ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Josh Freeman #5 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signals to his offense against the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on January 1, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Over the next weeks I'm going to look at every position group on the team and see how they did last season, while also assessing how big of a need this is going into next season. Today I'm starting with quarterbacks: Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson, Rudy Carpenter...and Brett Ratliff.
What happened in 2011
Obviously, things did not go well in 2011. Josh Freeman regressed from his terrific end-of-2010-season form, when he led the NFL in basically every statistical category in a four-game span. In 2011 Josh Freeman led the NFL in only one statistic: turnovers, producing 22 interceptions and 9 fumbles, losing 5 of them. He threw for fewer yards per attempt, threw far fewer touchdowns and generally didn't look like the same quarterback.
As the season went on his fundamentals broke down, he stopped throwing downfield - and when he did, the ball ended up with the wrong team. The fourth-quarter magic that seemed to be present last season was gone, but it shouldn't really surprise anyone when a player who doesn't produce for three quarters can't produce in the final quarter, either.
Despite that, Freeman did show some positive signs. His pocket presence and ability to use his blockers to create more time for himself inside the pocket was much improved, which showed up in his sack rate - dropping from 5.6% to 5%, but that rate was much lower early in the season. This was also in part a result of his ability to consistently find a checkdown receiver, which showed up in his improved completion percentage too.
Of course, consistently finding the checkdown made him look like Captain Don't-take-a-shot-downfield at times, especially later in the season. That combined with inconsistent accuracy made it hard for the Bucs to sustain drives or produce big plays. Freeman wasn't helped by his receivers in this regard, who failed to gain separation from defensive backs and couldn't catch anything that wasn't thrown perfectly in stride.
Josh Freeman wasn't the only player to play quarterback for the Bucs in 2011, though. There was also Josh Johnson, who took snap after snap only to run around right end on an 'option' play where the only option seemed to be 'QB keeps, runs for four yards'. But when Freeman injured his shoulder he got to play some quarterback against the Carolina Panthers, and showed that he still had a lot of work to do too. He wasn't consistently accurate or productive, but he did have a pair of big plays in the game.
In addition, the Bucs had two backup quarterbacks at the end of the season: Rudy Carpenter and Brett Ratliff. Neither player got to do much.
Josh Freeman will be the starter for the Bucs in 2012. While he had a down year in 2011, he still showed a lot of positive traits and improvement in a few areas. The issues he did display are correctable, and should improve this season. With his terrific 2010 season, the Bucs can't possibly look for a new starting quarterback.
Tampa Bay must look toward a new backup quarterback, however. Josh Johnson will be a free agent, and he has made it clear that he wants to fight for a starting job - a chance he won't get in Tampa for at least one more season. While the Bucs will undoubtedly try to re-sign him it seems likely he leaves. Rudy Carpenter and Brett Ratliff aren't exactly the kind of quarterbacks you'd want to have as your primary backup, and Carpenter certainly isn't a fit for the "throw downfield" offense Greg Schiano wants to see.
The Bucs could sign a competent backup in free agency, or draft one late in the draft. Some of the top backups on the market include Chad Henne, David Garrard, Shaun Hill, Byron Leftwich, Sage Rosenfels, Rex Grossman and Brady Quinn. There will be a lot of somewhat competent backups on the market, but the Bucs are unlikely to make a play for any of the top free agents like Matt Flynn or Kyle Orton.
Instead I'd expect the Buccaneers to target a later-round quarterback to eventually develop into a starter. It's hard to predict what the rankings of quarterbacks would look like, but players like Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum or Russell Wilson could be available late in the draft.
Likely 2012 depth chart:
Josh Freeman, new addition, Rudy Carpenter.