Buccaneers' top pick Freeman could start sooner than expected

TAMPA, Fla. -- Two months after drafting Josh Freeman as their quarterback of the future, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not ruling out the prospect of him earning the starting job much sooner than expected.

Veterans Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich remain the frontrunners, however the team's first-round draft pick has shown enough during offseason workouts and this week's minicamp that the Bucs are rethinking their stance on bringing him along slowly.

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"I'm going to play the best guy," coach Raheem Morris said, looking forward to the start of training camp on Aug. 1.

"I don't want to give anybody anything. I want that quarterback to take it. Then I want all of us to be able to say, 'that's our quarterback."'

Freeman was the 17th player selected in the draft following a standout career at Kansas State, where Morris was defensive coordinator during the quarterback's freshman year.

The Bucs have said they won't rush his development, however McCown and Leftwich haven't done much to set themselves apart in the competition.

"He's pushing the envelope. Those guys are fighting with him. He's fighting back. That's what you want," Morris said.

"We'll continue to evaluate this thing throughout training camp. We'll continue to evaluate it throughout the season. We'll continue to evaluate it until Josh Freeman is ready to become our prototypical franchise quarterback."

One of the reasons the Bucs are willing to consider Freeman playing early is they are confident they will be able to surround him with enough talent that the 21-year-old would not have to carry the offense.

Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson said the rookie had a tendency to force the football into coverage when voluntary offseason workouts began last month but that Freeman's decision-making has gotten better.

"We've had him maybe a total of 20 practices, but we like where he's progressed to this point," offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said, stressing McCown and Leftwich are improving in his system, too, and that he anticipates "really good competition" in training camp.

Morris isn't making any bold predictions. He reiterated there's no timetable for Freeman to play, however it wouldn't shock him if it winds up being sooner rather than later.

"It would be hard for me to say I'd be surprised because of all the information I had on him coming in," the coach said.

"I've seen his work ethic at Kansas State when he was a freshman and he wasn't a starter. What he tried to do, what he wanted to do, how he works ... nothing would surprise me with the kid."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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