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Peyton Manning, or Ryan Leaf?

The very question sounds too ludicrous for us even to contemplate now, 15 years later. Yet in the weeks leading up to the 1998 draft, that very question was on everybody’s lips in the NFL.

Peyton Manning, of Tennessee and Ryan Leaf of Washington State were considered the two standout talents of a draft that also saw Charles Woodson, Fred Taylor, Takeo Spikes and Randy Moss taken in the first round.

Both Manning and Leaf entered the draft having had excellent final seasons at college. Manning had led the Tennessee Volunteers to an 11-2 record and the SEC championship, then went on to lose to #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Leaf’s Washington State Cougars finished the year 10-2 and lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl, after winning the PAC-10.

Both Leaf and Manning threw for almost 4,000 yards in their impressive years. Leaf had 34 touchdowns to his name, Manning 36. Both notched up just 11 interceptions.

They also both finished in the top three of the Heisman voting, Manning pipped Leaf to second spot, both of them behind Woodson.

Teams across the NFL were impressed, Manning was generally considered to be the ‘safe’ bet, but Leaf was thought to have the stronger arm, and the higher ceiling. Of twenty NFL general managers polled prior to the draft, fourteen of them preferred Ryan Leaf. They liked his cannon of an arm, his greater mobility, and interestingly felt he was a “more promising long term prospect as a franchise calibre player”.

The Indianapolis Colts were to be first on the clock, coming off a 3-13 season in 2007. They were in the market for a Quarterback, having just traded Jim Harbaugh to the Baltimore Ravens following their disastrous campaign.

The San Diego chargers were supposed to pick at #3, but were impressed enough with both Leaf and Manning that they traded their first and second round picks in 1998, plus a first rounder the following year, to Arizona. It was a kings ransom, but the Chargers desperately needed a Quarterback having just lost veteran Stan Humphries following a series of concussions. With the #2 pick secured, their choice was simple. If the Colts chose Leaf, the Chargers would get Manning. If Manning went to Indianapolis, San Diego would swoop for Ryan Leaf.

During the players individual workouts, both impressed the Colts with their physical abilities. Manning also performed very well in his interview. Leaf did not. In fact, he didn’t even show up. He later blamed it on a miscommunication, but the Colts (who were already edging toward Manning) saw this as a red flag. According to then President of the Colts, Bill Polian, they were now “99%” behind Manning.

And so it came to be, on April 18th 1998, that the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning with their first pick. Nobody was shocked when Ryan Leaf’s name was called out second, for the San Diego Chargers.

When Leaf picked up a $31 million deal, with 11 million guaranteed, he said “I’m looking forward to a 15 year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl and a parade through downtown San Diego” Manning would collect $45 million in an incentive laden 6 year contract.

Before the 1998 season even started, Leaf was making a name for himself at the Chargers facility, and for all the wrong reasons. He skipped the final day of the mandatory rookie symposium, and the NFL took $10,000 out of his pocket as punishment. Shortly after, a few senior Chargers attempted to ‘welcome’ the rookie to the team in time honoured fashion. They went out for a meal in San Diego, and billed their night out to Leaf’s credit card. It’s not clever, nor particularly adult, but it’s gone on since time immemorial. Leaf took unkindly to the incident though, and complained to Chargers GM Bobby Beathard. The rebuttal didn’t sit well with the veterans, who gave Leaf some knocks in training camp, Junior Seau earning ‘high fives’ all round after delivering a big hit on the young Quarterback.

In Indianapolis, Peyton Manning was having no such troubles, settling smoothly into his new team, and quietly impressing them.

Both rookie quarterbacks started games at home on week 1 of the 1998 season, Manning threw 3 interceptions and a touchdown, in a 24-15 loss to the Dolphins, whilst Leaf came out victorious against the Buffalo Bills, despite fumbling his first snap as a professional and throwing a pair of interceptions in a 16-14 win.

Leaf would win again in week 2, in a 13-7 victory over the Tennessee Oilers. Manning was again on the losing side, in New England, with his team being blown away in a 29-6 loss.

Leaf had won in his first two appearances. Few people could have guessed that he’d only win another two games for the rest of his career.

