TAMPA, Fla. -- Judging from the contracts offered to quarterbacks lately, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman has a lot more to play for than wins and losses this season.
"He should have a lot of motivation seeing all of these quarterback signings," left tackle Donald Penn said. "Shoot, I know I would if I were him."
Freeman is only 25 and already has 56 starts as a pro. At 6-foot-6, 235-pounds, the tangible measurements are there: arm strength, mobility and athleticism.
Already, Freeman's 78 touchdown passes rank first in franchise history and by the end of 2013 he will likely hold the club records passing attempts and passing yards.
How rare is it for such a young quarterback to accrue that much experience and production?
"Very rare," quarterbacks coach John McNulty said. "People talk about consistency, that's all part of it, too, to be that young and have that much responsibility, the city, the team, everybody is looking at you. That's how the position goes. A lot of times that can break a guy.
"Josh was thrown right in the fire right away. He hit it big, he hit it low, there were ups and downs. But I think a lot of other guys could've been broken by that and he just keeps going. Now when he's got all this experience behind him, people are saying, "this is it, this is the last year of your contract.'
Given the contracts signed by several quarterbacks who haven't won the Super Bowl -- the Cowboys' Tony Romo (six years, $108 million, $18 million average), the Lions' Matthew Stafford (five years, $76.5 million, $15.3 million) and the Falcons' Matt Ryan (five years, $103.75 million, $20.75 million average) -- Freeman is headed for a big payday barring injury.
Granted, what Freeman lacks on his resume is a playoff appearance. That said, Stafford is 0-1 in the post-season and missed most of his first two years with injury. Romo is 1-3 in the playoffs. Ryan won his first playoff game last year and took the Falcons to the NFC title game. If he'd happen to get there and deliver, as Joe Flacco of the Ravens did in this same situation last season, Freeman is a lock for $100 million.
With that in mind, was it short-sighted of the Bucs to allow Freeman to go into his contract year without a new deal?
Aside from the perceived lack of confidence from the organization and the risk of injury, Freeman is in a better leverage position than the Bucs. If he has a great year, Tampa Bay could apply the franchise or transition player tag (14,896,000/13,068,000 for QBs in 2013) and retain Freeman's right for one more season. They also drafted Mike Glennon to give them a fallback option, albeit an uproven one.
But as the Saints discovered a few years ago when they applied the tag to Drew Brees, that can have serious salary cap implications. The Bucs have some large contracts on the books for 2014 -- Gerald McCoy ($10.295 million), Vincent Jackson ($10 million), Carl Nicks $9.357 million cap hit), Davin Joseph ($6 million) and Dashon Goldson ($9 million cap hit).
Freeman wants to remain in the mix.
"I love being a Buccaneer," Freeman said. "I love my teammates. I love my coaches. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Right now I'm just trying to be the best Josh Freeman I can be whether it's in the community, on the football field or in my personal life. I'll let the rest take care of itself."
Or should it have been taken care of already?
--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.