Josh Freeman, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year starting quarterback, has been a man on a mission in his first full professional offseason. He became a regular presence at team headquarters more than a month before the team even officially began its spring-and-summer program, an NFL version of a gym rat.
Woe be to Freeman, then, that the gym was closed to him this past weekend, even though there was clearly a lot going on inside. Fortunately, he was at least allowed to sit in the stands.
The Buccaneers conducted their usual week-after-the-draft mini-camp from Friday through Sunday, with only rookies and first-year players allowed to participate. That approach saves the club's only mandatory full-team mini-camp for mid-June, at the very end of the offseason program. Rather than immediately throw it's new draft class and undrafted signees onto the field with the returning vets, the team instead fleshes out a camp roster with tryout players. This allows the Bucs to get a quick look at its new contributors in a practice setting while also potentially uncovering some hidden and still-unsigned gems.
What that also means, however, is that rookie receivers such as Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams catch passes from the likes of Jevan Snead, Matt Grothe and Bobby Reid...and, notably, not Freeman. You can bet the Bucs' 2009 first-rounder was eager to loft a few downfield bombs to his newest offensive accessories.
And so there was Freeman at One Buccaneer Place on both Saturday and Sunday, training a keen eye on the practice field and controlling his urge to throw on a helmet.
"Freeman, you can't get him out of the building right now," said his head coach, Raheem Morris, with a laugh. "He's taking this seriously. You love that. He's the quarterback. This is his team. He's letting everybody know. He wants to come see Mike Williams. He wants to see these guys running around catching balls. He wants to see the defensive line and how they're going to grow and how they're going to help get the ball back. Him showing interest in this team is what you love. Nobody called him and said, 'Hey, come to the building and check these guys out.' He was here the last two days, so that's great."
Freeman confirmed that the new receivers were his main reason for attending practice, and also that he was impressed by what he saw. The Bucs' receiving corps is undeniably a group in transition, but the distributor of the football thinks the pieces are in place for a strong passing attack to come together.
"I liked what we had to begin with, but we're always adding, always changing, always trying to better ourselves as a program," said Freeman. "I really like what they did. I'm interested to see how these guys are going to blend in, because we have Mo Stovall, we have Mike Clayton, we have Sammie [Stroughter]. I can see a pretty good competition going on this year in the offseason and in camp."
Obviously, Freeman watched the draft the weekend before with keen interest as well. The Bucs were fortunate to nab Benn in the second round and believe they might have found a steal high in the fourth round with Williams. The availability of Benn and Williams - if they prove to be as good as they looked at first glance over the weekend - could make the decision to spend the team's first two picks on defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy and Brian Price) a particularly successful one.
Freeman may have had a more personal interest in the two wideouts, but he had no problem following the logic of the Bucs' drafting plans this year.
"I feel good," he said. "It all starts up front on the defensive side. I like what they did with the next few picks, getting the receivers, better, but I think Gerald's a great competitor. I played against him in college. It's exciting to have a few new targets, too. They're two explosive guys with great hands and I'm really anxious to see how they blend into our system and our scheme."
Benn and Williams already seemed to have forged a bond with each other, and Morris believes that will lessen the pressure on both players. Neither is being asked to individually take over as the team's top aerial weapon, but both have obvious strengths to add to the attack. When the two rookies return in a couple weeks to take part in the Bucs' string of OTAs, they'll get to work with Freeman, as well. Of course, that also means they'll be playing against the Bucs accomplished veterans in the secondary, and that will raise the level of difficulty.
"You've got to be consistent at wideout," said Morris. "These guys have come out and they've played the game well, they've practiced well. I love how [Williams] finishes. I love how he makes plays on the ball down the field, going up and getting it. It's promising. It's a good start for him.
"And the thing with Arrelious is, when you watch tape what you see is that once he catches the ball he's really a punishing runner. He does a nice job of balancing his shoulders, controlling his weight, lowering his shoulders on smaller DBs, showing wiggle room on some of the linebackers. He fights for extra yards, and I think that's when is game is really going to show up. He steps into a situation where there's going to be a bunch of wideouts battling for playing time, but he should fit into the mix pretty nice."
