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1. THE YOUNG QUARTERBACKS The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have jumped in to the deep end of the pool by switching from veteran Byron Leftwich to second-year quarterback Josh Johnson. It is only a matter of time before Johnson returns to the bench and Josh Freeman is inserted in to the lineup. Unless the team starts winning games behind Johnson, Freeman will get his shot to play as a rookie. One possibility is that the Bucs could see some solid play from Johnson, but continue to lose. When the record gets bad enough, the team will turn to Freeman to give him some experience to build on heading into the 2010 offseason.
With the switch in quarterbacks, Pewter Report wanted to speak with some players and sources about the two young quarterbacks. Pewter Report wanted to learn if the players think these signal callers are going to be successful NFL quarterbacks in time. Recently, some young quarterbacks have had a lot of success (Atlanta's Matt Ryan, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, and New York's Mark Sanchez) and Pewter Report wanted to hear if sources thought that could happen with Johnson and/or Freeman.
Sources don't think Johnson is ready to play. The view of Johnson is he's as ready to play as he could possibly make himself, but the lack of practice reps in his two-year career does not have him prepared for Sundays. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson has catered the game plan to Johnson's abilities, which are the West Coast offense principles of a short passing game and not downfield passing. Sources tell Pewter Report that Johnson is not a downfield passer, and it would not be surprising to see Johnson struggle with his completion percentage.
The long-term view of Johnson (6-3, 205) was questioned as an NFL passer. They say he is not a natural passer, and struggles with accuracy overall. His mechanics and release point are part of the issues that were attributed to him struggling to complete a high percentage of his passes. Johnson, 23, completed 56.7 percent of his passes (12-of-21) for one touchdown and one interception in the preseason this year.
Resoundingly, Johnson is said to be a smart player that pushes himself mentally. He takes a lot on his plate, has a great work ethic, and does a great job of preparing himself mentally. The bottom line sources said with Johnson is he not a natural passer, but mentally will be a starting caliber NFL quarterback.
On the flip side from Johnson, Freeman is once again said to have all the talent to be a good NFL quarterback. He has great feet and a strong arm. However, sources say that Freeman has to learn to push himself mentally. He needs to study harder, and learn how to break things down more off game tape with cut-ups and things like that during the week. Sources are afraid that Freeman relies on his athleticism too much, and they worry that will happen when he gets in the game.
The sources say that Olson will push Freeman mentally, but Freeman will have to learn to push himself. They say there are things that coaches shouldn't need to do for a player, but are having to do for Freeman. They also said that Freeman has to take himself to another level with his work ethic. Freeman's current work ethic is not up to par, and not what it needs to be for an NFL quarterback.
Physically, sources said Freeman has to stay on top of his conditioning, and keep up his running. It appears that Freeman has not maintained being in top condition. Defensive tackle Ryan Sims was teasing Freeman about being six pounds overweight it in the locker room on Thursday. He does not look as cut as he did in training camp.
Players also say that Freeman needs work on learning how to throw the different types of passes that are required in the NFL. Every throw can't be a rocket, and good quarterbacks have the ability to make different types of passes. Freeman has that ability, but needs to keep working on it and improving his ability to throw those balls and recognize when to do it.
I asked sources if Olson could lead Freeman to study harder and develop more of a work ethic to learn the mental part of the game. They believe that Olson will get Freeman to that point. Olson is pushing Freeman to improve, and the Bucs need their rookie to mature into being a professional. Like Johnson, sources said that Freeman is not ready to play.
Some sources have said that if you wanted a veteran guy to help along Freeman, McCown was an ideal player for that. Olson is adding to the 2009 offensive playbook plays and concepts that were part of the 2008 offense under former head coach Jon Gruden. Of the four quarterbacks Tampa Bay entered training camp with, McCown had the best knowledge of the old offense from being in it for four seasons. Gruden also taught McCown how to prepare mentally to play. He did that with other quarterbacks like Brad Johnson, Brian Griese, and Jeff Garcia. The lessons that Gruden taught McCown would have been gradually passed on to Freeman if they hadn't made the trade.
Sources and players say that Olson is a really good coach that will do a good job of preparing Freeman to play. Olson certainly has his hands full and is earning his paycheck. Between formulating the game plan, devising play calling strategies, leading the offense's team meetings, conducting the quarterbacks meetings, preparing a first time starter in Johnson, keeping Leftwich involved, and grooming the 21-year old rookie franchise quarterback in Freeman, Olson is definitely the under the gun. To help him, Freeman has to start working harder. He needs to study more and get in better shape. Johnson has to put in time on improving his passing, and hopefully finally getting reps in practice will make a difference. 2. FIRST McCOWN, NOW LEFTWICH? While sources have questioned the decision to trade McCown, Pewter Report has learned that the Buccaneers management does not regret trading McCown. They could get something for him, and you never know what that will be. Perhaps that fifth-round pick could be part of a package to trade up in the draft and get an impact player, or the pick could be another second day wasted pick that doesn't amount to anything.
Pewter Report has heard that some members of the organization were surprised that McCown was traded. There were those that expected McCown stay on the roster after Leftwich had been named the starting quarterback to provide a veteran backup.
The Bucs organization had a commodity they could get something for in McCown, but the team doesn't believe it can get anything for Leftwich. Right now there is no market for him. Perhaps an injury or other unforeseen circumstances generates a team that would want him, but right now the Bucs don't think they can get anything for Leftwich. 3. TIM CROWDER It will be interesting to see if Bucs general manager Mark Dominik adds another name to his diamond in the rough list with defensive end Tim Crowder. Dominik has found some unknown talent before in players like left tackle Donald Penn and defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson. If Crowder turns out to be a find for Tampa Bay, Dominik will have had a big assist from defensive coordinator Jim Bates.
