Even if Bucs QB Josh Freeman only duplicates his production from last season — 4,065 yards, 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions — he would become the NFL's most coveted player in free agency in 2014.
That's what NFL scouts will tell you, and it's easy to see why.
Freeman is only 25 and already has 56 starts. He is 6 feet 6, 235 pounds, and has arm strength, mobility and athleticism.
Freeman's 78 touchdown passes rank first in franchise history. And by the end of 2013, he will likely hold the records for passing attempts and yards.
How rare is it for such a young quarterback to accrue that much experience and production?
"Very rare," Bucs 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 quarterbacks this year — the Cowboys' Tony Romo, six years, $108 million, $18 million annual average; the Lions' Matthew Stafford, five years, $76.5 million, $15.3 million average, 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 postseason and missed most of his first two seasons with injuries. Romo is 1-3 in the playoffs. Ryan won his first playoff game last season in taking the Falcons to the NFC title game.
So is it shortsighted 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 has more leverage than the Bucs. If he has a great season, Tampa Bay could apply its franchise or transition player tag ($14.896 million/$13.068 million in 2013) and retain Freeman's rights.
But as the Saints discovered a few years ago when they tagged QB Drew Brees, that can have serious salary cap implications. The Bucs have some large contracts on the books for 2014: DT Gerald McCoy, $10.295 million; WR Vincent Jackson, $10 million; LG Carl Nicks, $9.357 million cap hit;, RG Davin Joseph, $6 million, and S Dashon Goldson, $9 million cap hit.
"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?
Keep an eye on: A converted quarterback from Nebraska-Omaha, TE Zach Miller was plagued by shoulder, knee and foot injuries during his three seasons in Jacksonville. But he has the size (6-4, 245), speed and hands to become a receiving threat. The Bucs also like TE Danny Noble. But as his weight has increased to about 260 pounds, his speed has decreased. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree, barring injuries, should be the top tight ends.
Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud @tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620. Follow him on Twitter at @NFLStroud.