- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. — Since the arrival of coach Greg Schiano, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been guarded with the media. But there’s one burning topic that’s so obvious — and critical to the team’s future — that it can’t be kept secret.
This season is all about Josh Freeman, the quarterback who is too big, even in his slimmed-down body, and too important to fail. If Freeman somehow does fail, it probably means the entire team fails.
"He’s got two years remaining on his contract and we need to find out," general manager Mark Dominik said.
The Bucs firmly believe Freeman has all the mental and physical skills to be their franchise quarterback for years to come. It’s just that they don’t know with any certainty if Freeman is the quarterback who showed so much promise in 2010 or the one who threw 22 interceptions last year in a season in which the Bucs lost their final 10 games.
Before Freeman ever gets close to free agency, the Bucs need to know if they want to sign him to what’s sure to be a huge contract extension. They need to find that out before Freeman gets into the final year of his contract. They need to find out now and that’s why the Bucs have spent the entire offseason and training camp trying to find ways that assure success for Freeman.
"It’s been important for us as an organization to equip Josh Freeman with all the weapons we can give him," Dominik said. "I know Josh wants to play great and have the opportunity to be successful like he was in 2010, but we also want to give him all the weapons we can to let him have a chance to be the quarterback he can be."
The Bucs have done their part. They went on a free-agent spending spree and got Freeman a true No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson and solidified the front line by adding Carl Nicks, perhaps the best guard in the NFL. They also brought in veteran tight end Dallas Clark and went out and drafted Doug Martin to give Freeman an all-purpose running back.
And Freeman has done his part. He was a regular throughout the offseason program and, although no one ever hinted he was overweight last season, Freeman dropped 25 to 30 pounds as soon as the season ended.
"He’s a really competitive kid," Dominik said. "I just wanted him to harness and really channel that into being the best he can be and he said that when he decided to show up at the weight that he’s at and start to really get his body in the right shape as a professional athlete and make good choices off the field. That told me he was going to take this the right way and that was before we even hired [Schiano]."
But hiring Schiano and adding the free agents and Martin weren’t the only things the Bucs did in the offseason that were designed to help Freeman. The Bucs went to great extremes to hire coaches who would put Freeman in a strong offensive system. They hired Mike Sullivan as their offensive coordinator, soon after he helped (as the quarterbacks coach) Eli Manning and the New York Giants win a Super Bowl. They also added veteran assistant Ron Turner as the quarterbacks coach.
For perhaps the first time since Freeman was drafted in the first round in 2009, he’s being challenged.
"Yeah, for sure," Freeman said. "It’s constant improvement, constant installations and it keeps us on our toes. [In] a lot of camps, you get done and you want to go straight to bed. But here you kind of have to force yourself to stay up and do some studying."
The weight has been lost, the supporting cast and the coaching staff have been strengthened and the studying is getting done. All the pieces are in place. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to find out if he’s their quarterback for the next decade.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. The arrival of veteran leadership. That’s something the Bucs were often accused of lacking last season, probably because it was entirely true. Schiano’s orderly style is completely different from the way predecessor Raheem Morris ran things during a time in which the roster was stocked almost entirely with youth. But Dominik and Schiano decided that simply changing coaching staffs wasn’t enough.
They signed guys like Nicks, Clark and Jackson because they’ve been Pro Bowl players. But they also signed them because they’ve played on winning teams and have been leaders. Nicks and Clark each have a Super Bowl ring and the Chargers were always in playoff contention when Jackson was there. These guys don’t know how to lose and that brings a sense of urgency to the rest of the roster to learn to win quickly.
"It’s not a rebuilding year," Nicks said. "We’re trying to win now. We’re trying to shock some teams, sort of like Detroit kind of did after their few years of not doing so good and how San Francisco shocked the world. We’re trying to do something like that. So, bringing in veteran guys, skill guys and Pro Bowlers, it’s going to be fun to see what we do out there."
2. A novel concept. One of Tampa Bay’s biggest problems last season was that the offense was too predictable. If LeGarrette Blount was on the field, it meant the Bucs were going to run. If Kregg Lumpkin was in the game, it meant a pass was coming. Those days are over.
After hearing repeated complaints that he was one-dimensional and getting an early public warning by Schiano about the importance of ball security, Blount has worked hard to bring balance to his game. Like Freeman, Blount has dropped weight because he wants to be more than a power back. He also has worked hard on his receiving skills and paid more attention to detail on his pass-blocking duties.
Some players have resisted Schiano’s disciplined way and that’s why guys like Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow are gone. But Blount is an example of a guy who got the message and has worked to improve his flaws. There’s no doubt picking up Martin helped light a fire under Blount, because at draft time, the Bucs repeatedly referred to Martin as "an all-around back." The implication was that Blount wasn’t an all-around back.
