Head Coach Jon Gruden got to know RB Cadillac Williams very well at last year's Senior Bowl
At least this year, if the looming weather looks bad, the Buccaneers can get out early.
That's probably the only advantage to not coaching the Senior Bowl, as far as Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen is concerned.
Last January, Tampa Bay was invited to serve as the coaching staff for one of the two teams in the annual college all-star game in Mobile, Alabama, heading up the South roster while the Oakland Raiders staff led the North crew. The end of the week in Mobile was a bit irregular, as ice storms in Atlanta forced the Bucs' staff to hastily charter a bus ride home, but the days leading up to the game proved to be a gold mine of information.
The Bucs would have gladly accepted the coaching assignment again this winter, but they were never really in line for the call. Generally, the invitation goes out to the two NFL teams with the worst records in each conference the previous season, though teams may decline if they are in the midst of significant changes to their staffs. That, too, could have been an obstacle for the Bucs this year.
The San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans sent their coaching staffs to Mobile this year. Still, even without that advantage, the Buccaneers know firsthand that spending time at the Senior Bowl can be a valuable part of preparations for the draft and the post-draft free agency period.
"Our coaches are working on evaluating their players, the scouts are working on evaluating our players and then we will start the annual process of free agency and draft preparation," said Allen recently. "The bad news is our coaches don't get to coach in the Senior Bowl this year. We had called the Senior Bowl and said, 'Please save a spot for us.'"
Alas, the Bucs will have to settle for sending their coaches and scouts to Mobile to watch practices from the sidelines, along with the other 29 teams not specifically there to coach. Of course, that is still a useful way to spend a week; in fact, NFL teams generally consider the practices leading up to the game to be the most important part of the week in terms of player evaluation. The additional benefit to coaching the team last year was that the Bucs' staff also got to interact with the players for hours on end and get a feel for their work ethic and attitude toward football.
"I thought that was great for us last year," said Allen. "[It was great] not only for the players that we acquired from that game, but for knowledge of the players that came into the league last year. We feel we have a leg up on the competition when they become free agents in a few years. We don't get to do that this year, so we will just have to go there and scout."
The impact of last year's week in Mobile is no mystery. The Bucs used the fifth overall pick in the subsequent draft to select Auburn running back Cadillac Williams, with whom they fell in love with during the Senior Bowl. The Bucs had already coveted Williams off of his scouting tape, but they also came to appreciate his approach to the game during the week in Alabama. All Williams did was rush for 1,187 yards as a rookie and earn the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, despite being the third running back taken in the draft.
In fact, the South team coached by the Buccaneers last year included eight players who would be taken in the first round of the draft four months later: Williams, CB Carlos Rogers (ninth overall), DE DeMarcus Ware (11th), DE Marcus Spears (20th), WR Matt Jones (21st), QB Jason Campbell (25th), DT Mike Patterson (31st) and G Logan Mankins (32nd).
The Bucs ended up with two players from that team, Williams and Alabama defensive tackle Anthony Bryant, whom they snagged in the sixth round. Tampa Bay also raided the North team for three draft picks in 2005 – linebacker Barrett Ruud (second round), tight end Alex Smith (third) and guard Dan Buenning (fourth) – as well as undrafted free agent guard Jonathan Clinkscale.
The Senior Bowl is always a wealth of draft-ready talent, which is why it is the one can't-miss game on the post-season college all-star circuit. Last year's game MVP, Akron quarterback Charlie Frye, ended the 2005 season as the Cleveland Browns' starter. This year's roster will almost certainly have a strong impact on the NFL next fall.
The 2006 North squad, for instance, includes Virginia tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, a top-five draft prospect on most boards. Among the well-known standouts who will be Ferguson's teammates this week are Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler, Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway, Washington State running back Jerome Harrison, Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and Arizona State wide receiver Derek Hagan.
The South roster isn't lacking in star power, either. That team includes the star running back out of Memphis, DeAngelo Williams, as well as Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley, Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle, Georgia safety Greg Blue, Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans, Florida offensive lineman Mike Degory, Auburn offensive lineman Marcus McNeill and Miami offensive lineman Eric Winston.
San Francisco is in charge of that South group this year; Tennessee gets the North. The Buccaneers, unfortunately, will be spectators this time around. It should still be a productive week, however, for the Tampa Bay coaches and scouts who made the annual trek to Mobile.
(Buccaneers.com will provide further reports from the Senior Bowl later in the week.)