TAMPA — Josh Freeman looked the part — mobile, with a big arm and supreme size at 6 feet 6 and 248 pounds — and by his second year was playing like a blossoming franchise NFL quarterback, leading the Bucs to a 10-6 record.
But by the time he was released by the Bucs after a 0-3 start in 2013, Freeman's work habits and skills had deteriorated to the point where he was fined heavily for being late to meetings. He nearly missed the team bus for the season opener against the Jets as speculation raged about his participation in Stage 1 of the NFL's substance abuse program.
"With Josh, it certainly was a roller coaster," former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, said Wednesday. "He had good years and bad years and some in between, quite frankly. That's something you have to think about and something that stays in the back of your head."
As much as anything, Dominik's experience with Freeman is why he prefers Oregon's Marcus Mariota to Florida State's Jameis Winston.
The Bucs own the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick and their decision likely will be deciding between the two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks: Winston, who went 26-1 for the Seminoles and is more pro-ready but has made poor decisions off the field; or Mariota, who was never asked to play under center and could take time to develop but has an impeccable character rating.
Freeman was Dominik's first draft pick, the 17th choice in 2009. Experience tells Dominik him the Bucs should go with the guy who won't cause the head coach headaches.
"The more you get experience, it always affects you," Dominik said. "A lot of people wonder why I like Mariota over Winston right now. Well, I just have a better comfort level with Mariota. It doesn't mean I don't like Winston. It's just right now, from what I know of both of them, I just have a better comfort level. That's tough."
However, Dominik said it's unfair to compare Winston's issues to those facing Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.
"It's not like he's some bad kid," Dominik said. "I just think he's completely different to even Johnny Manziel. To compare those two is not fair to Jameis Winston at all. I truly believe Winston absolutely loves football and wants to work at it and puts everything into it whereas with Johnny, it was still questionable at this time last year, and it wasn't just off the field. He was getting kicked out of the Manning (passing) camp this time last year. Winston, I don't think, would ever do that. He loves football, so that's where you're excited about him.
"But you've still got to go through the whole process and say, 'Can I trust him? Can I put him on the brochure of our football team three years from now and not be worried about him?' … That's the biggest thing I think Tampa is working through the next seven weeks."
Of course, timing matters. The Bucs haven't had the No. 1 overall pick since 1987 when they selected Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde. The fact that there are two quarterbacks worthy of the first pick in this year's draft is fortunate for the Bucs.
"I think timing has everything to do with the National Football League," Dominik said. "Certainly the skill level of the players and the coaching and all that sort of thing does too. But when you're talking about the draft, it is a big part of the entire process, regardless of whether you're talking about Indianapolis or Houston from last year or Tampa this year. Both teams (the Texans and Bucs) need a quarterback. One is in a position to take one. That's everything."
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Ultimately, Dominik said the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, will challenge the recommendation from coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht before accepting it.
"The only thing they'll do is keep asking questions," Dominik said. "They're never going to sit there and say, 'I think you should take this guy.' That's not their mind-set. You have to make sure they're comfortable with where you are with the decision."