Quarterback Josh Freeman, tackle Donald Penn and tight end Kellen Winslow were all recognized as being among the best at their positions in the NFC when the NFL announced its Pro Bowl teams on Tuesday. The three Buccaneer players were all chosen as alternates, which means they could potentially play in the game if others at their position become unavailable due to injuries or other reasons.
Last year, Tampa Bay had no representatives in the Pro Bowl for the first time since 1995, but that drought could end after one year if Freeman, Penn and/or Winslow eventually get the call. The Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's most improved teams in 2010, rebounding from a 3-13 season in 2009 to post a 9-6 mark through 16 weeks and remain in contention for the playoffs into the final weekend.
In particular, the Buccaneers have drawn attention for their improvements on offense. In just his second season, Freeman is clearly emerging as a long-term star, and his 23/6 TD/INT ratio is indicative of a maturity far beyond his 22 years. Penn signed a new, multi-year contract just before training camp this past summer and has more than lived up to the deal, gaining recognition as one of the best left tackles in the game. And Winslow, a former Pro Bowler with the Cleveland Browns, has simply continued his career-long production with one of the better seasons for a tight end in franchise annals.
All three Buccaneer alternates have a chance to add significantly to the team's Pro Bowl history.
The Buccaneers have had just one Pro Bowl season by a quarterback that they acquired through the draft, that one produced by Trent Dilfer in 1997. Brad Johnson (2002) and Jeff Garcia (2007) both represented Tampa Bay in the all-star game after arriving as free agents.
Tampa Bay has never had an offensive tackle, acquired by any means, make the Pro Bowl. It is the only position at which the Buccaneers are still looking for their first official all-star. Guard Davin Joseph (2008) is the only Tampa Bay offensive lineman to make the Pro Bowl over the past decade.
Jimmie Giles established a Pro Bowl presence early for the Buccaneers at tight end, making it four times from 1980-85. However, no other Buccaneer tight end has been named to the all-star game since Giles' last appearance.
Freeman has completed 270 of 448 passes (60.3%) this season for 3,196 yards, 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His passer rating of 93.6 ranks fourth in the NFC behind Philadelphia's Michael Vick, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Dallas' Tony Romo, and Romo hasn't played since Week Six due to injury. Freeman has proved incredibly effective in the clutch, especially for such a young player, already leading his team to seven fourth-quarter comeback victories in just 24 career starts.
Penn has helped Freeman accumulate those accomplishments by providing outstanding blindside protection. Though he entered the league as an undrafted free agent with Minnesota in 2006 he has been the team's starter at one of the most crucial positions on the field since the fifth game of the 2007 campaign. Penn is the only member of the Bucs' offensive line that has started every game this season, and his steady presence has helped the team produce its best rushing attack in over a decade.
Winslow leads the Buccaneers with 63 receptions, the highest single-season total by any Buccaneer tight end other than his own 77-catch campaign in 2009, his first year with the team. He is second only to wide receiver Mike Williams on the team with 702 yards and five touchdowns. Winslow ranks fifth in the NFC among tight ends with his 63 grabs, just one behind Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez and four behind Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew. Only Dallas' Jason Witten and San Francisco's Vernon Davis have more touchdowns than Winslow among NFC tight ends.