- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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At a draft-day party in Raymond James Stadium, fans booed when the Bucs selected quarterback Josh Freeman. A day later, there weren’t any large gatherings as the draft wound down, but you still could hear some groans in the streets of New Orleans as the Saints traded up to get a punter.
Funny, but no one’s complaining now about the two most controversial draft picks in the NFC South. Four starts into his career, Freeman’s shown enough promise to bring hope to a franchise that spent the first half of the season without any. In New Orleans, Thomas Morstead has gone from being the punter nobody aside from Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton wanted to one of the best picks in the entire draft.
We’re only 11 games into the season and you never can fully judge a draft until two or three years out. But this year’s draft class is forming an early identity and it’s time for a look at the Class of 2009.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS. For all that’s gone wrong with the Bucs this year, it’s important to remember that one thing has gone right. Tampa Bay appears to have found the franchise quarterback it’s been looking for since Doug Williams left. Don’t undersell the importance of that. If Freeman really is that franchise quarterback, this rebuilding process is no longer so daunting.
Want some more hope for the Buccaneers? Consider these numbers. In Freeman’s four starts, he has thrown more touchdown passes (seven) than Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez did in their first four starts. Freeman also has a 77.0 passer rating, which is significantly better than what the quartet just mentioned did in their first four starts.
He also is 1-3 as a starter, but easily could be 3-1 if the Bucs had just played a little bit of defense. Not bad for a kid who came out of Kansas State with questions about his ability to make decisions. It’s looking more and more like the Bucs made the right call in locking in on Freeman, who coach Raheem Morris knew from his one-year stint as an assistant at Kansas State, even if they telegraphed their intentions so strongly that they had to trade up a spot to No. 18 to make sure they got their quarterback.
The next step is to surround Freeman with talent. You can bet that’s going to be the focus of the 2010 draft as the Bucs quietly stockpiled 10 picks. But the Bucs already have landed a key piece for Freeman. That’s wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who came in the seventh round. Stroughter had some personal issues in college, but the Bucs did their homework and thought he was worth a gamble late in the draft.
Stroughter has turned out better than anyone could have expected. He’s already a solid slot receiver, which is almost like a starter in the modern NFL. The Bucs also got another soon-to-be starter in the third round with defensive tackle Roy Miller. He’s played in a rotation with Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims this season, but it’s not much of a stretch to say Miller is the only member of that trio that will be around next year.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS. Pound for pound, the Saints probably have gotten the most out of their draft class so far. They only had four rookies to begin with and defensive back Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux both went down with injuries in the preseason.
That leaves only Morstead and first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins, but that’s a pretty strong combination. Morstead, who also handles kickoffs, has helped solidify a kicking game that struggled last season. With Jenkins, the Saints had a rare luxury. They were able to bring the rookie along slowly because starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter were playing so well.
That allowed Jenkins to go through the learning process on the practice field and the sideline. Injuries have piled up the last couple of weeks and Jenkins has been pushed into a starting role. He’s shown he’s ready for it.
CAROLINA PANTHERS. Much like the Saints with Morstead and the Bucs with Freeman, the Panthers raised some eyebrows when they moved up in the second round (by trading away their 2010 first-round pick) to get defensive end Everette Brown. Unlike the moves by the Bucs and Saints, there remains room to question this one.
The Panthers drafted Brown at a time when there still was uncertainty about the future of defensive end Julius Peppers. But Peppers wound up staying as the franchise player and Brown hasn’t really been a contributor. He has 1.5 sacks and, no doubt, has plenty of potential.
But Brown is a project. At the moment, he’s undersized and nothing more than a situational pass rusher. But at least the Panthers are getting some production out of this draft.
They definitely hit on seventh-round pick Captain Munnerlyn, who’s been a contributor as a defensive back and on special teams. They also seem to have found a starter in safety Sherrod Martin, the second of their two second-round picks.
ATLANTA FALCONS. A year ago, everyone was talking about how general manager Thomas Dimitroff had put together such a brilliant draft class. That’s not happening this year because the Falcons have gotten very little from their rookie class.
It should be noted it’s a lot easier to get impact players when you’re drafting in the top five in every round instead of in the 20s. It’s also important to note that it wouldn’t be fair to label Dimitroff’s second class as anything close to a bust right now.
You could see right away the Falcons had a player in first-round pick Peria Jerry. But the defensive tackle went out for the season in Week Two. Pretty much the same story for second-round pick William Moore. Third-round pick Christopher Owens and fourth-round pick Lawrence Sidbury haven’t been big factors.
Maybe there’s a lesson in this draft for the Falcons. Maybe Atlanta fans shouldn’t expect every Dimitroff pick to be Matt Ryan or Curtis Lofton and produce huge and immediate results. Maybe they should look at this year’s draft class and remember the story of Thomas DeCoud. He’s probably the only member of the spectacular 2008 class that didn’t really produce as a rookie.
In his second season, DeCoud is starting at safety and playing well. Sometimes, it takes a little time.