At some point – and everyone involved hopes that point will be sooner rather than later – the NFL's labor dispute will be resolved and the business of football will resume. That will include training camp, which on a normal NFL calendar would be right around the corner.
Training camp typically begins in late July for most teams, and it is usually the culmination of a busy offseason of mini-camps, OTAs, weight-room workouts and roster manipulation through free agency and the draft. This year, training camp is likely to constitute the majority of each team's preparations for the upcoming season, and it's not yet clear how much time those teams will have to get ready for reporting day.
More than ever, training camp will be a period for teams to sort out the roster, identify strengths and weaknesses and address any obvious shortcomings. Obviously, each team in the league has had plenty of time this offseason to evaluate how the depth chart stands heading into training camp…and that's exactly what Buccaneers.com is going to do in a series of articles called, "Camp Check."
Between now and the start of training camp, we will be taking a position-by-position look at the team's roster in regard to where it stands now and how it might change before or during camp. We will compare the current depth chart to how it appeared heading into last year's camp and take a look at the position's overall performance during the 2010 season. We'll also examine the potential of free agency impact, including the players that could potentially be available, and how commonly the Buccaneers have addressed the position on the open market in the past.
The first position to get a Camp Check is, naturally, quarterback, where it all begins for the Buccaneers.
[Note: Analysis in the "Camp Check" series is not meant to reflect the opinions, intentions or strategies of the Buccaneers' actual player personnel decision-makers.]
Quarterbacks Currently on the Buccaneers' Roster:
Tampa Bay's optimism heading into 2011, and beyond, is based in no small part on this spot on the depth chart. In Josh Freeman, the team believes it has a "franchise quarterback" who will keep them in playoff contention for a decade or more, and that's something the franchise has rarely been able to claim.
Freeman, who just turned 23 in January, could become the first quarterback to start and win consecutive opening-day games for the Buccaneers since Vinny Testaverde in 1989 and 1990. Barring injury, he will definitely be the first quarterback drafted by the team to start consecutive openers since Trent Dilfer in 1998-99.
Behind Freeman on the depth chart is fourth-year passer Josh Johnson, another young player the team is high on, and Rudy Carpenter, an unproven but intriguing quarterback who joined the team as a rookie in a mid-season signing in 2009. Last year, Freeman, Johnson and Carpenter remained 1-2-3 on the depth chart for all 17 weeks. That sort of stability hadn't graced the Buccaneers' quarterback position since 2003, when Shaun King backed up Brad Johnson and rookie Chris Simms spent the season learning on the sideline.
Quarterbacks Taken to Training Camp by Tampa Bay in 2010:
The Bucs' stability at the quarterback position actually goes back farther than last year's opener. Since the trade of Byron Leftwich to Pittsburgh on April 20, 2010, the team has employed only one quarterback other than the aforementioned three. Undrafted rookie Jevan Snead spent two offseason months and one training camp week with the team (after a thumb injury suffered by Freeman in the 2010 preseason) but never seriously threatened the three-man depth chart.
The Buccaneers went into training camp with the Freeman-Johnson-Carpenter trio in place and never saw a need to amend it. Freeman's injury, sustained in the second preseason game against Kansas City, actually served to give Johnson another significant look as the starter, and he used that time to solidify the team's confidence in him. In two August starts, Johnson completed 62.2 of his passes (23 of 37) for 307 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, a passer rating of 95.2 and 45 bonus yards on the ground. Carpenter wound up with the most preseason playing time of the three quarterbacks overall, much of it obviously in the second halves of games, and he finished with a passer rating of 87.6 and a team-high three touchdown passes.
With Snead briefly filling in for Freeman while the latter's thumb healed, the Bucs never fielded more than three active quarterbacks at any time during last year's camp. However, it has commonly taken four or more quarterbacks to training camp, and occasionally into the regular season. In most cases, a group of four passers is whittled down to three when the roster is reduced to 53 players.
In fact, the Buccaneers took four quarterbacks to camp as recently as 2009, Freeman's rookie season. The team did not plan to start their first-round pick on opening day, and thus had signed veteran Byron Leftwich to battle for the starting job with holdover Luke McCown. The fourth player on the depth chart was Johnson, a fifth-round pick from the previous year who was still thought to be a raw prospect at the time. As it turned out, Johnson was impressive in training camp and the preseason, so the team elected to trade McCown after giving the starting job to Leftwich.
It is not unusual for the Bucs to add a fourth quarterback even when their depth chart appears stable heading into training camp. In 2004, the Buccaneers were returning incumbent starter Brad Johnson, who had helmed the offense for the 2002 Super Bowl team and then broken a slew of team single-season passing records in 2003. The Bucs also had Simms onboard as a potential quarterback-of-the-future and had signed Brian Griese. Still, not long before camp in the summer of '04, the Bucs added veteran backup Jason Garrett, now the Dallas Cowboys' head coach.
Impact of the 2011 NFL Draft on the Bucs' Quarterbacks:
None, other than tangentially.
The Bucs did not select a quarterback among their eight picks this past April, nor did they draft one in 2010. The team actually has not made a significant addition to the spot since the selection of Freeman (the signing of Leftwich in 2009 came shortly before the draft). One could certainly argue that the addition of three skill-position players, most notably fourth-round tight end Luke Stocker, will allow Freeman to be more productive in 2011, but the QB depth chart itself was not affected.
