Why did the Buccaneers draft Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman? That’s the sentiment of a lot of Tampa Bay fans that saw the Bucs pass up the likes of Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers and Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin to select the team’s new quarterback of the future.

Despite the fact that it’s been a while – the last first-round quarterback taken in Tampa Bay was Trent Dilfer in 1994 – fans should be rejoicing that the team has spent a first-rounder on a quarterback of the future, but at least half of the Bucs’ fan base is dismayed by drafting the former Wildcats star.

Why is that?

Because Freeman has his share of critics among the draftnik media?

Because Freeman played against sub-par defenses in the Big 12 Conference?

Because Freeman didn’t win enough games at K-State?

Because Freeman was inconsistent and supposedly inaccurate?

Let me take those points one by one and give you some perspective from my point of view and the Bucs’ point of view based on what I’ve heard from the team over the past 24 hours. But first, some full disclosure. Many of our long-time subscribers know that I am a Kansas State alum, and while I support the pick and understand the logic behind it, I would do so whether Freeman played collegiately at arch-rival Kansas.

In fact, when Tampa Bay picked cornerback Aqib Talib in the first round last year, I supported that pick because I saw him destroy Freeman and other top Big 12 quarterbacks for three years and knew he was a heck of a cornerback – even if he was a bloody Jayhawk.

For the fans that don’t like the Freeman pick, ask yourself how many K-State games you actually saw – especially the Bucs fans that live in the state of Florida. I can tell you that without ESPN’s College Game Plan or the regional Midwest Fox Sports Net channel, you didn’t see Freeman and the Wildcats play much at all over the past three years. I had to purchase those channels to keep up with my alma mater. With a cumulative record of 17-20 over the last three years, K-State has been on national TV only three or four times.

So without first-hand viewing of Freeman, you’ve got to rely on the opinions of those in the media. Some of them like Freeman and some of them don’t. You’ve probably seen Harvin more – especially those Bucs fans in the Sunshine State – and have a more educated view of him than you do Freeman simply due to the television coverage.

I strive to be as fair a reporter as I can be, and my advice to those fans who are wrestling between disbelief and outrage over this pick is to judge Freeman with your own eyes – not someone else’s. Watch how he does in training camp. Examine him first-hand in the preseason games and then make an initial judgment. And then remember that it is in the Bucs’ best interest – and yours as a fan – to have him pan out. Rooting against him only hurts Tampa Bay because if this pick is wrong – and it has a real risk element to it – it sets the franchise back years.

I will admit I was not thrilled at all about the Bucs’ selections of either wide receiver Michael Clayton in the first round of 2004 or of running back Cadillac Williams in ’05, but I left my doubts and prejudices on my college tapes and looked upon their pro careers with an objective eye once they became Buccaneers. Some of the things that I didn’t like about either player in college have surfaced in the pros, but Pewter Report readers would be hard pressed to say that our coverage of both players has not been fair.

In fact, if Tampa Bay had taken Ayers, a player I was not enamored with at all, he would have gotten the same benefit of the doubt and a blank slate with me as soon as he joined the Buccaneers.

As far as the weak defenses in the Big 12 Conference go, that’s a valid concern for Bucs fans. The spread offense is so prevalent within the conference that despite having a slew of talented players that have gone in the first round over the last three years, including Texas safety Michael Huff (2006), Nebraska defensive lineman Adam Carriker, Talib, Texas safety Michael Griffin, Texas cornerback Aaron Ross and Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo, the power of those offenses typically wins out against the defenses in conference play. Freeman beat a top 10-ranked Texas team twice in the 2006 and ’07 seasons, facing those former first-round picks.

Those of you who have not seen a lot of K-State games and have relied on the opinions of others regarding Freeman should know that he absolutely did not have anything to work with in Manhattan, Kan. except for wide receiver Yamon Figurs in 2006 and wide receiver Jordy Nelson in 2007.

Kansas State’s running game was nothing to write home about from 2006-07 and was down right putrid in ’08, evidenced by the fact that Freeman had to carry the load and almost became the leading rusher with 404 yards and 14 touchdowns.

