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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Mea culpa: Bucs made right choice with Freeman after all


When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the 17th pick in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft to take quarterback Josh Freeman, I criticized the pick.

I was wrong.

I love the pick now.

Josh Freeman is watching all the game tape he can to try to figure out what defenses will throw at him. (Getty Images)  
Josh Freeman is watching all the game tape he can to try to figure out what defenses will throw at him. (Getty Images)  
After watching Freeman start nine games last season, I really believe the Bucs have the right guy to turn their team around. Even though he didn't exactly light it up, he showed me enough to think he can be special.

After talking to him this week, I'm convinced of it.

There are certain players you talk to that just seem to get it. They are fans of the game. They know the league. They know what they need to do to be a success, unlike a player like JaMarcus Russell, who only seemed to know what he had to do to increase his pants size.

"I just love football," Freeman said.

You can tell. I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice as he talked about throwing to his receivers during a session this week.

"We get after it," Freeman said. "It's just such a good feeling to be out there competing, working on what we need to do."

Forget that this session was in May. Forget that there won't be a game that counts for another four months. This is a 22-year-old passer who simply wants to be better, wants to be great, and is willing to do anything it takes.

The Bucs are lucky to have him. I think they've solved the quarterback issues that have seemed to plague this franchise for most of its existence.

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Freeman is the anti-Russell. He likes working at it. The Bucs coaches and players marveled at how he took to watching film as a rookie. It didn't turn him into an immediate star, but it's the right path. It's the right way.

I first heard about his drive when he took over last year. A big night for him was with his computer watching tape.

Fat-cat rookie? Not a chance.

"I know what needs to be done," Freeman said.

For the season, Freeman had his good moments and his really bad moments. In 10 games, he suffered 18 interceptions and 10 fumbles. If you project that out to 16 games, that's 29 interceptions and 16 fumbles. That's way too many mistakes.

But Freeman also had games that impressed. Take his first NFL start. The Green Bay Packers lost to the previously winless Bucs when he passed for 205 yards and three touchdowns. Or when he threw for 271 yards in Week 16 and helped the Bucs upset the eventual Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints on the road.

"That shows we can compete with anybody," Freeman said. "And we're going to be a lot better on offense this year."

Not might be better. But will be better. You have to like that confidence. It's not arrogance, just a belief in what he can become.

That isn't to say Freeman is full of himself. He knows there's a long way to go. The Bucs lost to the Carolina Panthers in early December, a game that taught him that lesson the hard way. He passed for 321 yards, but there were five interceptions, and he finished with a passer rating of 36.4. Carolina won 16-6.

"We basically moved the ball at will against them," Freeman said. "There were a lot of plays there. I was thinking, 'this is money.' Then they start picking off my passes. [Jon] Beason gets one. And [Chris] Gamble gets one. They got five of them. That's when I knew how good the other guys were in this league. You can be good, but if you're off by a few inches here or there, it can be trouble."

One interesting note from that game: He joined fellow rookie passers Matthew Stafford (Detroit) and Mark Sanchez (Jets) on the five-interception list. They went before him in the first round, played before he did, and threw five picks in a game before he did.

Freeman took two weeks off after the season, went back home to Kansas City, but was back at work after that. He spent hours watching himself on tape. He also watched some of the other quarterbacks from around the league.

"I loved every minute of the season," Freeman said. "I wish it lasted longer. I hated when it ended."

Tampa Bay finished the season ranked 24th in passing yards. That's not good enough to win in the wide-open NFL. They did draft two young receivers in Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, who should help Freeman. He hasn't worked with them yet, but he did watch rookie camp tape of them, and said he was impressed. He also has a good pass-catching tight end in Kellen Winslow.

Freeman, Stafford and Sanchez will be linked for their careers because they all went in the first round of the same draft -- Stafford going first, Sanchez fifth. The perception is both of those players had better seasons than did Freeman, but the reality is that isn't true.

Although Sanchez did get his team to the AFC Championship Game -- and played well in the postseason -- Freeman was every bit as good in the regular season as those two. He had a higher completion percentage than both, and they each had more interceptions than he did, with Sanchez and Stafford each recording 20.

For now, though, he is the other quarterback in that draft class. Sanchez goes into 2010 as the glamour passer of the group, coming within a game of the Super Bowl last year. Stafford also has a higher profile, being the top overall pick, even if he plays for the Lions.

Freeman could walk into your local bar and insist he was an NFL starter and most people outside of Tampa would argue with him. Even in Tampa, he might be harder to recognize. Freeman recently shaved his head. His trademark curls were replaced by a smooth look.

"People don't really recognize me that way," he said.

Freeman said he is in the process of growing back the hair, so he will look like the Freeman of 2009. But don't count on him playing like it. I say he makes a huge jump as a second-year passer.

When he came out of Kansas State, I swore he was a run-around quarterback. But what I saw last season was a player who has the tools to be a pocket passer, who could run when he needed to do so, but was more inclined to load up and throw.

"I led the team in rushing my last year, which is probably why you thought that about me," he said. "We ran the Wildcat at times and because of injuries, I was it. But that's not who I was or who I am."

No, he's a drop-back passer who gives the Bucs security for a long time -- and gives me a black eye because I now believe I was wrong about him on draft day 2009. He might have been the No. 3 quarterback in that draft, but I get the feeling he's going to be every bit as good as the other two.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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