Yardbarker Horiz

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Freeman Changing The Mold Up Front

When Josh Freeman was drafted with the 18th pick in 2009 there were a lot of questions.  Those questions were answered in 2010 when Freeman put up, arguably, a Pro Bowl caliber year and demonstrated all the characteristics of a top-flight NFL quarterback.  In short, Josh is a franchise quarterback.

What do you do when you have a franchise quarterback?  You build the offense around him.

And Tampa Bay has done so, with a follow-up draft in 2010 which brought Rookie of the Year candidate Mike Williams, as well as nine-game starter Arrelious Benn.  This builds on the emergence of Sammie Stroughter from the 2009 draft.  Throw in exciting young players like Micheal Spurlock, Preston Parker, and Dezmon Briscoe and you have a fleet of young wide receivers for Freeman to grow with.

Then add some young runners like LeGarrette Blount and Kregg Lumpkin and you give Freeman more options and more room to grow.

A more subtle and slow change, however, has been going on up front on the offensive line.  The physical tools of Freeman have started to impact what the Buccaneers appear to be looking for in offensive linemen.  Freeman is a tall man even by NFL quarterback standards.  At 6'6" he is one of the six tallest men on the roster.  It's the other five tallest Buccaneers where the changes are brewing.

Since 2009, Tampa Bay has added Demar Dotson (6'9"), Will Barker (6'7"), Derek Hardman (6'6"), and Brandon Carter (6'6") to the platoon of offensive linemen on the current roster (the fifth tall man on the roster, 6'8" Jeremy Trueblood, has been starting at left tackle for several seasons).  Dotson and Barker are offensive tackles;  Hardman and Carter are offensive Guards.  These men are not just tall, they are big -- Carter, Barker, and Dotson are all over 315 pounds.  Hardman is currently listed at an even 300 pounds.  Even Donald Penn, the entrenched starter at right tackle, is a big man:  6'5" and 305 pounds.

When a quarterback drops back after taking a snap (or even starts from the shotgun), he must be able to see downfield to make various decisions about which and when receivers will be open.  Taller offensive linemen (that is, above 6'3") have mostly been utilized only at the edges of the offensive line as tackles.  Having a tall tackle does not generally obstruct the downfield view of the quarterback as they protect the outside on passing plays.  And tackles with long arms mean it's harder for defensive ends to get a clean path to the quarterback.

The Buccaneers may be on the way toward a different philosophy.  With a 6'6" quarterback standing tall in the pocket, and knowing offensive linemen play with bended knees to lower their center of gravity, GM Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris' coaching staff appear to be targeting giant men all across the offensive line.

Tampa Bay appears to be finding NFL caliber players who fit the bill.  Dotson, the tallest man on the team according to the current roster, played substantial minutes at left tackle in 2009 as an undrafted free agent.  He showed enough promise to be held on IR for all of 2010.  Hardman and Barker were signed to the practice squad after roster cuts last season (Dominik's Second Draft of 2010); Carter was also on the practice squad once the dust settled.  By the time the Buccaneers closed the 2010 season at New Orleans, all three men were on the active roster and Hardman was starting at right guard.

This is no fluke.  These men were sought out by the Buccaneers and have been promoted into the mix rapidly.  There could be quite a battle up front on offense at the next training camp and it appears to be by design.  If the youngsters make progress, Tampa Bay could have one of the largest offensive line groups in the NFL in the near future.  In addition, I would not be at all surprised to see this trend show up in the Tampa Bay 2011 NFL Draft.

Only in the NFL could Josh Freeman dream of one day playing behind an offensive line where each man is physically larger than he is.  If the trend continues, that day may not be far away.

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