To casual NFL fans, Josh Freeman may be the best quarterback they've never heard of. Quickly emerging as one of the game's more formidable signal-callers, he was something of a surprise first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He reminds some Vikings fans of a young Daunte Culpepper, a raw talent who looked more like a linebacker than a quarterback. At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Freeman is massive by quarterback standards, but, like Culpepper, he wasn't expected to get a lot of action early on. While the Vikings were able to allow Culpepper a season to develop, the Bucs didn't have that luxury, despite not being the first option … or the second.
The Bucs brought in Byron Leftwich to bridge the gap, but, as was Leftwich's career legacy, he couldn't stay healthy – lasting just three games. Head coach Raheem Morris wanted to protect Freeman and instead turned to Josh Johnson, who started the next four games. But his level of play was so dismal that, not only were the Bucs 0-7, their 35-7 loss to the Patriots heading into the 2009 bye week had the fans, the players and the coaches asking the same question – how much worse can things be with Freeman at the wheel?
He shocked the Packers in his first career start, throwing for three touchdowns in a 38-28 win and both he and the Buccaneers have never looked back. As would be expected from a rookie quarterback on a bad team, he took his lumps. In his nine starts, he threw 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. But, as the season mercifully came to an end, Freeman engineered road wins at Seattle and against a less-than-full-strength future champion Saints to close out the season. He had momentum on his side and it carried over big-time in 2010.
Freeman was as efficient as any QB in the league last year, turning a franchise that had neither a franchise running back nor wide receiver into a 10-6 team that could win games with its offense – something sorely lacking the previous few seasons. He threw for 3,451 yards with 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions – one the greatest touchdowns-to-interception ratios in NFL history. He got the Bucs on the doorstep of the playoffs. While he and his Bucs teammates remain generally anonymous to the football public, players in the league not only know him, but are very impressed with what they see.
Linebacker Chad Greenway compared the physical attributes of Freeman to that of Super Bowl winning QB Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers. While he is still learning the game, he has a lot of the same qualities that have made Roethlisberger a multiple-time champion.
"He's like Roethlisberger in that sense that it's hard to bring him down with one guy," Greenway said. "You have to get home on your blitzes and continue to get pressure, get him on the ground and rattle him. He's a three-year guy, so he's not a real experienced quarterback, but he's made some pretty big plays and we know he's capable. The key will be to get after him as much as we can."
His lack of long-term experience – Sunday will be his 27th career start – allows defenses to still show him looks on the field that he has never seen before, but that door is closing and he already appears to be ahead of curve.
While the Vikings haven't had a chance to see him play against them, wide receiver Michael Jenkins has seen his rise over the last two years and said everyone in the Bucs' organization feels vindicated for using a first-round pick on the young quarterback from Kansas State.
"He's young in this league, but he's already won a lot of games and looks like he's been around longer than he has," Jenkins said. "The defense is going to be game-planning for him a lot because he is already very good and has the potential to be one of the truly great quarterbacks in this league for years to come."
Linebacker Erin Henderson said Freeman, blessed with good arm strength and accuracy, is at his best when he's on the move. With Freeman's size, that gets to be a pretty big load in the open field to bring down.
"They have a lot of confidence in themselves that they can dictate the tempo of the game," Henderson said. "They want to run the ball first, but they can dictate the pace of the game throwing. Freeman is more mobile than most quarterbacks and he has escapability. He can move and is accurate on the move. The biggest thing with him is that he's a big guy and is tough to bring down. Our job will be to get him down to the ground whatever it takes and not let him make plays when we get to him."
He's made a fan in Vikings safety Husain Abdullah, who will be asked to make sure that Freeman doesn't get to show off his strong arm by completing deep passes downfield. He said the more film he sees on Freeman, the more he is impressed.
"He does a lot of different things well," Abdullah said. "We haven't seen a whole lot of him, but the first thing that jumps out at you is his size and his strong throwing arm. He hasn't been around that long, but you can tell he's a good quarterback immediately when you watch him on tape. He can see the whole field when he's back in the pocket and he's learning the game pretty quickly. He makes smart decisions with the ball and doesn't put his team at risk too often. When you have any of those attributes as a quarterback, it's a good thing. When you combine a bunch of them together, it's impressive."
One thing that Abdullah took away from film study is that you can never assume a play is over. In the mold of guys like Culpepper and Roethlisberger, Freeman has the size and strength to fight his way out of plays that would be sacks against numerous other QBs in the league. If you think he's down, too often you are proved wrong and the second's worth of hesitation can be the difference between successfully completing an assignment and getting burned deep over the top.
"You have to play to the whistle every play," Abdullah said. "There's kind of a clock in your head that tells you when a play should be done, but he doesn't go down easy and he can continue plays. In a Cover-2 defense, we all have our assignments and you can't let up because you think he should be down, because he has the arm strength to fire one over the top if he has a man open. The coaches are already stressing that he can extend plays and that we have to stay on our guys until we hear a whistle, because with him, the play doesn't always end when a defense gets him surrounded."
The key for the Vikings defense Sunday is going to be containing Freeman and not allowing him to make the big plays that marked his 2010 season. Defensive tackle Fred Evans said that, with a young talent like Freeman, fundamentals will become even more important – track him down, don't allow him to escape the pocket and wrap up tackles, something that was in short supply last Sunday against Philip Rivers.
"Any quarterback you want to keep in the pocket, but with a guy like [Freeman], it's even more critical," Evans said. "He is the kind of quarterback that can make plays with his legs and his arm when he's on the move and the more time you give him, the more dangerous he is. He can get rattled if you can collapse the pocket, so we're going to have to get pressure on him and make him stay in the pocket and not be able to get to the edge, because he can make some big plays if you allow him the opportunity. He shakes off arm tackles, so getting him and wrapping him up is going to one of our biggest priorities."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings see a lot to like in Bucs QB Freeman
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