NFL Draft 2014: Are Josh Freeman's Starting Days Behind Him?

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2014

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Josh Freeman warms up during before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)
Tim Sharp

After roughly a month of free agency, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Josh Freeman remains unsigned.

Freeman isn't your typical free-agent quarterback. He is just 26 years of age and was a first-round pick in 2009, when he was selected 17th overall by the Buccaneers. Officially listed at 6'6" and 240 pounds, Freeman also has more physical talent than most other free-agent quarterbacks who have already signed with a new team.

Furthermore, Freeman wasn't a bust from the first game of his rookie season. He did enjoy some early on-field success that suggested he could be a quality starter for a long time.

When you look only at Freeman's positives, it doesn't make any sense that he is still a free agent. Of course, we can't simply ignore the negatives when they are so prominent.

Entering the 2013 season, Freeman was the starter for Greg Schiano's Buccaneers. Schiano and Freeman clearly had problems with each other, with the head coach taking the brunt of the blame for the two's failed relationship that ultimately led to Freeman's release. But Freeman's time in Minnesota suggests he wasn't faultless in how things fell apart in Tampa.

Freeman did sign a contract for $3 million and closed out the 2013 season with the Vikings. He started just one game, but that game was a truly dismal performance from the quarterback. Even at this point, it was still easy to understand how Freeman could be excused from the negative of both situations. 

It's not easy to join a team during the regular season, learn the offense, create chemistry with your receivers and then perform within a matter of weeks. Many believed that Freeman just needed time.

The Vikings didn't give him time. He would drop back down the depth chart instantly, falling behind Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. It was an inexplicable situation from the outside looking in because Freeman has much more physical talent than Ponder and more long-term potential than Cassel.

It took an insider to reveal why Freeman stayed on the sidelines:

Four people with knowledge of the situation told the newspaper that Freeman was habitually late for meetings, while one player said the quarterback often was among the last players in the building.

Players also told USA Today that starting Freeman against the Giants came across as an act of desperation by Frazier and a team hoping to justify the $3 million contract they handed the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter.

While we don't have first hand knowledge of Freeman's work ethic or commitment to improving as a football player, we can look at what he did on the field over the past two seasons.

When Freeman initially became a starter in Tampa Bay, he showed to be very smart for a player of his age and experience. He did throw 18 interceptions during his 10-start rookie season, but that was very much a developmental year.

It was his second season, a 16-start, six-interception campaign in 2010, that suggested Freeman could be a high-quality starter.

In that season, Freeman had few playmakers and weapons surrounding him offense, but he played efficient football because of his decision-making. He also demonstrated an athleticism to extend plays when he found himself under pressure.

But since 2010, Freeman has thrown 43 interceptions and 45 touchdowns. On the face of it, that ratio doesn't appear to be a good one. But it's not so bad that the 26-year-old should be ostracized and NFL teams discouraged from giving him a chance to land a roster spot.

Despite being a smart passer in 2010, Freeman's decision-making dropped off severely over the next two seasons. His 43 official interceptions during that span weren't aided by the significant number of dropped passes he had to endure.

With those issues in mind, it's clear that Freeman has two fatal flaws as a quarterback: ball placement and decision-making.

Freeman is an erratic downfield passer, and he really struggles to hit receivers in stride on short-to-intermediate throws. His playing style should have perfectly fit with the Buccaneers offense when he had Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams on the outside. After all, he had a big arm and two big, physical receivers who could go up and take the ball away from defensive backs.

On 2,020 career attempts, Freeman has completed 174 passes that went for at least 20 yards. That means 8.6 percent of his attempts and 15 percent of his completions went for at least 20 yards. Freeman has thrown for 13,724 yards in his career.

When you multiply 174 attempts by 20 yards and account for the 33 throws that went for 40-plus yards, you find that at the very least 30 percent of Freeman's career passing yards came on longer throws.

There aren't many teams in the NFL who have a combination of receivers like Williams and Jackson who can consistently excel on downfield passes into coverage. Freeman was in a decent situation for his skill set, and he still failed to produce.

Outside of the elite players at the position, each quarterback in the NFL builds value based on two things.

The first is an ability to put points on the board and get the most out of the players around them. These players can afford to make more mistakes than others, because they can subsequently make up for those mistakes with big plays.