K-State’s offensive line was a joke under former head coach Ron Prince and Freeman often spent time running for his life as the O-linemen that started for the Wildcats would have a hard time getting scholarships to any other Big 12 school.

Watching Freeman during football season, I was an upset alum who was disappointed that he didn’t put the team on his back and carry the Wildcats to more wins the way Jay Cutler did in one-man-gang fashion at Vanderbilt several years ago. But when I mentioned this to a Bucs scout this past week it was met with laughter and the sad reality of the scout telling me that Cutler’s Vanderbilt team was actually far superior to Kansas State’s cesspool of talent around Freeman. That’s how far the Wildcats had fallen under Prince, who was fired after only three years on the job.

But after talking to NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl about Freeman I was told what to look for and spent the last three months re-watching games that I had taped during the season. The wins weren’t there because of the Wildcats’ 117th-ranked defense – not because of Freeman. K-State’s offense put up 35 points against Oklahoma last year, but the defense surrendered a whopping 58. Freeman and Co. actually out-gained the Sooners 550-528 yards with the rocket-armed quarterback throwing for a career-high 478 yards, but the worst defense in Wildcats history couldn’t help the offense out. That happened with too much regularity during the last two years of Freeman’s career after defensive coordinator Raheem Morris left K-State.

With regards to Freeman’s accuracy, it should come as no surprise that Freeman completed a very respectable 63.3 percent of his passes in 2007 when he was throwing the ball to Nelson, an All-American who wound up being drafted in the second round by Green Bay last year. Without Nelson to throw the ball to during his junior season, Freeman’s completion percentage dropped to 58.6 percent.

One of the things NFL scouts had me watch was the number of dropped passes K-State receivers had in 2008. Because I do not have tapes of every K-State game from last year it is difficult to quantify exactly, but I did notice a high level of drops due to underwhelming and less talented crop of wide receivers. Scouts I talked to said that Freeman’s completion percentage in 2008 should have been much closer to 63-65 percent if you factor out the majority – but not all – of blantant dropped passes. Thus he is not as inaccurate as his stats say he is.

Much is made of Morris’ relationship with Freeman at K-State in 2006 and that it was the key to Tampa Bay’s selection of the talented quarterback. Rarely does a pro team wind up with such intimate knowledge of a draft prospect. But in addition to the year that Morris spent in Manhattan, Kan., he and the team also solicited the opinion of two other men with Wildcats connection to help gather more intelligence on Freeman.

The first was Morris’ best friend, James Franklin, who is Maryland’s offensive coordinator and served in that capacity from 2006-07 at K-State before leaving due to Prince’s egomaniacal ways. While Morris worked with the Wildcats defense on a regular basis in 2006 he didn’t sit in too many meetings with Freeman whereas Franklin and Freeman were practically joined at the hip.

The second intel source was Morris’ new personal assistant, Jay Kaiser, who came from K-State after spending all three years on Prince’s staff as a coaching assistant. Kaiser was there during Freeman’s entire stay and saw how the young quarterback handled his junior season, which was the first without Franklin’s guidance. Obviously, both Franklin and Kaiser gave Morris and the Bucs a thumb’s up on Freeman’s work ethic, character and demeanor.

The third source of information was Prince himself, whom both Morris and Dominik spoke with at the Senior Bowl at the Battle House Hotel in downtown Mobile, Ala. Prince hired Morris to be the Wildcats defensive coordinator in 2006 after the two had coached together at Cornell University under Pete Mangurian, who is now the Buccaneers offensive line coach. Prince was at the Senior Bowl looking for work in the NFL after being fired from K-State in November and also gave Morris and Dominik some intimate knowledge of Freeman, who was Prince’s prized recruit back in ’06.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the hard work put in by director of college scouting Dennis Hickey and area scout Seth Turner, both of whom had obviously come to a favorable conclusion on drafting Freeman, too. For Turner, who is the team’s Midwest scout, this is two years of having the team’s number one pick come from his region (following the selection of Talib last year) after not having a player from his region get drafted for years prior to that.

All of the other scouts did cross-check work on Freeman and should receive their share of praise for the hard work they put in as well.

