That Josh Freeman is 23 years old, an established franchise quarterback in the NFL and an unquestioned leader on his team is rare enough. That, even at that young age, he has almost as many NFL starts under his belt (25) as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' entire corps of wide receivers combined (30), is astonishing.
Indeed, the 2011 Buccaneers are very young at wide receiver (as they are at most spots on the depth chart), but they are undeniably talented, and Freeman is happy with the group of pass-catchers he has as he heads into his third NFL campaign.
"They're doing a good job, and it's headed up by guys like Sammie Stroughter and Mike Williams," said Freeman. "I mean, Micheal Spurlock is going to be the veteran on the team whenever he [gets back to practice]. Yeah, we're really young, but they're really hungry. The guys, they come out and they play and they compete every day. You can't hope for anything better as a quarterback. I'm really excited about growing with them and becoming better players."
Yes, the 28-year-old Spurlock, who is a converted college quarterback and who until last year was primarily a kick returner in the NFL, is the Bucs' graybeard in the receivers' room. Last year's primary starters were rookies, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, as was the receiver who began to emerge at the end of the year, Dezmon Briscoe. Stroughter has two years in the league; nobody else in the group has started an NFL game.
Freeman is having no trouble finding viable targets to throw to in this summer's training camp, however. Williams, who led all NFL rookies with 65 catches and 964 yards last year and snared a team-record 11 receiving touchdowns, has been putting on a clinic during the first half-dozen practices. Benn is recovering from a late-2011 knee injury but looks to be right on schedule. Briscoe is gaining buzz during camp as a player who may be ready for a much bigger role. Stroughter simply catches everything thrown in his vicinity, often on quick-hitters out of the slot. And there are other intriguing youngsters amid the likes of Preston Parker, Raymond Webber and Detron Lewis.
Coupled with a running game that really found its legs last year, that passing attack could be formidable in 2011. Freeman likes what he sees.
"I'm really happy with how the offense is working," he said. "You talk about Mike Williams, who is continuing to get better, and also LeGarrette Blount, who's looked better than ever. I feel really set with the guys we have. Obviously, there are still some free agency questions, but right now we've got to work with what we've got and I'm really happy with the development of some of our younger guys. Fullback Erik Lorig came up and stepped up. We've got some new tight ends. We had the unfortunate incident with Luke Stocker, but Ryan Purvis is stepping up and Kellen Winslow as usual is playing great. The O-line is doing awesome and we got [Jeremy] Trueblood and Davin Joseph back."
Of course Freeman, who ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating last year, is the key to it all. The Bucs were confident in their 2009 first-round pick heading into the 2010 campaign, his first as an opening day starter, but it's doubtful they expected him to throw 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. In fact, that ratio would be difficult to maintain for a second year in a row, but Freeman can certainly up his yardage and TD totals, and most importantly, the Bucs' win total.
The Bucs are definitely looking to their young quarterback to lead the team to the next level, and he's prepared for that.
"We're still really young," said Freeman. "Obviously, we have guys like [Jeff] Faine, guys like Ronde [Barber], guys that have been in the league and seen it all, so to speak. But as far as being the quarterback, I've got to step up and take a leadership role. I'm doing my best to do that. I've got guys like Coach Olson and Coach Van Pelt to help me along. It really is going great.
"I'm working as hard as I can, trying to get better. Obviously, practice is the time to try new things, to work on parts of your game that you might not have felt comfortable enough last year to try in a game. I'm just trying to continue to get better, continue to grow as a quarterback, and right now in training camp to help the offense along, the guys I work with as far as receivers, tight ends, running backs, trying to get our timing back down so when the season rolls around we'll be ready to roll."
Where the Battles Are
There is, of course, competition for every job in training camp, and the Buccaneers showed last year that they aren't afraid to go with young players or proven veterans (think Ted Larsen over Keydrick Vincent).
Realistically, though, there are many spots on the depth chart that are likely to stay the same throughout camp and the preseason; it would be shocking, and not in a good way, to see such players as Josh Freeman, Mike Williams or Gerald McCoy struggle to hold on to their starting positions.
Like every team, the Bucs have a few spots that are more obviously up for grabs than others. On Monday, Head Coach Raheem Morris gave a detailed answer when asked to pinpoint those positions. Here was his list:
- Defensive line – "The whole D-line has a lot that you want to look at so I'll be looking at those guys, not necessarily just competition like with Gerald McCoy, but you want to see his development. There are so many things you're going to look at when the pads come on."
- Right tackle – "The right tackle battle is always intriguing. You know Trueblood is a starter. He has been for the last couple years. And James Lee came on last year, played great football for us. And he got a chance to compete and started some games. So we'll let those two compete for sure. When we get those guys on the field, then it's going to definitely be a competition."