The second is an ability to take care of the football. These quarterbacks typically excel with strong defenses and a good running game rather than being the trigger man for an explosive, dynamic passing game. You can afford to be a limited playmaker if you're not killing your team.

If you fall into one of these categories, you will likely be considered a low-level starter.

If you can't do either of these things, then you will likely be a backup. Freeman doesn't do either of these things particularly well. He did take care of the football during the 2010 season, but since then he has made too many bad decisions.

The number of turnovers is bad, but the number is made worse by the kind of turnovers he has repeatedly made.

On initial viewing of this interception against the New England Patriots, it appears that Freeman simply underthrows the deep out to Jackson. It's clearly a poorly executed pass, but that's not the extent of the damage that Freeman did on this play.

Jackson is never actually open. Freeman makes a terrible decision by locking onto his primary receiver and never understanding that the pass had very little chance of reaching his receiver, regardless of how well he threw it.

Against the New Orleans Saints, Freeman caused his own downfall again.

The Buccaneers run play-action. As Freeman backs away from the line of scrimmage, he surveys the field but keeps his feet moving, making him slow to release the football. Jackson is running a deep crossing route that is open because the Saints are playing Cover 3.

If Freeman lets the ball go quicker and throws it harder by stepping into the throw, he gives Jackson a better chance of making the reception.

Instead, Freeman's footwork is sloppy, and he releases the ball while off balance. The ball slightly floats and that gives New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins more time to close on the ball. Jackson has no chance of making a play because Jenkins is closing on the football while the receiver is working toward the sideline.

Against the New York Jets, Freeman made another bad decision before compounding it with an even worse throw.

The Jets show a corner blitz from the left side of the defense before the snap. That corner does come at the snap and he isn't picked up. Freeman rushes his release because of the free rusher and forces the ball down the middle of the field.

He horribly overthrows his receiver, and the ball goes straight to the deep safety.

Freeman had two other decisions he could have made here. The first, safest and probably best option was to eat the ball and take a sack. With his size, Freeman could have broken the tackle of the smaller cornerback and scrambled for a positive gain. At worst he would have lost a few yards on the sack.

The second option was more difficult to execute and would not have necessarily resulted in a positive play, but it was a much better option than the pass he actually attempted.

Because the Jets blitzed, they rotated away from a Cover 2 look into a Cover 1 with man coverage underneath. The deep safety is reacting to Freeman's eyes, so he initially stays in the middle of the field.

Freeman needs to keep his eyes on the deep safety for a moment, before turning to the left of the offense.

To the bottom of the screen, Freeman has a receiver running down the sideline against single coverage. Antonio Cromartie is the cornerback, a good cover corner, but if Freeman leads the receiver down the sideline he would have a chance for a big play.

The quarterback needs to show poise in the pocket to make an accurate throw under pressure and lead the receiver down the sideline. Instead he shows neither and rushes a wild throw over the middle of the field.

When you look at any quarterback's interceptions, you are likely to see more negatives than positives.

However, like everything in sports, luck plays a huge role in turnovers. Some quarterbacks, such as Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles or Josh McCown formerly of the Chicago Bears (now with Tampa Bay), enjoy luck as defensive backs repeatedly fail to take advantage of bad decisions. Or maybe poor officiating wipes off mistakes. Or their receivers bail them out on bad passes.

Other quarterbacks suffer the opposite fate. Those quarterbacks deal with too much pressure from their offensive line, have receivers who run poor or incorrect routes and see accurate passes tipped by receivers into the hands of defensive backs. Eli Manning from last season is someone who has dealt with that.

Freeman threw a large number of interceptions, but he still fits in the first category with the lucky quarterbacks. He could easily have had many, many more interceptions throughout his career so far.

It's a misnomer that luck balances out over a season for quarterbacks.  

At 26 years of age, Freeman still has time to turn his career around and develop into a quality starter. However, that is where the reports on his character come into play. If Freeman isn't working hard and committed to developing, then he won't improve and he's not currently good enough to be a good starter in the NFL. 

For Freeman to get back into a starting lineup, he will likely have to take a minimum contract, be a backup or third-string quarterback and work for his opportunity over a number of seasons.

Nobody knows if he can, or will, do that, but it's clear right now that teams don't believe in him.


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