Manning’s first victory came in week 5 that year, against none other than Ryan Leaf’s chargers, Leaf failed to throw any touchdown passes in a 17-12 loss.

The Chargers won 5 of their games in 1998, with Leaf responsible for 3 of them (10 appearances), not terrible for a rookie quarterback in the NFL, but that only represented half of the story. Leaf was making a name for himself as a notoriously bad PR figure, he was obnoxious to reporters, responded angrily to fan heckling, and was gaining a reputation for having a poor work ethic. Chargers safety Rodney Harrison described Leaf’s rookie year as “a nightmare”

The two young quarterback’s had hugely different sophomore seasons. Leaf injured his shoulder in the Chargers first training camp practice, and wouldn’t play all year. Manning on the other hand was still working hard improving his game, and showing himself to be a team player and media darling.

Manning would lead the Colts to a 13-3 record and the AFC east championship. Manning himself was named to the Pro-Bowl, the first of 12 career appearances in the all star event.

2000 saw the return of Leaf, though it was certainly a less than impressive year for the Charger. Rumours abounded that the team were looking to cut their losses and release him, but he started the first 2 games, which both ended in losses. Leaf threw one touchdown and five interceptions in the two games before being benched for game 3 (though he would play that week as Moses Moreno came out of the game with a shoulder injury). Leaf would again start in week 4, though he injured his wrist in the game and would sit out until the end of November.

Manning hadn’t missed a game yet for the Colts, and though his team were up and down, he was still leading them well and making a mark on those around him.

The Colts again made the playoffs, this time with a 10-6 record, and their choice to pick Manning was starting to pay dividends. The Chargers were heading backwards, and finished 2000 with a 1-15 record, 7 fewer wins than they achieved in 1999, without Ryan Leaf.

It was the final straw for the Chargers, and they released Leaf. During his time with the team he had thrown 33 interceptions against 13 touchdowns, had appeared in only 21 games (Manning had suited up 50 times for the Colts in the same period). Leaf’s completion percentage was hovering around 50%, and regularly dropping lower.

2001 saw Leaf get picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who kicked the tyres on the young triggerman, but having not been impressed, told him that he’d have to take a pay cut and accept demotion to 4th Quarterback status. Leaf refused and was released prior to the season starting. A few weeks later he found himself facing a medical at the Dallas Cowboys, but he failed the test and was again released. A month later the Cowboys did sign him, after their starter, Quincy Carter got injured. Leaf would play just 4 times for the Cowboys, throwing three interceptions, just one touchdown, and still completing only half of his passes.

2001 was the year that Peyton Manning became the Quarterback that we recognise today. The Colts unveiled the no-huddle offense that was almost solely under Manning’s control. The promising talent had become the teams undeniable leader. The team only won six games, but Manning’s offense was the second highest scoring outfit in the league. The Colts missed out on the playoffs, but things were looking very bright in Indianapolis.

Amazingly, the Seattle Seahawks offered Ryan Leaf a one year deal in May 2002. They planned to allow his wrist to fully heal and bring him along slowly. Leaf was initially excited and eagerly attended the ‘Hawks Spring mini-camps, before bizarrely retiring just prior to the start of training camp. Leaf was just 26 years old, and his NFL playing career was over.

Manning had by this time led his team to two playoff berths, been to Pro-Bowls, set franchise records, and shown himself as a true leader on and off the field. Ryan leaf had played half the games Manning had, thrown far fewer touchdowns, far more interceptions, had been cut by 3 teams, had shown himself to be anything other than a team player, and consistently angered his team-mates, bosses, the media and fans.

Fast forwarding over the next decade, Manning has since gone on to win 4 league MVP awards, a Super Bowl win and Super Bowl MVP (XLI), 6 times AFC player of the year, become the fastest man ever to reach 50,000 passing yards, the fastest ever to 400 touchdowns, and fastest ever to 4,000 completions. He made the NFL 2000’s all decade team, and is considered a locked in first ballot Hall of Famer when he finally hangs up his cleats.

Leaf went on to a brief career as a financial consultant in San Diego, before returning to Washington to study again. He then went on to join Texas A&M as a volunteer Quarterbacks coach in 2006. He would be put on indefinite leave a few days before resigning his post in 2008 following an incident where he allegedly asked a player for some pills to help with his wrist pains.