Among the biggest Freeman supporters is respected NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock, who said the following after Freeman was selected by the Buccaneers: “I’m a big believer in this kid because he’s got a big arm and he’s athletic. What I really like about him is we talked about qualifying the quarterback position. This kid is intelligent, he’s hard-working and he cares about the game of football.

“Three years ago, I did the Texas Bowl where Kansas State played (Rutgers). Raheem Morris was the defensive backs coach (and defensive coordinator). I couldn’t believe the talent that this freshman quarterback brought to the table. I’ve seen almost every one of his game tapes since then. The only thing he needs to do I believe is to speed up his entire process. That means processing his information more quickly and making his decision and getting rid of the football – and also his delivery. Speed it up. I thought the same thing about Joe Flacco a year ago. I didn’t think Joe Flacco was ready to play as a rookie. Neither did John Harbaugh, but they got forced into it and the kid did pretty well. (Freeman) has a great work ethic. He’s smart and folks – let me tell you something – he can make every throw.”

Despite Freeman’s arrival, McCown is still the likely favorite to start the 2009 season. Obviously Freeman is a lock to make the team as his backup or as the team’s third-string quarterback.

But after that, newcomer and journeyman Byron Leftwich and last year’s fifth-round pick Josh Johnson are expected to duke it out for a roster spot. Should Leftwich win the starting job over McCown, Johnson will be the odd man out as McCown is a lock to make the roster – even as a backup or a third-string quarterback according to team sources.

Of course this means that Brian Griese becomes immediately expendable and Dominik will attempt to trade him on the second day of the draft or immediately after the draft. The only problem with that is that veteran quarterbacks like Rex Grossman and J.P. Losman are still available in free agency, so even getting a seventh-round pick for “Captain Checkdown” seems far-fetched.

At first glance, the arrival of Leftwich a few weeks ago seemed to put the kibosh on the Bucs taking Freeman because Tampa Bay had four QBs on its roster. But Leftwich is in Tampa Bay because the Bucs really don’t want to be forced to play Freeman due to McCown faltering or getting injured. Leftwich was also signed when he was to create a bit of a smokescreen.

If Freeman bursts on the scene the way Atlanta’s Matt Ryan or Baltimore’s Joe Flacco did last year and wins the starting job, the Bucs will obviously be overjoyed with that because that scenario means he’s playing extremely well as a rookie. But the plan, according to sources behind the scenes, is to sit Freeman in 2009 and let McCown (provided he wins the starting job) have the year to help Freeman, help the team and help his own stock as an NFL player.

Tampa Bay wants McCown to win a lot of games and give the Bucs a real tough decision in 2010. Should the Bucs keep McCown and thus keep their number one pick on the bench for more time, such as the scenario that has taken place in Tennessee with Kerry Collins and former number one pick Vince Young? Or does McCown’s stock rise sufficiently to where the Bucs may be able to deal him for a premium draft pick next year? That would be a good situation for Dominik and Morris to have to ponder.

For those that are grappling with Tampa Bay’s decision to draft a quarterback in the first round and ignore perceived pressing needs at defensive end, cornerback and defensive tackle, consider that one of the primary reasons why the Glazers fired head coach Jon Gruden after a year in which he produced back-to-back winning seasons and became the franchise’s all-time winningest coach was the failure to develop a long-term, viable plan at the quarterback position.

If instability at the quarterback position is one of the main reasons for firing a coach that brought a Super Bowl trophy to the franchise and paying him $4 million to not coach the Bucs, it only makes sense that Tampa Bay address that issue before it ultimately costs Morris and Dominik their jobs down the line. With Freeman’s unique physical talents and all of the personal insight Morris had it made sense to address the position of quarterback and find the future franchise guy this year.

The drafting of Freeman – or any quarterback in the first round – was not a move mandated by the Glazers, according to sources. However, it was a move that they eagerly signed off on given the veteran band-aid approach that Gruden used with Griese in 2004-05 and veteran Jeff Garcia in 2007-08.

Yes, the Bucs had McCown, Leftwich and Johnson on the roster, but only Leftwich, a former first-round pick of Jacksonville, entered the league higher than the fourth round and he is now a journeyman quarterback, having bounced around from Jacksonville to Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay. McCown has shown promise, but only has seven NFL starts in five years, while Johnson is a raw project who will likely have to go elsewhere in order to become a starting quarterback – if he has it in him.