- Back-up tailback –"That second running back right now is really intriguing. That guy who comes in to pass protect, whether it's Earnest Graham or [Kregg] Lumpkin or one of the new guys, [Allen] Bradford, that's going to factor into that deal. Who's going to get the other carries, all those types of things are going to factor in so that will be something intriguing to watch."
- Second tight end –"For the most part, that tight end position, that second tight end, is another intriguing deal. Once Luke gets off his crunches…and [Nathan] Overbay is starting to come on and has been here for a year…you're getting [Ryan] Purvis coming into his third year. Those guys competing for that second role along with [Daniel] Hardy will be another intriguing battle we'll have at offense.
- Middle linebacker –"That MIKE backer is going to be the talk all the way up until we play, until we line up versus Detroit. That's something I'm used to talking about here for awhile now. We'll definitely have a chance to look at that."
- Nickel back –"In the secondary, we're pretty clear cut [on starters] but we do have [E.J.] Biggers and Myron Lewis – they're battling. They both had a great season last year, but Myron Lewis really came on at the end, played well for us down the stretch, really trying to define his role and how much we play dime and how much we play nickel and does he factor in, who's he covering, is he going to be a guy that follows somebody? All those things are very intriguing."
Up-to-the-Minute Updates on Twitter
If you are an avid Buccaneers fan, concerned with the most up-to-date news and notes on your team, you might want to consider joining the more than 25,000 people currently following the team's official Twitter feed.
The Buccaneers use Twitter to announce signings, roster moves and any other breaking news as soon as it is official. More than that, however, the team's Twitter feed offers a peek into what's going on minute-to-minute during the most important parts of training camp. Multiple tweets during open practices and press conferences help keep fans who can't make it out to One Buc for camp or onto Buccaneers.com for live press conferences in touch.
The Buccaneers' official Twitter home is "tbbuccaneers." Here's a small sampling of some of the Bucs' tweets over the past week, covering the busy times leading up to training camp and the first four days of camp itself:
- Jock Sanders, the former St. Pete Catholic prep star, is rotating on punt returns with Sammie Stroughter and Preston Parker.
- M.Williams just made a leaping catch of a deep ball against A.Talib, who was right on him, then beckoned cheers from the crowd as he ran by
- Here's a player who's building up some good buzz in the early days of camp: 2nd-year WR Dezmon Briscoe.
- A little delay on tonight's practice thanks to some nearby lightning. Think we're going to be okay, though. Pads going on tonight!
- Positions to watch when the pads go on and the competition heats up, says coach: D-Line, 2nd RB, 2nd TE, RT, MLB, nickel back.
- Coach Morris says it is still his plan to develop a package of plays for LB Dekoda Watson even if Watson is not in the starting lineup.
- Nice moment for undrafted rookie LB Nick Reveiz out of Tennessee. He just picked off a short pass over the middle.
- WR Dezmon Briscoe, lying on his back in the EZ with one arm hooked by a defender, somehow still made a ridiculous 1-handed catch just now.
- Gotta keep the D honest in team run period...O just ran a flea-flicker on 2nd play and J.Freeman found D.Briscoe deep.
- If you were thinking about coming out to Bucs camp, good news! We beat the weather and practice is just underway.
- Was just talking to Earnest Graham & he pointed out that one of his (many) jobs is to be a coach on the field for all the Bucs' young RBs.
- Coach had good words for Cadillac Williams, who is still an unrestricted FA. Called him a team leader & a player J.Freeman really likes.
- Rookie TE Luke Stocker suffered a hip injury on the first day of camp but Coach Morris says the injury is a week-to-week issue.
- Gerald McCoy is just dominating today. He just tossed a lineman aside on his way into the backfield.
- Starting a full-team defensive period right now and the fist D-Line in there is Clayborn-McCoy-Miller-Bowers. Grimm is at free safety.
- Yet another great catch by Winslow...he is on fire today!
- 3rd-year DE Kyle Moore looking good in this bags drill. Quick get-off. HC Raheem Morris strolled by and said, "Nice job, Killer!"
- Now official, too - the Bucs have grabbed P Michael Koenen from ATL. Read why he's such a huge field-position weapon: tinyurl.com/4ypty54
- Another reason to come out to camp: The entire offense is at the bleachers right now, signing autographs right before we get started.
- Coach Morris is high on LB Tyrone McKenzie. Says he's a serious, no-nonsense guy and a
- Josh Freeman had a long conversation with OC G.Olson at dinner last night, filling him in on what players did at the practices he organized.
- DT Gerald McCoy was on a mission to get in better shape in the offseason. He finished '10 at 310 lbs & 22% body fat; now he's at 296 & 16%.
- DT Brian Price will not start the season on the P.U.P. list, says GM Mark Dominik.
- Mark Dominik says that, as of now, he expects Aqib Talib to be with the team on the first day of training camp.
- GM Mark Dominik says the team is encouraged by the health of the players who finished 2010 on IR, such as G.McCoy, B.Price, C.Grimm.