Josh Freeman started nine games at quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. Josh Johnson started four. Freeman is coming into his second NFL season, Johnson his third. Freeman is 22, Johnson is 24 and both are potentially key figures for the Buccaneers this year. Both are working hard in training camp to establish chemistry with a largely reworked receiving squad.
But it's Johnson, not Freeman, who will be getting extended playing time this Saturday in Miami.
The reason for that is simple: If you leave Freeman, your starter, on the field for longer than is typical in the preseason opener, then you also need to leave the first-team offensive line on the field. No head coach in his right mind is going to risk his franchise quarterback behind an offensive line of young and inexperienced players for long.
And thus the Bucs will stick with the usual approach to the preseason when it comes to their starters and substitution patterns, even if it's tempting to leave the 22-year-old out there for some more seasoning. The starters will play a series or perhaps a bit more in the opener on Saturday, a little more the following weekend against Kansas City and then even more in Week Three against Jacksonville.
"You want to let Josh [Freeman] go out there, make some completions, get him off the field and get him out of there healthy," said Head Coach Raheem Morris on Wednesday. "You can't penalize your front five because Josh is young. He may have to grow up a little faster because of that. You send Josh out there, you better not send him out there with the two line or somebody's going to have to come have a conversation with me."
This is good news for Johnson, who is eager to play and will get more of a chance to do so than he did a year ago. Then, the second-year player was watching Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown battle it out for the starting job and the rookie Freeman snapping up most of the rest of the plays. Johnson ended up throwing 30 passes in the preseason, but did well enough to convince the team to keep him and trade McCown. Johnson completed 56.7% of his passes, threw for a team-high 7.27 yards per pass attempt and also led the team in rushing in the preseason with 88 yards and a score.
This year, Johnson's role is much more secure, as he's clearly the primary backup to Freeman. Still, he could use another strong preseason to make the Buccaneers feel as comfortable as possible with that situation.
"Josh [Johnson] knows he is one snap away from being the guy that we better start supporting," said Morris. "That's the nature of the beast, that's the reality of our business. That's what can happen. And there's no reason why Josh Johnson couldn't step and lead us to do whatever we need to do. I've got a lot of confidence in him."
Morris showed his belief in Johnson's raw talents last year when he tabbed him to replace Leftwich in the fourth week of the season rather than Freeman. That confidence has only grown over an offseason in which both of the Buccaneers' young quarterbacks worked tirelessly to hone their games. Much has been made of Freeman's devotion to film study this entire offseason, and rightfully so, but Johnson got into the act as well.
"He put the work in," said Morris. "Freeman wasn't here alone. He was here with Josh and they were working together. Those guys have been working hand-in-hand. They've been supporting each other. They've been doing a lot of the same things. Two different skill sets...one's got the big-time arm, one's got the big-time legs. They're both accurate. They both know the game, they're both very smart. They're sharp young men and they both excite me."
Just Another Step
Mike Williams had to wait through three rounds and two extra nights in April before he heard his name called in the 2010 NFL Draft. Maybe that's why he's done everything to accelerate his schedule since.
The Buccaneers snapped up the former Syracuse receiver with the 101st overall selection, three picks into Round Four. They weren't the only ones that saw a special talent in Williams, perhaps worthy of a higher pick, but the fact that he didn't finish his senior year with the Orangemen team clearly hurt his stock.
The Buccaneers did their homework on Williams and believed he was a good selection in terms of both his playing ability and his character. Williams arrived in Tampa a week later and has done everything since to make that evaluation look accurate.
Williams was the talk of the post-draft rookie mini-camp and he continued to stand out when the veterans worked back into the mix for OTAs. He looked like the best bet of the Bucs' newcomers at receiver to make an immediate impact this season, and by the time the first week of training camp was over he looked like, simply, a starter.
And that's where he was listed when the Bucs' first depth chart came out this week. After that slow roll on draft weekend, Williams has flat sprinted to the front of the pack. The released of the depth chart was validation of the hard work he has put in, but he regards it as just another step in the right direction.
"It made me feel good," Williams admitted. "It was like a step towards my goal, to be out there to help my team win. We're still in training camp and that's just a depth chart for the first game. I could be number three by the next game. It's just a step towards my goal and I want to keep moving forward."
But here's the thing: Despite the obvious progression he has made since draft weekend, Williams still heads into his first NFL game - the next step obviously - feeling like he's right back at the beginning. A fourth-round pick. That's a feeling to which he's purposely holding on, no matter how well things go.
"I feel like I've got to prove everybody wrong," said Williams. "My off-the-field image, my on-the-field image - I've got to prove everybody wrong. I feel like this is my opportunity and I'm going to take full advantage of it. I use everything as motivation, any little thing. That fourth round was the biggest motivation I ever had since I was born. I'll use that as motivation. I keep thinking, 'I was a fourth-round pick, man. Let me show these guys.' That's how I go out there in every practice."
Bucs Sign Michigan RB Brown
Tampa Bay made another roster move on Wednesday, though this one was essentially the result of a previous maneuver that failed to come to fruition.
On Tuesday, the Buccaneers claimed tight end Martin Rucker off waivers after he was released by the Philadelphia Eagles. However, the former University of Missouri star was waived on Wednesday after he failed his physical upon arriving in Tampa.
The Buccaneers used the open roster spot to sign rookie running back Carlos Brown, who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints. Brown was waived by New Orleans in late May. He arrived at the Buccaneers' training camp on Wednesday afternoon near the end of the day's practice.
In four seasons at Michigan, Brown played in 31 games and amassed 1,025 yards on 201 carries, finishing with an outstanding average of 5.1 yards per carry. He also caught 16 passes for 145 yards, returned 19 kickoffs for 386 yards and scored a total of nine touchdowns.
The 6-0, 210-pound back, a native of Heard County, Georgia, carried a career-high 82 times for the Wolverines last fall, gaining 480 yards and scoring four touchdowns. He led Michigan to a 45-17 victory over Eastern Michigan with 187 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries.