The Buccaneers tried to trade the recently demoted starter but were unable to find a taker. The team expects that Freeman will claim his right to his full remaining salary of $6.2 million and be free to sign with any other team in the league, sources told ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder.
Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik contacted all 31 other teams in an attempt to trade Freeman, sources said.
While the initial plan was to retain Freeman until closer to the trade deadline in case another team suffered an injury at quarterback and Freeman became marketable, the organization decided to separate from Freeman because too much damage was being inflicted on coach Greg Schiano and the situation with one player was undermining the focus of the entire team, according to sources.
"We made the decision today to release Josh Freeman. We appreciate his efforts over the past five seasons, but we felt this was in the best interests of both Josh and the Buccaneers," Dominik said in a statement announcing the move.
Freeman was in the final year of his rookie contract. The Buccaneers entered the season fully willing to pay Freeman as a franchise quarterback as long as he demonstrated he was worthy with his performance on the field, sources said.
Freeman, who was taken 17th overall by the Buccaneers in the 2009 draft, was benched in favor of rookie Mike Glennon prior to Tampa Bay's 13-10 loss to Arizona on Sunday. In 60 career games, Freeman has thrown for 13,534 yards, 80 touchdowns and 66 interceptions. He is the franchise's leader in career TD passes.
Last season, Freeman threw for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns. He had two touchdown passes and three interceptions this season before he was benched.
The NFL Players Association is investigating how Freeman's presence in Stage 1 of the league's substance-abuse program became public earlier this week. On Tuesday, Schiano was asked by reporters if he was the source of the information and answered "absolutely not."
In a statement released after the initial reports of his presence in the substance-abuse program Monday night, Freeman said he has a prescription for Adderall to treat ADHD but that last year he inadvertently took Ritalin, which triggered a positive test. As a result of the positive test, he submitted to frequent drug screenings and placement in Stage 1 of the program.
He said he has passed 46 league-administered drug tests, but Monday's disclosure could have undermined the Buccaneers' attempts to trade him.
Freeman was fined twice in the past month for conduct detrimental to the team, according to an SI.com report. The website reported he will appeal the fines.
A team captain the previous three seasons, Freeman was not elected as one this year. Schiano has denied reports that he rigged the voting to keep Freeman from being selected and later revealed the quarterback had overslept and missed the team's annual photo session.
Since his 10-6 season in 2010, Freeman is 11-23 (.324) as a starter. Among players with at least 20 starts over that span, only the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blaine Gabbert (.192) and the St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford (.317) have lower winning percentages, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Freeman was the third of three quarterbacks selected in the first round in 2009, following top overall pick Matthew Stafford by the Detroit Lions and Mark Sanchez (No. 5) by the New York Jets. Following Freeman's benching, only Stafford remains a starter.
Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson was Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach from 2008 through 2011.
"You know, I've always been a fan of Josh's," Olson said. "I have a lot of respect for him, as a person and a player, and it's unfortunate to me to watch what happened in Tampa ... really over the last couple of years."
ESPN's Ed Werder, Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen and Paul Gutierrez contributed to this report.