QB Josh Freeman handled the Buccaneers' offense efficiently in his first work on the One Buc practice field
Josh Freeman is a remarkable presence on the football field. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, he stands out in the pocket even behind a group of jumbo linemen. He has a presence, even as a rookie, or as Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris puts it, he is "an athletic, big, giant human that's walking the planet and I'm glad he's on our team."
On Friday, however, it was another, lesser-known, lesser-scrutinized player that impressed Freeman on the practice field at One Buccaneer Place. Thanks to the ravages of the afternoon heat and the fact that one player is not due to arrive at the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp until tomorrow, there was basically only one tight end who participated in the entire two-hour practice: Miami's Chris Zellner. Zellner's marathon effort was not lost on Freeman, who spent the afternoon delivering the football to a bunch of young men on who are trying to make an instant impression.
Who knows if Zellner also impressed the Buccaneers' coaches and scouts, but stamina and effort are definitely qualities the team is trying to find in this weekend's camp. Roughly two-thirds of the players on the field for the three day camp are participating on tryout contracts, joining in the action with '09 draftees like Freeman, a handful of undrafted free agent signees and a few first-year holdovers. If this year is anything like the last few, two or three of those tryout players will do enough to earn a spot on the 80-man offseason roster.
"All these guys here, they come in and you want to flood them with information; you want to give it to them and you want to see if they take it out to the grass and then do it," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "But the other part is, you want to see conditioning, how guys last. You've got to get the guys that have the best conditioning. You've got to get the guys that can pick it up, retain it, take it to the field and do it.
"You're just looking for those things right now – anybody you can pick up. We've got an opportunity to sign a couple free agents out of this camp, a couple guys in here that can excite you. We picked up three guys in here last year. A guy like Peanut [Clifton Smith] came in here from this camp on a tryout basis, turned into a free agent, then went to making the team, then went to being a Pro Bowler. So I'm just evaluating talent."
Since so many of the players on the field this weekend will no longer be around on Monday, the opportunity to advance through the offseason learning curve is a little limited. The team won't get its veterans and rookies together on the field until the week of May 17, so the full-team absorption of the new offensive and defensive systems won't pick up for several more weeks. However, the rookie camp allows the tryout players to fight for roster spots and also gives the contracted rookies a chance to learn the playbooks.
That's especially important for Freeman, who will be part of the competition for the starting job under center once the full team is together. Freeman needs to use this weekend's camp to get as familiar as possible with the offense's formations and play calls so that he isn't drastically behind when he's thrown in with the rest of the Bucs' actual offense.
"I don't know how much he can learn from this group," said Morris. "What he can do from this group is start to develop how to catch up. He's starting to get the offense, starting to hear the calls so it won't be foreign to him. It won't be a different language. When he gets in, he'll kind of know what's going on. He'll hear it a bunch of times, he'll get a chance to meet with his coaches, he'll get a chance to meet with the players. He'll be in and he'll just impress with his knowledge of the offense and how well he picked it up now."
And maybe he'll have that "presence." He did on Friday, in his first official practice as a Buccaneer. The focus was on him, obviously, but he handled it with a veteran's calmness.
"Josh, he went out there today and took control of the huddle," said Morris. "I don't believe he had one bad snap besides the guard tripping him earlier in the walk-through. Other than that, he got every snap, delivered the football, controlled the huddle well, made some nice throws, did some things we liked today. It was pretty exciting."
The very last game that Roy Miller played as a Texas Longhorn was an important one in his becoming a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
The Buccaneers had plenty of game tape to watch on Miller, who had been patrolling the middle of the Longhorn's defense for years. But the 2009 Fiesta Bowl pitted Texas against Ohio State and their power running attack, and that's something that wasn't overly prevalent on all that Texas videotape. The Big 12 has of late become the home to some very prolific passing attacks.
Tampa Bay went into the 2009 NFL Draft hoping to find some talent for their interior defensive line, which needs to meet some different demands under new coordinator Jim Bates than it had for years under Monte Kiffin. Specifically, the Bucs were looking for strong space-eaters who could hold up against several blockers, be stout against the run, push the pocket back and also provide some pressure up the middle.