In 2009, Leaf was arrested on burglary and controlled substance charges whilst he was on a drug rehabilitation programme and was later sentenced to 10 years probation on drug related charges.

In March 2012, 10 days after Peyton Manning signed a $96 million contract with the Denver Broncos, Ryan Leaf was again arrested on charges of burglary, theft and drug related incidents. He would later be sentenced to seven years in a correctional facility, with two years suspended if he abided by the rules set out for him.

In January of 2013, as Manning again took to the field in the NFL postseason, Leaf was remanded in Montana state prison, after being found guilty of behaviour that breached the conditions of his drug rehabilitation programme, it is said that threatening a staff member was among his list of violations.

Ryan Leaf has been singled out as the biggest bust in NFL draft history. It’s not hard to see why, the Chargers paid a princely sum for his athletic abilities and high ceiling, but his character issues and terrible work ethic were his (and the teams) undoing.

So as we approach April’s draft once again, it’s a timely reminder for teams to do their homework, regardless of how good a prospect looks on the field. Ryan Leaf is living proof of the pitfalls that can lie out there for the unsuspecting GM or head coach.

Yet of course, they might always find themselves drafting the next Peyton Manning.

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Public enemy #90

Posted: March 17, 2013 in NFL Profiles
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The Bogeyman. Boo Radley. Ndamukong Suh.

Two of those characters are fictional, preying on the fears and over-active imaginations of children, scaring them into good behaviour, paralysing them into submission when they overstep the marks set by well intentioned elders. The third character? He’s real, and according to some, a very genuine bad guy. Except he’s no shadow creeping around after lights out, he’s the Detroit Lions stand-out defensive tackle. Striking terror into the hearts of opponents, a man who will stoop to any level to enforce his dominance in the trenches. A man only too aware of his place in the nations conscience, a man who accepts his role as the bad guy, without giving a care as to whether there’s any truth in the claims. A man at ease with himself and what he brings to the game. And it’s in that most public of domains that he really makes an impression.

The 6’4” 300lb defensive tackle started his collegiate career in 2005, for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, though his true freshman year was short lived, playing just a pair of games before a season ending knee surgery led to him receiving a medical redshirt.

He returned in 2006 and played all 14 games as a backup defensive lineman. He made 19 tackles, including 8 for loss, and 3.5 sacks, despite his bit-part role coming off the bench.

As a Sophomore, he started in11 of 12 appearances and totalled 34 tackles, and blocked an extra point against Texas a&m.

It was in 2008 that Suh’s numbers really began to stack up, and the national media began to take notice of the young lineman. A team high 76 total tackles (19 for loss) and 7.5 sacks in his 13 starts, Suh also made 2 interceptions and returned them both for scores. He also scored one touchdown on offense, lining up as a Fullback and catching a two yard pass against the Kansas Jayhawks.

Suh became the first Cornhusker lineman to lead the team in tackles since 1973, and for the first time he made the All Big-12 First team.

In his senior year, Suh made 85 total tackles (24 for loss) and 12 sacks. Another interception added to his total, and another 3 blocked kicks, which was a Cornhusker season record. He led the defense to the Big-12 championship game against the Texas Longhorns and personally made 12 tackles (7 for loss-a single game record) and was awarded MVP of the game, which ended in a narrow loss. Nebraska’s first ever bowl shutout (and the first shutout in the 32 year history of the Holiday Bowl) against Arizona followed shortly after.

The awards came thick and fast in that senior year, Heisman trophy finalist, AP National player of the year, National defensive player of the year, first team All American, Big-12 defensive player of the year. The young man from Portland had become one of the most decorated stars in college football history.

Coaches and analysts across the NFL were watching Suh’s progress intently, and they liked what they saw. Mel Kiper of ESPN reported him as being ‘Maybe the most dominating defensive tackle I’ve seen in 32 years’

The Detroit Lions pulled the trigger on Suh with the 2nd pick of the 2010 draft in an attempt to shore up a defense that had given up 31 points per game in 2009.

Suh had impressed in the combine, bench pressing 32 reps of 225lbs, and showing off an impressive 35.5” vertical leap, the highest recorded by a defensive tackle in a decade.