Bates was the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos when they drafted Crowder in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Crowder was selected to play left defensive end for his system. In his rookie season, Crowder flashed some ability. He had four sacks, 22 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble. Crowder recorded a sack in three consecutive games for Denver, and returned a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Coach Bates had the opportunity [to work with Crowder] in Denver obviously. The thing that really sold us on Crowder was not only what Coach Bates said about the kid, and the character of the kid, it was also when we went back and watched all the special teams tape," said Dominik. "He played on every phase of special teams. To me, that is a very important part of how to get a hat on in the National Football League. His special teams tape was very good, and you felt like he could contribute on fourth down on game day and that was important to us."
If he continues to play well against the run and the Bucs other defensive ends continue to struggle in pass rushing, Crowder hopes to get some chances to rush the quarterback. As a collegiate prospect Crowder was adept at rushing the signal caller. In his college career Crowder recorded 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles. He was a first-team All-Big 12 selection, and an All-American.
"At Texas there were a lot of splash plays during the course of his senior season," Bates said. "I felt like he was a good athlete. He's a good guy. When he came to Denver – like all rookies – he struggled, but he showed signs. Sometimes it just takes three years for some linemen to reach a level of maturity, which is why we were interested in him this year. We picked him up and he's done a good job. In the two games he's played for us he's done a real credible job for us."
Through three games the defensive line has totaled two sacks, one coming from Wilkerson, and the other coming from defensive tackle Roy Miller. Thus, Ryan Sims, Chris Hovan, Stylez G. White, and Gaines Adams have combined for zero sacks. They all have had plenty of opportunities between the three games, and the lack of a pass rush has been one of the biggest weaknesses on the 2009 Buccaneers. Perhaps Crowder could help get the pass rush going, but after asking Dominik and Bates it doesn't sound like they are ready to expect that.
"He could (get more pass rushing snaps)," said Dominik. "I think it was one of those things where you kind of see him in incremental spurts, and incremental moments and see how he develops. The guy was a high draft choice. He has some familiarity with Bates' system, so that makes the transition a little bit quicker for him. We'll see where he goes from there."
Bates had the tone that Crowder needs to do some work in the weight room and in practice before he will figure into the Bucs' pass rushing units.
"It's a constant process for Tim and other defensive ends we have," Bates said. "It takes time and work to develop some moves for these offensive tackles. You can't come in with what you had in college and think it's going to be successful. He's working on getting three or four different rushes down and he's improved in that area, but he still has work to do.
"He's got a combination of power and speed. He'll learn how to better use that through the experience of the game as time goes by. He has the size to be able to bring the speed. He has enough speed and enough quickness and enough body control to really be effective. What he has to do right now is developing more power to get those offensive tackles set up. He has to work on his power and his long arm and then bring the speed-to-power."
Crowder will have to earn it, and it sounds like he is motivated. Sources have told Pewter Report that getting cut and being out of the league was a wake-up call to Crowder. Since arriving in Tampa Bay, he has attacked practice and the playbook with a sense of urgency. He understands that he is in crunch time to try and stick in the NFL. The Bucs need Crowder to produce some pass rush, and Crowder needs to get to the quarterback in order to have the career that he wants to have. Being back in Bates' system makes Crowder confident that he is in the right place to straighten out his career.
"Yeah, I don't like standing up. I like putting my hand in the dirt and just go sick ‘em," said Crowder. "That's what I'm good at doing. Definitely the more snaps I get the more pass rushing opportunities I'll have. Just because it is a running situation doesn't mean teams won't pass the ball. Teams throw the ball as much on first and second down as they do on third down. The more I'm in the more opportunity I'll have to rush the passer.
"I'll do whatever it takes to get the job done. "That's really what it is all about. If I can beat a guy with speed, why should I bull rush him all day if I know he is good at blocking that?. If I see a guy that is good against speed, but can be bull rushed, then I will bull him all day. It is just whatever he gives me." 4. DRAFT FOCUS: LINDLEY VS. JONES The Buccaneers are fans of Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley. Lindley is one of the top senior cornerbacks, and is likely to be a first- or second-round pick next April. The 6-foot, 175-pound Lindley is an excellent cover corner, and would be a good fit for the Bucs defense. Tampa Bay thinks this is going to be a very good year to draft a cornerback, and Lindley is on their radar.
This Saturday, Lindley will rematch against one of the best wide receivers in college football. Alabama's Julio Jones will challenge Lindley, and NFL scouts will be watching closely who wins this battle. Last season, Lindley won the matchup holding Jones to three catches for 52 yards and no scores. Alabama squeaked out a home win against the Wildcats 17-14.
In 2008, Lindley had 11 pass breakups and four interceptions. In three games this season Lindley has an interception returned 25 yards for a touchdown and four passes broken up. This season has started slowly for Jones. He has seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown. Jones missed a game this season with a bruised kneecap, but came back last week to make two catches for 65 yards and a touchdown.
In 2008 Jones showed why he was one of the top recruits in the country when he had 58 receptions for 924 yards and four touchdowns. In the biggest game of the season for the Crimson Tide, Jones showed up with five receptions for 124 yards in a losing effort against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Jones did that against the Gators secondary that is fully stocked with future NFL players, and potential first-rounders like cornerback Joe Haden.
Jones will test Lindley this Saturday, and the Buccaneers will be watching.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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