The Bucs liked what they saw from Miller against Ohio State's balanced defense. Actually, so did everyone else; Miller was named the game's Defensive MVP.
"When he played against Ohio State he really did a good job," said Bates. "That was a game that we really liked as far as an evaluation. It was more conventional, pro-style type football. Hopefully he can learn what we're doing and fill a void, but there's going to be competition at the position as far as rotating at tackle."
Many analysts expected the Buccaneers to target the defensive tackle position in the first round of the '09 draft, but the team jumped at the chance to get a franchise quarterback in Freeman. Without a second-round pick, Tampa Bay's next selection was 17 picks into Round Three, where they were thrilled to find Miller still waiting. If Miller can prove to be a good fit in Bates' system, that will be a huge boost to the team's efforts to build a strong D-Line rotation.
"The main thing is being able to hold gap, being able to keep the linemen off the linebackers, being able to take up space, and he's a strong young man," said Bates of the demands on a defensive tackle in his system. "He's not the tallest guy in the league, of course, but when you look at different guys around the league, there are a lot of shorter, strong, hold-the-point type guys and that's what we're looking for Roy to do.
"He's more of a run-stopper but had five-and-a-half sacks [at Texas]. He's an awfully strong young man and can get some push, which is awfully important as quick as the ball comes out in today's game."
More from Coach Morris
The Buccaneers' first-year head coach is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Tampa Bay Rays' game against the Boston Red Sox on Friday night. When asked what sort of pitch he was going to go with, Morris made it clear he was sticking with the heat.
"I'm going straight down the pipe with a fastball," he said with a laugh. "Either I'm hitting the backstop full-go or I'm going to hit the catcher's mitt. It will be far right or far left, but it's going hard and straight…well, hard and somewhere."
Morris touched on a few more serious topics after practice on Friday.
On how Freeman will handle the spotlight: "The spotlight for a quarterback is not really a big deal, for the most part. When you're talking about a guy that's 6-5, 250 pounds, who's been part of the elite quarterbacks, been around some of the best competition, been to the combine, been to the bright lights and big games playing at Texas, playing some of those guys like that…I'm not worried about the spotlight. I'm more worried about him picking up the offense, him going out and being around his team, him developing himself as a nice leader, picking up everything he needs to be doing so we can go out and win games."
On if the players improved from the morning to the afternoon: "The morning, on purpose, I make them have a walk-through. I want to go out there and get a walk-through so everybody can get a feel so we can be more comfortable when we come out. The hardest part about the walk-through is trying to coach tempo, trying to make the guys slow down. Everybody's in here and they want to show you how good they are so they want to run everywhere. You have to stop practice, slow them down, get them going and then get them out there for the afternoon. They're a little more comfortable, a little more relaxed, they're ready to run and they're ready to go. You don't really see much improvement from a walk-through to a practice."
On who would optimally be the starting quarterback in September: "I'll answer that one like this: The starting quarterback thing, I'll let you guys know the third preseason game. I want these guys to compete. I mean, I've got Luke McCown, I've got Byron Leftwich, I've got Josh Johnson, I've got Josh Freeman and I've got Brian Griese still on staff right now. I need these guys to get in here and just compete, and I want to play the best one out of those five guys and go to work. Now, obviously I'm going to camp with just four but I want to play the best one out of those guys."
On having Clifton Smith on hand as an example of what can happen in this camp: "There's no doubt. That is the ultimate motivation. That is how this camp is packed every year because of those types of stories. We don't discriminate from anybody. When you come in here you're going to have an opportunity. You've got an opportunity to show greatness. You may make this team, you may just get to training camp. You may get tape for 31 other teams. But you're going to have an opportunity. And with a guy like Clifton Smith being an example… Amarri Jackson was on our team a little bit last year; he's back. We had another guy make it; Elbert Mack came here as a free agent and really did some standout things for us last year. This camp, we're just fired up about it."