The young lineman agreed a 5 year $68 million deal with the Lions on august 3rd. He’d be guaranteed $40 million.

Suh had already accounted for some of that fortune, having donated $2.6 million back to the University of Nebraska, which remains the largest single charitable donation of any former player.

Ndamukung hit the ground running in his rookie year in the paid ranks, starting all 16 games, and making 66 tackles, 10 qb sacks and returning an interception for a touchdown. Those 6 points remain his only contribution to the Lions scoring charts, (A keen soccer player, in 2010 he attempted an extra point attempt in place of injured kicker Jason Hanson, but it hit an upright and bounced right) but his impact elsewhere has been felt ever since. He finished his rookie year with a bundle of Rookie of the Year awards from a variety of sources. Though his numbers in 2011 and 2012 failed to match his impressive first year stats (71 tackles and 12 sacks combined) he has found himself double and even triple teamed week after week by all opponents. Teams have had to gameplan for the impact he can have, even if it leaves other Lions unblocked. Suh himself doesn’t let the perceived drop off bother him, he has said that he is “a better player” than he was in his rookie year, and some careful studying of game film backs up his claims. The awards have kept coming though, despite the shrinking numbers, with pro-bowl appearances in 2010 and 2012, first and second team all-pro votes in 2010 and 2012 respectively.

Now of course, there is another side to the talented tackle, a side that threatens to overshadow all his talent and athleticism. You don’t get voted as the NFL’s most hated player (by fans) and dirtiest player (by fellow professionals) without raising a few eyebrows along the way.

Suh received 9 personal foul penalties during his first two seasons as a pro, more than any other player in the same time frame. He accumulated fines totalling over $40k in the process. At least one of those fines seemed undeserved, a hit on Jay Cutler was called as unnecessary roughness, a forearm to the back of the QB’s head. The replay suggested it was a clean shove, and Cutler was beyond the line of scrimmage and clearly a runner. Suh’s bad boy reputation was already working against him. He’d again find himself in hot water for a hit on Cutler in 2010, following a Greco-Roman style takedown on Monday night football, as the league and sports media world was divided into two camps about the legality of the hit. Ultimately it was ruled clean (and Cutler agreed publicly) but it certainly kept Suh in the headlines.

Live on national television on thanksgiving 2011, came the first of two career defining incidents,. During a home game against the Packers, Suh became embroiled in a tussle with the Pack’s Evan Dietrich-Smith, who had been pushing his buttons all game. Suh snapped, slamming Dietrich-Smith’s head to the ground 3 times, and following up with a stomp to the prone center’s arm.

Suh was ejected from the game and suspended for 2 further contests without pay. Though he appealed, it was rejected. The Lions and in particular head coach Jim Schwartz were quick to accept their players wrongdoing, even before he admitted it himself. The incident, and Suh’s pained attempts at protesting his innocence were prime examples of how he’d gained his reputation.

A year later, Suh again found himself in the centre of a thanksgiving controversy. As he was dragged to the ground during a play, Suh’s foot flailed and caught Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub in the groin.

The media were quick to jump on Suh’s case, but this was one instance where his reputation seemed to have done him no favours at all. No matter how many times you watch the footage, it’s impossible to decide for certain whether the ‘kick’ was intentional or not. Yet he was fined $30,000 for the incident and suffered outrage from virtually all commentators. Matt Schaub himself led the tirade against Suh, claiming that Suh was ‘Not Houston Texan-worthy’. He was wrong. Suh would command a place on any of the other 31 franchises in the NFL, to think otherwise is idiocy.

It’s not only on the field that Suh has courted controversy either, a number of driving offences (one dating back to his Nebraska days) have kept Detroit beat writers in copy throughout his career. Ordinarily it would raise few eyebrows for a wealthy young man to pick up some tickets in a high performance car, but when the young man in question is the NFL’s own Mr Evil, it’s hardly surprising that people pick them up and use them as a stick to beat him with. Ndamukong himself doesn’t let it bother him, as he told the Chicago Tribune. “People are always going to have their opinions, it’s not going to hurt my feelings” the tackle said.

So just who is Ndamukong Suh? A Street thug made good? The innocent victim of a league-wide conspiracy to hold him down?