As it turns out, the Bucs now may have two all-around backs. That could come in very handy because Schiano has made it clear he expects his offense to run a lot and take some shots downfield in the passing game. Having two running backs who can run, block and catch means the Bucs aren’t going to be one-dimensional in the backfield.
3. Mike Williams’ resurgence. As a rookie in 2010, Mike Williams played like a No. 1 receiver. Last season, his receiving yardage was down and there were times Williams didn’t look like he should be starting anywhere in the NFL.
But, like Blount, Williams is a player who survived the offseason housecleaning, mainly because the new coaching staff believes he still has plenty of potential and he’s embraced the way Schiano operates. With Jackson on board, Williams doesn’t have to be a No. 1 receiver. The Bucs will be quite happy if he’s a solid No. 2. But Williams has bigger goals in mind. He’s not satisfied with simply getting back to the level he played at in 2010.
"I want to be at a higher level," Williams said. "I feel like I’m putting the work in now — watching extra film, knowing what the coverage is, working with Vincent on extra things. I don’t want to get to a level I’ve been at already. I want to exceed that level."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The offensive line. It was a bright spot, at least in some areas, last season and it should be improved this year. Pairing Nicks with Davin Joseph gives the Bucs a pair of Pro Bowl guards and potentially the best guard tandem in the NFL. Donald Penn has been a decent left tackle and the Bucs are handing the center job to Jeremy Zuttah, who played for Schiano at Rutgers.
Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is a lightning rod for fans. But the coaching staff obviously has high hopes for him or else Trueblood would have been gone. The Bucs are expected to run a lot and they appear to believe the best way to do that is to make the interior of the line as strong as possible.
Zuttah and Trueblood might remain question marks in the minds of some, but the Bucs believe surrounding them with Joseph and Nicks will raise their level of play. Nicks, in particular, seems excited about the prospect of doing a lot of run blocking. He previously played in New Orleans’ pass-happy offense and said he’s happy to focus on what he believes he does best. This group should be able to open holes for Martin and Blount and protect Freeman. Some things still have to click, but this unit has a chance to become one of the league’s better offensive lines.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The defensive line. The Bucs say they’re fine with their depth on the defensive line. But, after watching them get so desperate that they had to go sign Albert Haynesworth last year, I still have concerns about the depth. Yes, defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Amobi Okoye were added in the offseason. And, yes, hopes are high for former first-round draft picks Gerald McCoy on the inside and Adrian Clayborn on the outside.
But this is a team that traded away former second-round pick Brian Price just before camp and defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, a second-round pick last year, tore his Achilles tendon in May. The Bucs still have some hope that Bowers can return for the second half of the season, but there are no guarantees. Aside from the guys already mentioned, the only other players of much consequence up front are defensive tackle Roy Miller and defensive end George Johnson.
That leaves little margin for error or injury, which is especially scary when you consider McCoy’s injury history.
When the Bucs said at the start of camp that Penn had a calf injury, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But, as of Tuesday, Penn still hadn’t practiced. He’s been seen on the sidelines, working with the trainers a lot. The upside is Penn appears to be in better shape than usual, and I don’t think missing a lot of practice time really sets a left tackle back much in learning a new offense. But, still, it would be nice to be sure that Penn’s healthy — or soon will be. Otherwise, the Bucs and Freeman could be staring down the barrel at Demar Dotson.
Speaking of injured players, receiver Arrelious Benn came to camp with a chance to win a starting job. But he got hurt early on and hasn’t returned. His absence has allowed guys like Tiquan Underwood a chance to step up. I don’t think the Bucs are ready to give up on Benn, a second-round draft pick in 2010. But, then again, Schiano has made it obvious nothing is guaranteed.
As much as I liked the Bucs selecting safety Mark Barron and Martin in the first round, I think second-round pick Lavonte David has a chance to make just as much of an impact. David is going to be an immediate starter at outside linebacker. He also has more playmaking ability than any linebacker on the roster.
The Bucs appear to be set with David, Mason Foster and Quincy Black as their starting linebackers. But I think you may see a little bit more of Dekoda Watson than in his first two seasons with the Bucs. He primarily has been a special-teams player. But I think Watson’s potential as a pass-rusher may have the new coaching staff looking at him as a situational player.
Former starting free safety Cody Grimm appeared to be buried on the depth chart early in training camp. But Grimm, who was coming back from an injury, appears to have vaulted back over Larry Asante and Ahmad Black. The plan is to use Ronde Barber as the starting free safety. Barber should thrive in that role, after spending his career at cornerback. But Grimm still could get significant playing time because the Bucs may slide Barber inside to match up with slot receivers in the nickel package. There also is the possibility Barber could move back to cornerback if the Bucs have injuries there.
But the Bucs may consider moving Barber back to corner only in a true emergency. They may have more depth there than they first realized because Myron Lewis, who did little in his first two seasons, has come on strong in camp.