Dating back to the Senior Bowl, Pewter Report identified Freeman as a player that the Bucs were extremely high on and proclaimed as much in my SR’s Fab 5 column on January 23. In the February issue of Pewter Report magazine I wrote the following in my End Zone column:

“The Bucs can’t wait (until 2010) to draft a player they may have no chance at drafting. If the team needs a franchise quarterback, it must attempt to address the position now. K-State QB Josh Freeman is a popular pick at No. 19 in many mock drafts for good reason. Freeman was a freshman starter in 2006 when Raheem Morris was the Wildcats defensive coordinator. Freeman needs better coaching, but he’s 6-foot-6, 255 pounds with a big time arm. If I’m Mark Dominik and I’m looking for a QB of the future, I re-sign Luke McCown, draft Freeman and continue to develop Josh Johnson. Yes, the Bucs may take some lumps with such a young group, but a franchise QB should emerge from that trio.”

In the February issue of Pewter Report, we also listed Freeman among the top 10 players the Bucs were targeting in the first round.

On February 16, I interviewed Freeman prior to the NFL Scouting Combine where he told Pewter Report: ““It would be awesome going to Tampa Bay,” Freeman told Pewter Report. “Raheem and I had a great relationship at Kansas State and I think Coach Morris is someone I would love playing for. I liked Raheem a lot when he was at K-State. He definitely brought a lot of energy to the defensive side of the ball as well as the whole team. It was a joy having him around that year.”

Between being on the front cover, a two-page pictorial, a write-up by yours truly in the Point-Counterpoint of the April issue and him being labeled as the Bucs’ Best Bet at the quarterback position, no player was featured more in Pewter Report 2009 Bucs Draft Preview than Freeman.

In Pewter Report’s final Bucs mock draft, I would have listed Freeman as Tampa Bay’s number one pick had I thought he would be there. I assumed the New York Jets were going to take him at number 17 and wrote:

“With Tampa Bay wisely focusing so much on offense in March because the strength of free agency was on that side of the ball, logic says that the Bucs will heavily draft defense this coming weekend. The exception, of course, could be Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman, whom PewterReport.com has been linking to Tampa Bay since we learned of the team’s strong interest in him at the Senior Bowl back in January.

Actually, the team’s interest in Freeman dates back much farther than January. A member of the Bucs’ personnel department actually picked my brain on him back in December for about 10 minutes, knowing that as a Kansas State alumnus. I have watched Freeman play with a close and critical eye over the past three years and study the NFL Draft perhaps closer than any other Tampa Bay media member.

The high level of interest in Freeman continues as Pewter Report has learned that the team was continuing to watch tape earlier in the week prior to the draft. Just because Tampa Bay signed Byron Leftwich earlier this month does not take Freeman off the board. Freeman’s arrival would likely spell the end of Josh Johnson’s tenure in Tampa Bay as the Bucs would head into the 2009 season with Luke McCown, Leftwich and Freeman, who was listed as Pewter Report’s Bucs’ Best Bet at QB in its 2009 Bucs Draft Preview, as the quarterbacks with Brian Griese and Johnson being the odd men out unless Leftwich doesn’t cut it.

If Freeman is there at 19, and I believe that he might be gone by the time the Bucs’ pick, I don’t see Tampa Bay passing on him. McCown and Leftwich only signed two-year deals. McCown has potential to be a star, but is unproven. Leftwich is on his fourth NFL team and was not widely sought after in free agency this year after being a backup in Pittsburgh last season. Yes, the Bucs need help on defense, but I’ve heard from five people within the organization that Tampa Bay believes Freeman has the potential to become a franchise-type quarterback.”

I also declared the team's strong interest on a pre-draft PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz show with Steve Duemig on WDAE 620 AM on Wednesday and in an appearance on Bright House Sports Network's The Lineup show on Friday. So our Pewter Insider subscribers should have been prepared for what transpired on Saturday with the selection of Freeman in the first round. He was there and the Bucs took him. Pewter Report’s early reporting on Freeman even got singled out in Morris’ press conference.