I guess he’s both of them, in part.

He plays with a toughness, a brutality. Yes, a thuggishness that his position needs. And yet now the league has popped this particular genie out of the bottle, they can’t get him back in, no matter how hard they hit him with fines and try to force some change in his game.

But what we need to remember, is that Ndamukung Suh is still a young man. He’s made mistakes, lots of them. He’ll probably make some more. He’ll take more fines, he’ll upset more officials and analysts. Yet those who know their literature will remind you that in the end, even old Boo Radley turned out to be a good guy.

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On October 25th 2009, a capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium, London, witnessed a turning point in Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise history. Josh Freeman took his first meaningful snaps as an NFL quarterback.

I use the word ‘meaningful’ loosely, there were just 9 minutes left in a game that the Bucs trailed 35-7. Both teams had pulled their starters and the 74 thousand fans were beginning to filter through the exits into the cold London air. Those that stayed to the games conclusion could be forgiven for not realising the importance of the events unfolding before them. The 21 year old Freeman completed 2 of his 4 passes for 16 yards and added little to the Bucs performance.

Freeman was certainly flying under the radar. He’d been picked 17th overall in that years draft, behind Matthew Stafford (1st overall – Lions) and Mark Sanchez (5th overall – Jets). Hype and hoopla surrounded both of those picks, of Freeman little was expected, even by some Buccaneer fans who were vocal in questioning his ability.

The 6’5”, 240lb Freeman was certainly an imposing figure, built more like a tight end than a qb, with the footwork and speed to match, rushing for 20TD’s in over 200 attempts in his 35 college appearances

The Bucs then head coach, Raheem Morris defended the selection, telling the media that he would have picked Freeman above both Stafford and Sanchez had the Bucs been first on the clock.(Bucs GM Mark Dominik was rumoured to have wanted Sanchez) and Morris should have known, he was on the coaching staff at Kansas State, Freeman’s alma mater.

Freeman certainly seemed worthy of the high praise in his first Buccaneers start on 9th November 2009, at home to Green Bay.

Decked out in the Buccaneers creamsicle throwback uniform, Josh rallied the Bucs from a 28-17 deficit in the 4th quarter to win the game 38-28. The first of many 4th quarter comebacks orchestrated by the young triggerman. He again led his team back from a 10 point hole at Miami a week later to lead by a point late on, though the Bucs leaky defense conceded a late field goal and lost the game with seconds left on the clock.

Through his first three appearances the rookie signal caller had been largely mistake free, though he’d then throw 11 interceptions over his next 4 games, losing them all, and only one of those losses coming by less than 10 points.

In a tough rookie year, there was one more impressive performance to come, at Seattle, where Freeman threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran in himself for a 2 point conversion in a 24-7 victory.

Despite ending the year with a 3-6 record as a starter, Freeman had largely impressed. His mistakes were common to most rookie quarterbacks, staring receivers down, throwing to his primary choice without going through his progressions. His upside was obvious, speed, power and athleticism, and his canny ability to avoid sacks, coupled with the coolness to rally the team late in the game. The vocal minority who didn’t want him in Tampa had slunk away to vent at something else (usually the Bucs porous defense), but they’d be back in due course.

A broken thumb suffered against the Chiefs kept Freeman out for most of the 2010 preseason, though he hit the ground running when the regular season kicked off on September 12th. Trailing in the 4th quarter at home to Cleveland, Freeman completed a 33 yard pass to Michael Spurlock to win the game. Another win a week later at Carolina gave the Bucs their first 2-0 start since 2005.

This year, 2010 was the year that Josh first garnered national media attention, throwing 25 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions (a 1.5% interception ratio) and led the young Buccaneers on 5 game winning drives and to a 10-6 record overall, narrowly missing the final NFC wild card spot when the the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers defeated the Bears at Lambeau field a couple of hours after the Bucs had beaten the Saints in the Superdome.

One thing was certain, when the game was on the line, Freeman seemed to steel himself, and go out on the field and make the final drive to win. Not only had Freeman silenced his critics, he was being touted as a future star of the NFL. After years of fruitless searching, The Buccaneers had finally found their franchise quarterback. He set numerous franchise records during the course of the year, including highest QB rating in a single season (95.9), and fewest interceptions in a single season.