There remains the possibility that this will change when the labor dispute is resolved and teams are allowed to sign undrafted college free agents.
Buccaneers' Quarterback Performance in 2010:
As mentioned, the Buccaneers are thrilled about Freeman's future, and his impressive performance in 2010 makes it easy to understand why.
At the tender age of 22, Freeman performed – and led the league's youngest roster – like a seasoned veteran. His passer rating of 95.9 ranked sixth in the NFL and was the second-best single-season mark ever posted by a Buccaneer quarterback. Simply by starting all 16 games Freeman gave the franchise something it had coveted for some time; Johnson's 2003 season had been the last uninterrupted one by a Buc passer.
Freeman's 25 touchdown passes were also the second-most in team history, but most impressively they were balanced by just six interceptions. That 25-6 TD-INT ratio ranks as ninth best in NFL history among quarterbacks with at least 20 touchdown passes in a season. As if that wasn't enough, Freeman also ran for 364 yards, second-best in the NFL behind the historically mobile Michael Vick.
The Buccaneers liked what they saw in the midst of the action last year as much as the statistics that action generated in the end. Freeman not only emerged as a natural leader, but he proved to be eerily calm on the field, particularly in pressure-packed late-game situations. In just 25 career starts he has already engineered six fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories for his team.
Obviously, with Freeman so efficient the team found little reason to turn to either Johnson or Carpenter. Carpenter, in fact, was inactive for all 16 games after his impressive training camp performance. Johnson saw mop-up duty in a few games and also was used in a handful of "Wildcat-formation" plays, where his rushing-passing-receiving skill set made him an unpredictable threat. Through all of that, he got 16 pass attempts and completed 14 of them for 111 yards and a 95.6 passer rating.
Potential Impact of Veteran Free Agency on Tampa Bay's Quarterbacks:
Given the stability at the position and the Buccaneers' obvious willingness to play young players at pretty much any position, it would be surprising if the team made any attempt to address the position in free agency. Given the number of teams that have notable issues at the position – including some of the clubs that drafted quarterbacks in April but might not want to immediately turn the reins over to a rookie – it's likely that any available quarterback of note will have much more aggressive suitors than the Buccaneers.
The Bucs also do not have to worry about free agency depleting their stable of passers this year, as none of the team's quarterbacks will be eligible for it regardless of what rules are set. With three seasons of accrued free agency credit in his pocket, Johnson is the closest of the three to the open market threshold.
Buccaneers' Free Agency History at Quarterback:
Because they went 15 years between spending first-round picks on the quarterback position – Dilfer in 1994 to Freeman in 2009 – the Buccaneers did find occasion to dip into the free agency pool on several occasions in the interim. Tampa Bay used a second-rounder on King in 1999 and a third-rounder on Simms in 2003, but neither one turned into a long-term solution despite some promising early moments.
The NFL's current form of free agency – the one that is on hold with the labor dispute – began with the first collective bargaining agreement in 1993. Tampa Bay had picked up Steve DeBerg in 1992 through Plan B free agency and had drafted Craig Erickson the same year, so those two and Testaverde served as a bridge to Dilfer in 1994 (he became the starter in 1995). Dilfer held the position until essentially handing it over to King late in 1999, and King started every game in 2000.
Thus, the Bucs' first free agency foray at quarterback was Brad Johnson, and that was a remarkably successful debut. Johnson had put together some prolific and underrated seasons at Minnesota and Washington, but he peaked in Tampa, where he won his only Super Bowl ring. Johnson had three very good years at the helm before surrendering the job to Simms (and then Griese) about a month into 2004.
Griese, too, had some fine stretches and he set the team's single-season passer rating record in '04 with a mark of 97.5 (albeit in six fewer starts than Freeman had last year). Jeff Garcia was the Bucs' next big free agency signing at the position, in 2007, and he led the team to a NFC South title in his first year at the helm. Relatively late in his very good career, Garcia struggled with injury problems but was fairly productive when he was on the field.
The Bucs got McCown in a trade and he was a decent back-up and spot starter for several years, but their most recent free agency pickup was Leftwich. The former Jaguar, Falcon and Steeler got the job to start 2009, as mentioned above, but held it for only three starts and was on injured reserve by the end of the year. Tampa Bay did manage to net a draft pick for Leftwich in that 2010 trade with Pittsburgh.
Final Quarterback Analysis:
The Buccaneers may have some positions to address in free agency or on the September waiver wire – what G.M. Mark Dominik calls the "second draft" – but quarterback is not likely to be one of them. The team is understandably committed to Freeman, and barring injury he's a pretty sure bet to take the vast majority of the snaps in 2011.
Johnson, too, has the team's confidence as the backup, and he even got some valuable starting experience in 2009. Teams often like to have at least one experienced veteran quarterback behind a young starter, but Freeman is advanced well beyond his years and Johnson is thought by many to have a significant upside. In fact, in the long run, the question with Johnson may be whether or not he becomes too valuable to remain a backup in the NFL. A team's third quarterback spot is often filled by a developmental type, so there's no reason to believe the team will be looking to replace Carpenter.
Quarterback should be one of the most stable positions on the Buccaneers' depth chart heading into training camp in 2011. If anything, the team might be expected to consider adding a fourth arm through the eventual undrafted free agency avenue.