Under the Radar
By the end of the three-day camp, as the team sweated through one more two-hour practice on Sunday, a good portion of the team's nine-man draft class was watching from the sideline like Freeman. Seventh-round DE Erik Lorig was out with a pre-existing pectoral injury and several others, such as Price and cornerback Myron Lewis, had sustained very minor muscle pulls. Morris took the cautious route with those draftees, intending to keep them healthy for the upcoming full-team OTA workouts.
That meant that, by the end, the balance of purpose in the three-day camp had tilted heavily towards evaluation of "bubble" players. The Bucs wanted to get a good look at the undrafted free agents they had picked up during the week and find out of if any of the tryout players could possibly join their ranks.
Morris wasn't surprised when he saw some very promising efforts from those (to this point) lesser-known players.
Some came from players the team had targeted in the minutes just after the final round of the draft the previous Saturday. That stretch of time is arguably more hectic than the draft process itself, as representatives from all 32 teams work the phones to try to convince the most coveted remaining players to come to town. Often, a major selling point is how much of an opportunity a specific team may have at a specific position.
That could have been part of the attraction for Northern Iowa's James Ruffin when the sack-happy defensive end chose to come to Tampa. The Bucs lost end Jimmy Wilkerson to free agency and only drafted one player at that position, Lorig, over the weekend. On its end, the team's scouting department had as good a report on Ruffin as it did on any of the players it drafted and felt the smaller-school prospect was well worth a look.
"My guys do such a great job of evaluating just about as many people as they can," said Morris. "We have a chance to get those guys in there and they get a chance to show-and-prove. Those are always the guys that end up doing a great job. He's been here, he's been impressive, he looks like he belongs. I'm really fired up to have him. He'll create a nice sense of competition for us up there in the front line. He certainly looks the part."
Ruffin was one of 15 players in Tampa and many more around the league who accepted offers to sign right after the draft. That still left quite a few possible gems unsigned, which is how the Bucs were able to fill out an 80-man camp roster. At the end, the team signed five of those players, including an imposing fullback from Clemson named Rendrick Taylor.
One of the lead blocker's for new Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller at Clemson, Taylor certainly looks the part at 6-2 and 256 pounds. Head Coach Raheem Morris took to calling Taylor "big, thick Clemson" during the weekend and clearly liked something about the young man's game. Amazingly, Taylor spent his first three years at Clemson as a wide receiver before missing the '08 campaign due to injuries and converting to fullback last year.
"When he first walked into the building I said that to myself because he's such a physical presence," said Morris. "Right now we don't know what to call him. We worked him at tight end a little bit [Saturday], we saw him a little bit at fullback. He's a smart player, a savvy player. He's got a nice amount of balance about him. He used to be a wideout and he catches the ball softly. Quick feet. You do wonder sometimes, but those guys slip through the cracks every year. There are Hall of Famers that were undrafted."
Next Up: OTAs
With the exception of the few players who live locally, all of the rookies and first-year men who were in Tampa Bay's mini-camp over the weekend were on plane flights out of town by early evening on Sunday. The league's newest rookies were allowed one brief period to practice with their teams but now must stay away until their respective schools have finished their spring semesters.
For most of the Bucs' newcomers, that won't be long. The majority will be allowed to return to One Buccaneer Place on May 16, just two weeks after they left. That is perfect timing, and not by accident. The Buccaneers will hold the first of their 14 allotted OTAs - organized team activity days - the very next day.
Morris purposely rearranged this year's offseason OTA schedule to make sure most of the team's rookies could be involved from the very beginning. Previously, a handful of OTAs had been spent in April or early May. While OTAs are completely voluntary and not quite as involved as a mini-camp, they do allow teams to run practices that are closer to what the team will be doing during training camp and the regular season. They are thus a very important part of the team's pre-camp preparations.
The Buccaneers will use three of their OTAs from May 17-10, take a week off, then run the final 11 during the first three weeks of June. That will lead the team directly into its mandatory full-team mini-camp from Monday-Wednesday, June 21-23. No official date for the start of training camp has yet been announced, but it will almost certainly fall during the last few days of July.