There was no team in the NFL younger than the Buccaneers, all their key offensive pieces were in their twenties, many of them under 25. The lockout that preceded the 2011 season was always likely to affect the inexperienced teams more than some of the older outfits, and that certainly seemed the case in Tampa. With a team built almost entirely through the draft they lacked experienced characters to hold together as a unit during a difficult year. Freeman suffered the regression that many had predicted for the previous year. His arm that had held the accuracy of a sniper rifle in ’10 had become a blunderbuss in ’11, spewing wildly inaccurate projectiles straight into the path of defensive backs across the league. He was picked off 22 times against just 16 touchdowns, including a 4 pick loss against the Bears, back at Wembley stadium, London, where he’d debuted a couple of years previously.

Having started the year 4-2, despite never playing particularly well, the Bucs hit a ten game slide, which ultimately cost coach Morris his job. Rumours that Morris had lost the dressing room flew around the league. Whether that was the case or not, the promising young Bucs suddenly looked a far less attractive outfit. As quick as a flash, the knives were out in Tampa, the doubters and critics swarmed from their hiding places to pour scorn on the Bucs young leader, and with a new head coach coming into town, the future seemed less certain for Freeman.

2011 wasn’t the total disaster that the results suggested though, Josh’s completion rate was up on the previous year (62.8% – a career high) despite being called upon to pass more as the Bucs trailed in so many games. Many of his picks came in the redzone, If some of those had been turned into points the year might have turned out somewhat differently.

Greg Schiano took over as head coach of the Bucs for 2012, having previously guided Rutgers to 6 bowl games (5 wins) and their first top 25 ranking in 30 years.

Schiano seemed impressed by Freeman when he took over, and stood by the young QB. He gave the offense some new weapons in the form of the sensational rookie RB, Doug Martin (Boise St) and veteran free agent Vincent Jackson (from San Diego). He’d be repaid by witnessing the Buccaneers finest offensive season in franchise history. Freeman passed for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career, and 27 TD’s, a career and franchise record. The addition of Carl Nicks in the offensive line was a huge boost as well, and the addition of some veteran presence on the offense certainly bolstered the Buccaneers performances.

The Bucs 7-9 record certainly didn’t tell the whole story, they were in the playoff hunt until quite late on, and injuries took their toll and the team fell of the pace following a single point loss at home to Atlanta in week 12.

Freeman had an inconsistent year, between weeks 8-11 he was leading one of the leagues top 5 offensive units, and had thrown only half a dozen interceptions on the year, the slide that started against Atlanta seemed to ruffle him though, and his old troubles returned, culminating in a 4 pick (and 1 fumble lost) 0-41 disaster in the Superdome against New Orleans.

So as we head towards 2013, where does Josh Freeman stand? The Buccaneers have gone public, saying that they won’t negotiate a contract extension yet (he has one year remaining on his deal) which certainly suggests that they’re not totally sold on him yet. His franchise records and many of his performances certainly warrant them thinking long and hard before letting him go, and the relatively poor draft classes coming up would restrict the Bucs chances of getting a young upgrade. Yet the inconsistencies are undeniably there in his game. Whilst his deep ball has improved immeasurably during his 4 years in the league, he does still struggle with the quick, dink and dunk plays, and some of his decision making is truly baffling at times. His scrambling ability is excellent, yet sometimes this causes him to hold on too long trying to extend plays and taking big sacks.

Josh Freeman, above all else, is an enigma. Undoubted talent, a truly excellent physical specimen. Yet one with numerous flaws. For what it’s worth, I think the Bucs should start negotiationg a new deal for number 5, and let him mature fully, whilst giving him an offensive line that lets him do his job. Freeman’s part of the deal has to be to knuckle down and work on his weaknesses, those 4 and 5 yard passes don’t need to be launched like the famous cannonfire at the Raymond James stadium, a little softness, some touch would go a long way. The organisation are right not to have jumped straight into a new deal, there is still time to evaluate, but they should be wary of letting him go. The people have Tampa have waited a long time for a quarterback like Josh Freeman. Sadly it would be just like that franchise to let him walk out the door in a years time.