MOBILE, Ala. — Bucs general manager Mark Dominik is genuinely concerned about more growing pains that could be suffered at Raymond James Stadium again next season.
Bucs fans can expect the youth movement to continue with 10 draft picks and almost no involvement in free agency expected in 2010.
The centerpiece of the turnaround is in place with quarterback Josh Freeman. But Dominik urged fans to have more patience with a team that finished 3-13 under first-year coach Raheem Morris.
"It's going to be somewhat of a process," Dominik said. "I think we took a big step last year, and I think the fans are starting to see some of that stuff pay off for Josh Freeman. It's good to know you have a quarterback now who is a big piece. You see at the Senior Bowl, there are maybe 16 teams here saying, 'We've got to find our quarterback.' It's a hard thing to find."
Dominik has no plans to abandon ship when it comes to building through the draft.
Tampa Bay owns five of the top 99 selections in April's draft, including the third overall and two second-round choices.
"We're going to look in free agency. But as I studied, I'm a firm believer we're going to build this thing from the draft," Dominik said. "People can say, 'Hey, could they spend a lot of money in free agency?' I don't think we're going to be big players in free agency because I really believe you build through the draft.
"You sit back and look at the Indianapolis Colts and how Bill Polian always built his franchises. Or you look at the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New England Patriots. Those teams go through and they either trade for players or maybe once in awhile, they buy a free agent. But the teams that have success in the National Football League — Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New England and the Colts, it's the draft."
For the first time since the second-ending loss to Atlanta nearly a month ago, Dominik spoke publicly about a wide range of topics Tuesday at the Senior Bowl.
•On why Morris was retained after a 3-13 record, the Bucs' worst since 1991.
"I feel like Raheem did a very, very good job of keeping this football team upbeat," Dominik said. "I think that was very important. And I feel like Raheem did a fantastic job calling the defense,"
•On why vice president Joel Glazer felt compelled to release a statement confirming Morris would return in 2010 even though he was under contract.
"I think there were a lot of false reports out there that they felt were unfair," Dominik said. "So I think that's why the statement came out; it was to make sure people understood what direction we were headed, that were staying with the same plan we started 12 months ago."
No topic was off limits. Dominik said Morris will continue to run the defense and is excited to see Greg Olson have an offseason to install his offense, which still will be run-first.
Without reading too much between the lines, Dominik made it clear that the Bucs could part ways with their starting receivers — free agent Antonio Bryant and underachieving Michael Clayton, who caught 16 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown after signing a five-year, $26 million contract.
"He's under contract and we'll see how it goes," Dominik said. "There are no hurries or anything from us in terms of his situation. The ball is in Michael's court. It's on Michael to see how his offseason goes and see how he prepares mentally and physically, but really it's up to Michael."
Mostly, Dominik outlined reasons for Tampa Bay fans to be optimistic: a solid core of experienced players, the opportunity to add more in the draft — and mostly Freeman.
As a rookie, Freeman went 3-6 as a rookie starter with 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Dominik said Bucs fans should be excited about their franchise quarterback.
"I'll give you a week. Why don't you guys poll the other GMs about Freeman and how he played and I'll bet you those people will say, 'I was impressed,' " Dominik said. "He was 3-6 as a starter, that's reality. He could've been 2-7 if someone makes a kick. But he could've been 6-3 or 7-2. … I think there's a lot to be excited about with Josh. There's a young guy who's going to be 22 years old that a lot of teams in the National Football League would love to have and we're excited he's a Tampa Bay Buc.
"As (much) as the position is critiqued, it's nice to have one."