DT Rod Coleman displayed his talents at the 1998 Senior Bowl and became a very valuable fifth-round pick four months later
Like the fifth overall pick in the draft, an invitation to coach in the Senior Bowl came at the expense of an unexpectedly difficult 2004 season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Buc coaches would much rather be working on game plans for the NFC Championship Game right now, but they can't deny the value of mingling with 100 of the nation's best draft prospects for six days.
"I think it's a great way to spend a week," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who previously coached the game while with the Oakland Raiders following the 1998 season. "It will build camaraderie for us. And this is what we do: Coach. We think we have a very good coaching staff and hopefully we do a great job for the South Squad. And hopefully it helps us in the long run."
The Buccaneer organization will travel to Mobile, Alabama, the game's site, in force. The coaches will be joined by scouts, trainers, video professionals, equipment managers and public relations staffers.
And Buccaneers.com will be on the scene, as well.
A reporting team for the Bucs' official web site will be on hand for the entire week, providing photos, quotes and details of the action. As Tampa Bay's coaches become acquainted with the talented players on the Senior Bowl's South squad, so will you.
That could give Buccaneers.com readers a sneak peek at some players who end up in red and pewter before the spring is up, particularly those young men who are not necessarily household names yet. Gruden certainly believes a portion of the Bucs' 2004 draft class could come from the Senior Bowl rosters.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all," he said. "As a matter of fact, the last time we coached this game [with the Raiders], we drafted [linebacker] Eric Barton, who just had a great year for the Jets, and [defensive tackle] Rod Coleman. And we got both of those guys in the fifth round. So you learn not only about the top-flight players but the guys who are going to be in the middle-to-late rounds."
The Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers, who coached the North and South squads, respectively, in last year's Senior Bowl, provide good examples of how much valuable information can be gained off both rosters.
The Chargers ended up with South squad quarterback Philip Rivers after the famed Eli Manning trade, but got much of their draft off the North team. San Diego picked center Nick Hardwick in the third round and guard Shane Olivea in the seventh round, two North squadders, and both ended up starting as rookies for the 12-4 Chargers. San Diego also spent a third-round pick on kicker Nate Kaeding, another player from the North side, and Kaeding won the team's placekicking job.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, liked a pair of defensive backs on the opposing South team, selecting cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and safety Madieu Williams with a pair of second-round picks. Madieu and Ratliff started 18 games between them in 2004.
Obviously, one can draft players who participated in the Senior Bowl without coaching the game. The Bucs' 2004 class included Senior Bowl alum safety Will Allen and guard Jeb Terry. But the decision to spend a draft pick on a player is based on a wide variety of evidence, from 40-yard-dash times to one-on-one interview bearing, and a week of coaching at the Senior Bowl can only increase the weight of one's information.
"You learn how much they like football and how they prepare," said Gruden. "You get a good coach-player relationship established in a short period of time, and sometimes it's an edge for you."
The timing of the opportunity is perfect for the Buccaneers, which is why they jumped at the opportunity after two teams ahead of them in line passed due to coaching-staff changes. Tampa Bay is currently stocked with 11 picks in the upcoming draft, by far their largest total in years. An admitted need for young, fresh talent makes this draft a critical juncture in team history, and the Bucs are determined to make the most of it.
In fact, Gruden wouldn't be surprised if the number is higher than 11 by late April.
"Hopefully we'll have more draft picks than that," he said. "You never know, knowing [General Manager] Bruce [Allen]. He's done a great job accumulating picks. It's been a long time since we've had a first and second-rounder, let alone 11 picks. It's critical that some of these guys come in here and become the lifeblood of where we're going."