Kentucky QB Andre Woodson, a possible first-round pick, is putting his talents on display at the 2008 Senior Bowl
Mobile, Alabama might not be the preferred destination for a weary NFL coach looking to get away for awhile in the offseason.
But that's precisely where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff, and most of the coaches and scouts from around the league, have been all week – and it hasn't been for a vacation.
As they do every year, these coaches have paid a visit to Mobile for the annual Senior Bowl game and the week of practices leading up to it. The contest features some of the best college football seniors arranged in squads representing the North and South and is coached by the staffs of two NFL teams. This year's game kicks off at 4 p.m. ET Saturday and will be televised on the NFL Network.
Dennis Hickey, the director of college scouting for the Bucs, said the game and the practices leading up to it are a great chance to evaluate some of the 2008 NFL Draft prospects.
"It's a tremendous tool," Hickey said. "In one spot, you've got 90 of the top players in the country. You're able to talk to them, interview them, and see how they handle practice and higher competition."
The coaching staffs for the game are determined by the NFL standings, with the teams at the bottom of each conference being given the first chance to coach a Senior Bowl squad. Coaching changes sometimes prevent teams from accepting the invitation, but this year the North team has been coached by the Oakland Raiders' staff, while the San Francisco 49ers' group has guided the South squad.
The Bucs were actually in that position two of the previous three seasons, coaching in the 2005 and 2007 Senior Bowls. Even though Tampa Bay's brain trust views coaching a Senior Bowl squad as a great opportunity, Hickey would rather not see the team in that position.
"I'd prefer not to be on [the coaching staff], because it means you had a winning season and maybe were in the playoffs…but it is great when you're coaching it," Hickey said. "You're in the meeting rooms and you're teaching your offense, although scaled down a bit, and seeing how guys interact with you, each other, and how they learn your offense and defense. You get to learn their reactions in a meal setting, with the trainers, etc. You have more access, and get to see guys actually doing the things they're going to have to do in your offense or defense."
Even though the Bucs' coaching staff wasn't afforded the inside access the Raiders and 49ers' staffs were given this year, the information that all NFL teams can gather at the Senior Bowl is invaluable. Hickey even said the Senior Bowl was preferable in some respects to the NFL Combine, simply because of the setting.
"[The Senior Bowl] is better because it's football, not running the 40 without changing directions," Hickey said. "You're catching balls, competing, tackling, blocking. It's football, so you get to see guys in that element. In that way it's much better, and you also have more access to the players for interviews and that sort of thing. It's definitely beneficial."
This year's game will feature the usual assortment of top-level collegiate talent, including quarterbacks John David Booty of USC, Chad Henne of Michigan, Hawaii's Colt Brennan and Kentucky's Andre Woodson. In addition, running back Jacob Hester from the national champion LSU Tigers will be suiting up.
After most of the Bucs staff spent the week in Mobile evaluating the players in attendance, Dickey said that this year's draft class was no different than most – talented across the board.
"There's always value in all different levels," Hickey said. "It's kind of cyclical thing. There are good players at all positions to be had; you just have to find the right value at the right spot and find a person who will fit what you're going to ask out of them."
Without divulging too much of the Bucs' strategy for the upcoming draft, Hickey did give a glimpse into how the staff approaches the exhaustive process of evaluating so many potential picks.
"We go into all these things, we want to get the player right first," Hickey said. "We're evaluating all these players in the same light. We want to get the player right regardless of position. You never know what's going to happen on draft day, so we try to be prepared for every player as if we were definitely going to draft them. We try to find out everything about them and fully evaluate them."
Sounds like a great way to spend a week in Alabama, doesn't it?