For any NFL team, the offseason is one long and continuous (and increasingly busy) process of getting ready for the next regular-season opener. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a big part of that process in 2010 is constructing an offense that is more explosive, more diverse and more consistent than the year before.
Josh Freeman says that goal is very much in sight.
The Buccaneers' top 2009 draft pick, now barreling towards his first opening-day start, Freeman formed that encouraging opinion after leading his team through its initial set of organized team activity days (OTAs) last week. Freeman himself has been working tirelessly since the end of last season to put himself in position to raise his game, and team management has helped out by seriously fleshing out his array of weapons. The difference was noticeable last week.
"The first day this year and the first day last year?" said Freeman. "We're light years ahead right now."
Every offseason is a transition in some way or another, but the Bucs' build-up for 2010 is more notable than most. For just the third time in the last 17 years, the team will enter the season with a second-year quarterback entrenched as the starter. Freeman follows the pattern of Trent Dilfer in 1995 and Shaun King in 2000, but that's where the similarities are likely to end.
Of the Buccaneers' nine leading receivers in 2000, only one was new to the team that season – Keyshawn Johnson. Of the team's nine leading receivers in 1995, only one was new to the team that season – Alvin Harper. Both Johnson and Harper were established veterans expected to step in instantly as the team's top target. (That worked out somewhat better with Johnson than Harper, of course).
Tampa Bay's current receiving corps is being rebuilt from the ground up, primarily through the draft and with the occasional shrewd trade if the market can deliver a potentially undervalued player. The Buccaneers used a second-round pick on Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn this past April, then doubled up at the position in the fourth round with former Syracuse standout Mike Williams. Add in the just-emerging Sammie Stroughter and the potential of former Eagle Reggie Brown, a March trade acquisition, and the Bucs' receiving corps could have a very different look in 2010.
It will be up to Freeman to pull that corps together into an efficient passing attack, a fact he knows all too well. That is what has propelled him to become something of One Buc Place's version of a gym rat this winter, spring and summer.
"I'm working," he said. "The offseason isn't finished, but [the OTAs are] just one more step, one more bit of growing. We hadn't gone against a live defense since last season. The intensity level was up, everybody was playing hard and guys were making plays, and that's all you can ask. I definitely feel better, more calm and more in control. I think that comes from time spent in the offseason."
And Freeman definitely thinks he has some potential playmakers at his disposal. There was no shortage of competition at the spot last week, as the young players know they'll have to battle such holdovers as Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall and Mark Bradley to carve out playing time.
"We knew coming out of rookie mini-camp that we had two guys that could make plays and two guys that are great athletes," said Freeman. "We've got nobody that takes it for granted. Everybody feels like they've got to win their spot and everybody's got to compete. I think it just boosts the performance level of everybody."
Added Head Coach Raheem Morris: "It's a competitive league. We set up the draft with hopes of having a competitive nature at wide receiver, a competitive nature at D-Line. We talked about establishing the front line push. But we also want to establish the dynamic playmakers on the outside. We've all got to get better."
Morris said that Freeman has shown impressive growth in directing the offense, taking some decision-making duties away from center Jeff Faine and recognizing blitzes. His receivers said that he was anticipating their routes and finding the open man in his progressions. Williams, the wide-eyed rookie, said that Freeman was simply remarkable.
"I had to see how he was," said Williams of his new quarterback. "I've never seen anything like it. His accuracy is amazing. He knows his reads before he throws the ball. It's great playing with a big, tall quarterback like that."
The Buccaneers certainly hope it will be great in 2010, that Freeman will translate his offseason work into real strides on the field and that Williams, Benn and/or other potential stars will step up. It's all part of the process, and it's well underway.