TAMPA, Fla. -- Raheem Morris shrugged off question after question, rejecting the notion that it must have been difficult deciding between drafting Josh Freeman and finding help for a porous defense that cost the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a playoff berth.
"That's a quarterback," the first-year Buccaneers coach said Saturday night. "We all know you can't win in this league without a quarterback. You just can't do it."
Bucky Brooks on Freeman
The Buccaneers gamble on the gifted quarterback out of Kansas State. Blessed with prototypical size and arm strength, Freeman gives the Bucs a deep-ball thrower to complement their power running game. Though he may not be ready for action in 2009, he gives the team a potential franchise quarterback to groom. More draft analysis...
Ignoring obvious needs on defense, the Buccaneers selected Freeman with the 17th pick in the first round and are counting on the former Kansas State star developing into a player that will lead them back among the NFL's elite.
Freeman, 21, is the first quarterback the Bucs have taken in the opening round since they drafted Trent Dilfer sixth in 1994. To acquire Freeman, they moved up two spots in the draft order, swapping places with the Cleveland Browns, who also received Tampa Bay's sixth-round pick (No. 191 overall).
"He's a long-term decision. He's the direction we're going," said Morris, though the Bucs aren't necessarily expecting Freeman to be the starter right away.
"I don't want to hold him back," the coach added. "Also, I don't want to rush him into the process."
The move was a bit surprising because the Bucs have spent most of the offseason bolstering the offense -- placing the franchise tag on leading receiver Antonio Bryant, trading for tight end Kellen Winslow and signing free-agent running Derrick Ward.
Although landing a quarterback of the future was considered a need, many believed a defensive selection made more sense, especially after general manager Mark Dominik signed veteran Byron Leftwich to compete with Brian Griese, Luke McCown and second-year pro Josh Johnson for the starting job.
The Bucs have had one of the stingiest defenses in the league the past decade. But the unit became a liability in 2008 and was one of the reasons the team lost four straight after a 9-3 start to miss the playoffs.
The collapse claimed the jobs of former coach Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen, who were replaced by Morris and Dominik, who decided against re-signing quarterback Jeff Garcia and released starting linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June, as well as running back Warrick Dunn and wide receiver Ike Hilliard.
Freeman, the third quarterback selected Saturday, threw for a school-record 8,078 yards and 44 touchdowns in three seasons at Kansas State, where Morris was the defensive coordinator for one season in 2006.
"Whenever you've got a chance to take a franchise guy -- a guy that you know, a guy you've got a unique relationship with, a guy that you trust in and believe in, and think he's going to be a guy to carry you to the next level -- you go get him," Morris said. "Those other needs, we'll address them."
At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Freeman has a strong, accurate arm and believes he's every bit the prospect as Matthew Stafford, drafted first by the Detroit Lions, and Mark Sanchez, selected fifth by the New York Jets.
"I feel like I'm the better quarterback, but they're getting most of the hype," Freeman said, adding that he believes a lot of that has do with the fact that Stafford (Georgia) and Sanchez (USC) played in programs that won more games than he did at Kansas State, which often was overmatched in the Big 12 Conference.
"They're good quarterbacks," Freeman added. "I'm not taking anything away from them. If I had a pick, I'd take myself. ... I have the rest of my career to prove to everybody that I'm the best guy, and I'm looking to do everything within my power to make that so."
The Bucs will have to wait until Sunday to seek help on defense. They didn't have a second-round pick Saturday after packaging it with a 2010 fifth-rounder to obtain Winslow from the Cleveland Browns in February.
Tampa Bay has six picks on the second day, three of them in the seventh round.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press