The NFL playoffs are still in the divisional phase, meaning its several weeks until the 2011 season is officially concluded. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, not in the postseason dance, are buys with a task they usually don't have to worry about in January, finding a new head coach.
Clearly, while the calendar has now flipped to 2012, the NFL and the Buccaneers are still in the process of transitioning to the new year.
However, there are some aspects of football's annual timetable of events that move forward at all times, no matter what is going on with the playoffs or the coaching carousel. The most obvious and significant of those is draft preparations; NFL scouts work nearly year-round on a schedule that is not impacted by what takes place on football Sundays. And in January, that schedule means college all-star games.
On the very near horizon are two significant scouting opportunities for scouts of the Buccaneers and the NFL's other 31 teams: the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. Many of the players who suit up for those final two chances to show off their skills in a game setting will hear their names called on draft weekend in April, some as early as the first round. That makes St. Petersburg, Florida and Mobile, Alabama to very important places for NFL personnel professionals in the next two weeks.
The East-West Shrine Game comes first, and for scouts of the Buccaneers, it has very helpfully migrated to their own backyard in recent years. This game, which most notably raises funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children, will be held in the Bay area for the first time this year, as it has found a new home in 2012 at Tropicana Field in St. Pete. For the past two years, it had been conducted in Orlando, following a four-year run in Texas (San Antonio and Houston) and more than 80 years in California. The first Shrine Game was played in San Francisco in 1925.
The Senior Bowl will take place exactly one week later, in its long-standing home at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. After one year in Jacksonville in 1950, the all-star game moved to Alabama, where it has been staged ever since.
In both cases, the games are week-long commitments for scouts, scouting directors, general managers and other player personnel professionals. That's because the midweek practices are considered as important, if not more so, than the games themselves. Because both games are run by coaching staffs with NFL ties – in the case of the Senior Bowl, each squad is led by a full coaching staff from one of the NFL's teams – scouts get a chance to see these prospects put into professional-type systems and settings. Then, of course, there is the matter of the all-star rosters, a chance for the nation's top talent to prove itself against top talent.
The Buccaneers, of course, will have a full crew of talent evaluators on hand for both weeks of action, beginning on Monday in St. Pete. While their draft boards are already well-developed, the information that comes from the all-star games, as well as the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, helps give it added definition as the draft approaches. And not all of that critical information comes from what happens on the playing fields. One-on-one player interviews, which are conducted en masse at the two all-star games and the Combine, might be the single most important aspect of these events when it comes to whittling down exactly which players a team plans to target.
There are no shortage of examples of players the Buccaneers have scouted at the two all-star games and later gone on to acquire, either through the draft or in waiver-wire moves down the line. The two most well-known examples for Tampa Bay from the previous decade came from the years its coaching staff was chosen to lead one of the teams, in 2005 and 2007. In 2005, the Bucs got to know Auburn running back Cadillac Williams, even though Williams barely participated in practice or the game, and went on to take him fifth overall in the draft that spring. In 2007, Tampa Bay coaches went through with a plan to evaluate Syracuse cornerback Tanard Jackson at safety, and liked the results so much they later stole Jackson in the fourth round.
Even when the Bucs aren't directly coaching the all-star players, they are still finding plenty of talent to jump on in April, or later in the fall when the wire heats up. Just last year, Tampa Bay devoted three of its eight draft picks to players it evaluated at the Senior Bowl: third-round linebacker Mason Foster of Washington, fourth-round tight end Luke Stocker of Tennessee and fifth-round safety Ahmad Black of Florida. And when dependable long-snapper Andrew Economos went down in the offseason with an Achilles tendon injury, they turned to Senior Bowl participant Christian Yount to ably handle the job for the first half of the season.
The recent Shrine Game that has been most productive for Buccaneer scouts was the one conducted in Houston's Reliant Stadium in 2009. There, the Bucs got a close-up look at Oregon State wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, Texas defensive tackle Roy Miller, Texas A&M defensive end Michael Bennett and Oregon defensive end Nick Reed.
Tampa Bay took Miller in the third round and Stroughter in the seventh in the 2009 draft, and both have become strong contributors for the team. Bennett went to Seattle as an undrafted free agent but it wasn't long before he ended up in Tampa, where he has emerged as a very solid member of the team's defensive line rotation. The Bucs just added Reed towards the end of the 2011 season as a free agent but will now get the 2012 offseason to take a closer look.
And, given that Tampa Bay is slated to pick fifth in the 2012 NFL Draft, this year's all-star games might be even more important, particularly in evaluating the top prospects that choose to attend. Last spring, 12 of the 32 players who were drafted in the first round had participated in that year's Senior Bowl, including those who went second (LB Von Miller), eighth (QB Jake Locker), 12th (QB Christian Ponder), 16th (DE Ryan Kerrigan) and 17th (T Nate Solder) overall.
The NFL is moving swiftly towards the conclusion of its 2011 season. For those who spend their time preparing for the next draft, 2012 is already well underway. Over the next two weeks, most of the action will be in St. Petersburg and Mobile, and the Buccaneers will be there.