“We had a guy we targeted. We liked him,” Morris said. “Scott called us out and told everybody we liked him and we went and got him.”

So did Pewter Report’s reporting ultimately cost the Bucs a sixth-round pick by trading up from 19 to 17 to get Freeman? No. We may have been the first to link Freeman to K-State with sourced reporting, but ESPN’s Mel Kiper gets credit for putting Freeman to Tampa Bay in his post-Senior Bowl mock draft. Other Tampa Bay area media outlets also picked up on the Bucs’ interest in Freeman after that, too.

• Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson is at the top of Tampa Bay’s draft board at the start of the third round, but he will likely go in the top 10 picks of the round. The Bucs have the 17th pick in the round and will try to move up to get him, but don’t want to part with the ammunition necessary to climb to the top of the round. Tampa Bay is also believed to be targeting Stillman DT Sammie Lee Hill in the third round.

• Look for the Bucs to go cornerback in the third round if they can’t get Johnson or Hill. Players like Georgia’s Asher Allen, Oregon State’s Keenan Lewis, Cincinnati’s Mike Mickens and Vanderbilt’s D.J. Moore are still on the board and could go in the third round. Expect a run on corners to start off the second day.

• Don’t be surprised if the Bucs will attempt to trade Brian Griese on Sunday. The problem is that he may not even be worth a seventh-round pick because of the availability of J.P. Losman and Rex Grossman on the free agent market.

• It should also come as no surprise if the Bucs attempt to make a trade that will fetch a fifth-round pick next year to make up for the selection that was dealt way to Cleveland as part of the trade for tight end Kellen Winslow. The Bucs have a full complement of picks next year except for that fifth-rounder. Tight end Alex Smith could be moved in a trade today, but the Bucs will not just give him away. If he can fetch good value he may be dealt, but if he can’t then Tampa Bay will keep him in the fold and allow him to compete with the team’s other tight ends in training camp.

• Tampa Bay’s scouts were advised that not only did the Bucs come away with Freeman in the first round, but that they also essentially landed Winslow, a former sixth overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, in a trade in early March with the team’s second-round pick. Before they left for the night the scouts were told that no one in this year’s second round was a better player than Winslow was, which brought a lot of smiles in the room. For the record, the Browns used the second-round pick they acquired from the Bucs on Georgia wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.

• The talent really drops off in this draft after the fifth round. In some years, the grades for seventh-round players actually equal those of undrafted free agents. Sources tell Pewter Report that the sixth round grades this year are really no better than those grades for this year’s crop of undrafted free agents. Some late-round guys to keep an eye on include, linebackers Maurice Crum, Jr. (Notre Dame) and Brian Toal (Boston College), defensive tackles Terrence Knighton (Temple) and Myron Pryor (Kentucky), cornerbacks Ladarius Webb (Nichols State) and E.J. Biggers (Western Michigan) and Tennessee safety Deangelo Willingham.

• For those fans who are concerned that the Bucs are not addressing the team’s needs on defense, the team will go heavy on defense on the second day of the draft. But keep in mind that any player taken today may be no better than some of the unproven players who may be hidden gems in their own right. If the Bucs draft Western Illinois linebacker Jason Williams in the third round, is he going to be any better than 2007 third-round linebacker Quincy Black? Is Stillman’s Sammie Lee Hill going to be a better defensive tackle taken in the fourth round this year than Dre Moore, who was last year’s fourth-rounder? Is Hampton’s Chris Baker going to be better as a fifth-round pick this year than Greg Peterson, who was 2007’s fifth-round pick? Do you catch my drift? Players like Black, Moore and Peterson have yet to have the chance to show if they can actually play defense in the NFL. They’ll get that chance this year.

• Don’t expect the Bucs to re-sign defensive end Kevin Carter or a veteran cornerback like Chris McAllister or Patrick Surtain after the draft. The Bucs don’t want to get older on defense. They want to get younger. The team believes it is not fair to cut Derrick Brooks on the premise of going with a youth movement and then re-sign Carter, who is 35 years old. Pewter Report wholeheartedly agrees.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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