The Buccaneers, looking to rebound from a 3-13 season, wrapped up minicamp on Tuesday and were dismissed until training camp, but second-year QB Josh Freeman plans on cutting the break short.
He'll gather some of his wide receivers before training camp to get some extra work in because, as he put it, "it's a must."
Freeman, the 17th overall pick in 2009, became Tampa Bay's starter midway through last season and he's welcomed the challenge of improving and becoming more of a leader after a rocky rookie campaign in which he threw 10 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions.
"The big thing now for Josh going into his second year is fine-tuning everything, getting a better feel for the offense, understanding the protections better … understanding the route combinations and the footwork that goes with them," said Bucs quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who was hired after serving as the Bills' offensive coordinator last season. "That's a daily process that he has to go through. He's done a good job this offseason of really focusing in and taking control. He's becoming a leader on the offensive side of the ball. I think there are a lot of good things in his future as long as he continues to work hard."
With a receiving corps that some considered to be one of the league's worst, Bucs GM Mark Dominik made it a priority to assemble weapons around Freeman this offseason. He traded for Eagles WR Reggie Brown, who had fallen out of the rotation in Philadelphia, and drafted two wideouts — Arrelious Benn in the second round and Mike Williams in the fourth.
While Freeman is happy about the additions, he told PFW he would have been fine if Dominik had completely ignored the receiver position this offseason.
"Obviously you want a world beater at wide receiver," he said. "That's every quarterback's dream, but at the same time, I felt like with the offense we had last year, we had a lot of guys that really stepped up. Guys like Maurice Stovall and Sammie Stroughter. We had a lot of solid players. Michael Clayton stepped up and was solid for us down the home stretch. It's good to have Mike and (Benn), but at the same time I was content with the guys that I had.
"I think (the rookie receivers) can do a lot to help us, but if our general manager Mark Dominik would have decided to just go all defense, that's really kind of outside my area. I'm going to deal with whatever they give me."
The Bucs averaged just 15.3 points — the third-fewest in the league — in Freeman's rookie season, but he didn't spend the weeks leading up to the draft knocking on Dominik's door to lobby for an offensive overhaul. He might not have found a very receptive audience even if he had. Dominik has joked about telling Freeman to get out of his office because the Bucs are a team that prides itself on defense and wants to get back to asserting itself on that side of the ball after falling off track late in '08 and for much of '09.
"I know that with whatever (Dominik) gives me, we can score some points," Freeman said. "Yeah, it's a joke (when Dominik chides him about being an offensive player on a defensive team), but the old saying is 'Offense sells tickets and defense wins games.' If our defense can go out and play great football, that's a start. I'm just going out and trying to score on every possession, but if our defense is pitching shutouts, it'll make things a lot easier on the offense. I'm all for going for the defense."
Don't mistake his flexibility for passivity, however. Freeman can be intense on the practice field, Van Pelt said, and is becoming more comfortable in expressing himself when he's unhappy with the way a drill is going.
"I came off the practice field today and he was physically disturbed by one throw that he made," said Van Pelt, a former NFL QB with the Bills. "He's very demanding of himself and the receivers. I don't think he's a laid-back guy at all. He's young, and he'll be a more vocal guy when he grows into his position.
"There's nobody that's a bigger critic than he is of himself. If the ball ends up on the back hip and it was supposed to be on the front shoulder, that's not good enough for Josh, which is good to see. You want that out of all of your guys."
The Bucs have been careful not to raise expectations too high for Freeman. They're not expecting him to become Drew Brees quite yet, Van Pelt said. But the bar has been set higher in Year Two. After all, head coach Raheem Morris and Dominik forever will be linked to Freeman, since he was the first player they drafted after being promoted into their current positions. Both of their jobs could be on the line in 2010. Freeman's performance will play a role in deciding their fate.
He may only be 22, but Freeman seems to understand what's at stake this season.
"I draw motivation from a number of different sources, whether it's my love of winning, my family, my teammates," he said. "When I say my family, I mean my immediate family, my blood relatives, but I also see everybody in the Buccaneers' organization as family as well. Raheem is a leader for our organization and I'm going to do everything I can to win games for Raheem and the Buccaneers' organization as long as I'm wearing a Bucs uniform."
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