Florida State's Michael Boulware, who will play in the 2004 Senior Bowl for the South squad, is part of a deep group of draft-eligible linebackers
Each of the last two years, the college player who would become the first overall pick in the National Football League draft in April competed at the Senior Bowl in January.
Having David Carr on hand in 2002 and Carson Palmer in the mix in 2003 was great publicity for the Senior Bowl, considered the most important bowl of the year by NFL scouts, but it wasn't exactly a big draw for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In fact, as Ruston Webster remembers it, most of the big-name workouts of the last two years have been little more than passing entertainment for his group from Tampa.
The Buccaneers lacked first and second round picks in 2002 and didn't pick until the final spot in the second round in 2003. Thus, the Carrs and Palmers – not to mention the Dwight Freeneys, Jeremy Shockeys and Roy Williamses – were going to be long gone before the Bucs got on the board. This year, for the first time since 2001 and just the second time in the last five years, Tampa Bay owns a first-round pick.
In fact, at 15th overall, the Bucs are as high in the draft as they've been since 1999. That makes the Senior Bowl more fun – and more important – for Webster and the rest of the Bucs' representatives in Mobile, Alabama.
"There have been some guys I couldn't look at the past (two) years, or I looked at but it was just for fun," said Webster with a laugh. "This year, yeah, it's changed. I get to look at some of the higher guys, obviously."
And which of the big-name players is he most interested to see in action during this week of full-scale practices leading up to Saturday's game? Don't expect a direct answer to that question; the Bucs are as guarded about their draft strategies as any team. Webster did say, however, that a December meeting with the team's entire scouting staff has helped narrow down the Bucs' hot list quite a bit.
"I try to concentrate on those guys, and maybe if there's a school or two I didn't get to during the year, make sure that I get a look at those guys," he said. "We really haven't narrowed it to a handful yet, but you kind of have guys in the back of your mind who you would love to be there at 15. Like I said, in the back of my mind I've got an idea of guys who I think are Bucs and kind of fit the mold. Jon (Gruden) will have a say in that, what guys he thinks fits with the offense and obviously Bruce (Allen). I think we all have our favorites and we'll hash it out and see who comes out as a Buccaneer."
In terms of where the talent pool for the draft – and not necessarily the Bucs' interest – runs deepest, Webster says the quarterback, receiver and linebacker groups are loaded, which makes those same positions strong at this year's Senior Bowl. Of course, receiver is often a deep position, and it has been helped this season by an influx of underclassmen. The depth at linebacker, by contrast, is a refreshing change.
"Those are probably the three strongest positions," said Webster. "And linebacker is a position that, over the last two or three years, really hasn't been that strong, but this year it's a good group."
There are 11 linebackers playing in the Senior Bowl this year, including such highly-regarded prospects as Notre Dame's Courtney Watson, Georgia Tech's Daryl Smith and Florida State's Michael Boulware.
Of course, the joy in finally holding a first-round pick won't blind the Bucs to the fact that they also have choices in rounds three through seven, picks that can be essential in building a team's depth. Not every player at the Senior Bowl is a big name like Palmer or Carson, but the majority of them have an excellent shot at being drafted come April. And when some of the standouts from smaller schools join in the Senior Bowl action, it is an especially valuable week of evaluation for Webster and his peers.
"It's a crapshoot in the first round," said Webster. "And as you get deeper into it, your chances for success are less. I think our guys do a good job of digging and finding late guys. We've actually had some success with some of those later picks, guys that will be good players for us.
"It's always interesting to see these small-school players who have some talent and how they compete when they step up in a level of competition. You've got some small-college corners here this year, three of them, and so I really wanted to concentrate on those guys and see how they play against the better competition."
All Senior Bowl practices are full-speed and full-pads, and thus are a scout's dream. Evaluators take a special interest in the one-on-one sessions, and such small school defensive backs as Tusculum College's Ricardo Colclough, McNeese State's Keith Smith and Montana State's Joey Thomas can use those drills to prove they can hold their own against the nation's most talented receivers.
"The one thing about this game is it's the cream of the crop in terms of the bowl games," said Webster. "There are a lot of good players here. It's been fun to watch them and get to meet them a little bit, because that's something we really don't get to do during the course of the season."