Rookie QB Josh Freeman will make his first NFL start on Friday night against the Texans
It remains to be seen when Josh Freeman, the 2009 first-round pick expected to develop into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ã¢â'¬Ëœfranchise' quarterback, will make his first regular-season start. Slated to begin the season third on the depth chart behind veterans Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown, Freeman may spend the entire '09 season learning from the sideline.
He will start on Friday night, however, drawing his first game-opening snap in Tampa Bay's preseason finale against the Houston Texans. In a week traditionally owned by young players around the league, Freeman and second-year man Josh Johnson are expected to get all of the action under center on Friday. Leftwich will get a rest and avoid any unnecessary injury risk in the leadup to the regular-season opener against Dallas on September 13.
"We'll see the puppies a little bit tonight," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We'll get a chance to see what Josh Freeman can do and we'll also see a little bit of Josh Johnson. Those guys will go out there and compete a little bit. It will be fun."
During training camp, Morris often finished two-hour practices with one last session for the "young guys." In those drills, Freeman and Morris usually found themselves throwing passes to receivers, backs and tight ends in their own age group, such as Mario Urrutia, Clifton Smith and Ryan Purvis. Friday's game will have a similar look, as virtually all of the team's starters will sit out the night.
That means Maurice Stovall and Brian Clark as the receivers in the starting lineup, along with a front line of LT Jeremy Zuttah, LG James Lee, C Rob Bruggeman, RG Marc Dile and RT Demar Dotson. Zuttah is a usual starter, but at left guard; he'll get his first game action at left tackle tonight. The team will use its usual starting backfield of Earnest Graham and B.J. Askew at game's beginning, but Askew will eventually end up as one of the main ballcarriers. Derrick Ward, Cadillac Williams and Kareem Huggins will not play.
The Bucs' defense will be mostly intact to start the game, though those starters will soon join their offensive counterparts on the sideline. S Jermaine Phillips won't dress; he'll be replaced by Will Allen at free safety.
"The [starters] on offense will get a blow," said Morris. "You'll get a chance to see some of the young guys on offense a lot. Defensively, you'll get a chance to see them for a couple series because they haven't played as much as the offense has in the preseason. On offense, you will see more of the young guys. We'll see ourselves forming the team from the bottom up, which we want to do."
Morris speaks frequently of the "53rd man" on the roster, and of "driving the bus from the bottom up." He wants his reserves to be the hardest working players on the team, and he wants them to strive to unseat the men in front of them. First, they have to prove worthy of a spot on the roster, and Friday's game is the perfect opportunity.
"The last preseason game is always tough," said Morris. "It's the one where everybody's a little more cautious, where everybody pulls back in a little bit, reserved so to speak. It will be no different here. We'll hold some of our guys back, we'll compare the bottom of the roster and we'll see who can make this football team in the last waning moments. We're pretty excited about that."
Obviously, most if not all of the starting lineup for the season opener is set. However, there are still some difficult decisions to make as the cutdown to 53 players looms on Saturday afternoon. Morris said two positions in general continue to be extremely competitive.
"The D-line intrigues me tonight," he said. "Who's going to be your ninth [lineman]? Who's going to be your possible 10th, or maybe even eighth. Then you talk about receiver. Who's going to be the third wideout? Who's going to come in and be the fourth and fifth? How many wideouts are we going to keep? How many guys impress us? Those two positions in particular are what I'm going to be looking at."
And, of course, Freeman.
"You always want to see our 'franchise' go out there and play, get a look at what he's going to be and what he's going to become," said Morris.
The Buccaneers have identified a list of 19 players who definitely will not see action in tonight's game: Leftwich, McCown, Phillips, Williams, Ward, Huggins, K Matt Bryant, S Donte Nicholson, C Jeff Faine, LB Rod Wilson, LB Adam Hayward, G Jeremy Trueblood, T Donald Penn, G Davin Joseph, WR Michael Clayton, TE Kellen Winslow, TE Jerramy Stevens, TE John Gilmore and WR Antonio Bryant.
The Texans have identified the following players who will not play tonight: QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Davis, RB Steve Slaton, RB Chris Brown, CB Jacques Reeves, FB Vonta Leach, LB Chaun Thompson, LB Zac Diles, LB Brian Cushing, LB DeMeco Ryans, G Mike Brisiel, T Eric Winston, T Duane Brown, WR Andre Johnson, TE Owen Daniels, WR Kevin Walter, TE Joel Dreesen, DE Mario Williams, DT Amobi Okoye, DE Antonio Smith and DT Shaun Cody.
Obviously, there will be extensive changes to Houston's starting lineup, as well. In essence, only six of the Texans' usual 22 starters will open the game: LG Chester Pitts, C Chris Myers, NT DelJuan Robinson, WLB Xavier Adibi, RCB Fred Bennett and SS Nick Ferguson. Even with all those changes, Morris expects a tough fight.
"They're a very good team," said the Buccaneers' coach. "Our offense mimics theirs a little bit – they have a zone-blocking scheme and they like to push the ball down the field vertically with the play-action pass. They're a very good offensive team, we know that. On defense, they're young, they're fast and they fly around."
The Bucs and Texans will kick off at 7:00 p.m. ET on Saturday night. Buccaneers.com will post a halftime report as well as a game story at the conclusion of the night.