't seem rattled.

“They could have dropped me at the end of the year anyway, so it doesn't really matter,” Clayborn said. “I just have to go out there this year and play my (rear end) off and get myself a contract.”

At Smith's request — and in an effort to add quickness to his game — Clayborn (6-foot-3, 280 pounds) lost weight and lowered his body-fat content during the offseason.

“He's done everything we've asked him to do, and he's been a model guy doing it,” Smith said. “He's a guy that has put himself in position to play well, and so I'm anxious to see how he plays in these upcoming games.”

Clayborn admits the switch to the left side felt a little awkward at first, but he has become so accustomed to it that he feels a little awkward on the right side. There is still the question, though, of whether he can consistently produce the power and strength with his right arm to win on an outside rush against a right tackle.

Clayborn never let his birth injury stop him before, not even when doctors told him he'd never play football.

“It's been a struggle for Adrian at times, but he's always made it through,” his mother Tracie said while watching a training camp workout this week. “He's going to do just fine.”

Clayborn agrees. And it's not just because he quickly developed a comfort level at left end or that he feels stronger another year removed from his knee injury.

“I feel like I'm playing like my old self again, like I used to play (in college), and I got the defense I used to play again, too,” he said of the Tampa 2 scheme Smith implemented. “It's pretty much all about getting after the quarterback and stopping the run along the way now. And the job is to do that and use your natural ability to get to the ball. That's what I've always done best.”

rcummings@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @RCummingsTBO

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