During the run-up to the annual NFL Draft, each team in the league is allowed to bring up to 30 prospects to their own headquarters for a visit. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took full advantage of this option, and among their visitors was a quartet of quarterbacks that could all go as high as the first round next Thursday: Derek Carr, Teddy Bridgewater, Jimmy Garoppolo and Johnny Manziel.
Players like Manziel and Bridgewater had their every movement tracked during the three weeks in which this phase of draft prep took place, but with up to 960 such visits taking place across the country, a vast many more went unreported. That's partly because many of those visiting prospects were far from household names. In fact, one of the more valuable ways in which a team can use its allotted visits is to get in a little recruiting with players that could be on the bubble between hearing their names called during the draft's seven rounds and being signed immediately afterward as free agents.
That latter process, which begins the second the final pick is announced with a flurry of phone calls from 32 draft rooms to hundreds of undrafted players, is referred to by some as "the second draft." Every year, teams find players during these few hours that, months later, wind up on the active roster, and so this hurried bit of recruiting is taken very seriously by every club, including the Buccaneers.
"We'll put a big emphasis on it," said Jason Licht during a pre-draft press conference at One Buc Place. "We've already started that process of already recruiting some of these guys that we think might be undrafted and these guys are all told that you'll have just as much of a chance of making it as our draft picks. In this system [Head Coach] Lovie [Smith] loves undrafted players, there's a little bit of an underdog-type theme there that you always root for."
Smith leaned forward on the press conference table as soon as Licht uttered those words, but not to deny them.
"And we really do, we spend a lot of time on them," said Smith. "Right after the draft it's college recruiting, trying to convince the guys to come on board, and once they get here, first round or free agent, it really doesn't matter. My time as a head football coach I've had tryout guys that – we'll have a rookie minicamp where we'll bring in some tryout guys – I've had tryout guys that have come to that mini-camp and end up being a starter for us. Everyone will get an opportunity."
The post-draft recruitment period wasn't the only topic Smith and Licht discussed on Tuesday. Below is a full transcript of that press conference.
Jason Licht: "Thanks for coming. There's no better way to sum it up than: I'm fired up. First year GM, draft is the red letter day for all scouts, it's our Christmas. Sitting next to Lovie and making the decisions with Lovie, it's awesome. When we first got hired, we put our visions together and kind of mapped out the course and not just the type of players we wanted and positions we needed to upgrade, but how we wanted to do it and that was unifying the staffs, the coaching, the scouting and working together. Lovie's big on communication and that, so far, we feel has netted some good results and that continued through the draft prep and still continues now. I wish we could draft this Thursday, Lovie wants to take advantage of the extra days to reconvene with our scouts, our coaches and that's what we're going to do. I also wanted to take this time to thank our staff, our scouts. Like I said, this is their big day. These guys spend upwards of six months out of the year away from their families, their homes, their wives, their kids and not just the travel, the hopping planes and driving four or five hours a night, but also the reports, more importantly the reports and the evaluations. I really want to put a big thank you out to those guys because the guys we currently have on staff do a great job and they really help us make the decision."
(On how close the talent level is at the top of the draft board)
JL: "Yeah definitely, I'll bet you – Lovie and I talk about this all the time – if you took our top ten right now and compared it with all 31 other teams, I'll bet you you'll get 31 different variations of it. It's really interesting."
(On picking up extra picks in a deep draft)
JL: "Well it is deep and 98 underclassmen [declaring] help that this year. I think that's 25 more than last year. I think we were looking at our board and we have over 50 guys that we deem as draftable that are underclassmen, that's essentially adding almost two rounds; but that affects the top and that's definitely something that we would look into and we've already reached out to teams and if our player isn't there we would be open to conversations in moving back and picking up picks."
(On if there is any concern in moving outside of the top ten picks in the draft)
Lovie Smith: "It would make sense, but with what happened in free agency and what we know about our roster right now, just like those options as much as anything. It has been documented and we think if that's the case then there are a lot of good players a little bit further down in the draft. At that seventh spot though we feel that we're going to get a pretty good player there and how about moving up? What do you think about that?"
(On drafting need versus best player available)
JL: "What we've said all along is we want the best player and the needs – I've said this before, but our team needs in September are going to be totally different than what are team needs are right now. The player you take you may not think we have a need for him now, but a lot of times you're thankful you have them when the season starts."
(On if there is a priority in drafting a quarterback)
LS: "Well I don't know how much of a priority it is. You want to keep that option open of course, there are some good quarterbacks in this draft I think that's been documented. But just looking at our roster right now – and we had a good chance to see our guys in action last week – Josh McCown is a good quarterback that could lead us to a lot of victories, Mike Glennon is an excellent quarterback also and [quarterback] Mike Kafka is good. We feel pretty good about our guys that we have right now even though there are a lot of good options at the QB position."
(On if the depth of this draft makes it easier to move down)
JL: "Not necessarily, it may make it more difficult. It depends; it's the flavor that they want. If a team loves a player around where we're at, they don't want to miss out on him; the bottom line is that we have to find a trade partner. You can look at it both ways and we were actually just talking about that in my office. We really don't know, I don't think any team knows how this is going to fall until draft day. You can try to speculate and you can try and guess but there's going to be some surprises."
(On the role computer analytics have played in setting the draft board)
JL: "Early on in my career, I was from the old school where it was you just watch the tape and that's what it is and that is the bare bones. You have to evaluate the player and what he does on tape, but we both feel that analytics help us, guide us and give us some – raise some questions that help us evaluate the player a little bit better. You might be looking at particular position and the analytics don't support taking him at that position and it makes you just – you want to make sure that you're making the right decision. It's a great guide, we use it all the time."
(On drafting a guard)
JL: "You want a player that's first of all smart, because you have a lot of bullets flying around you when you go inside. You want a player that's strong, that can bend and all those types of things. Some players are tackles only, some tackles are left tackles only. It's a skill set that you look for that you can tell by the movement and the way that he plays and then also the big important part of it is interviewing the kid and knowing his coaches and knowing how intelligent he is to make the switch."
(On how much time they have put in to evaluating the players)
LS: "Hours, you know that would be hard to say. Coaches start bragging on how many hours they spend looking at video, I'll just say Blair, Jason's wife, and Mary Anne, my wife, neither one is in town, so we've gotten to know One Buc Place fairly well. We have spent a lot of time evaluating just not certain positions, just about all of the positions. Characteristic-wise just as a whole, there's a type of guy that we want to bring into the building. We want to be a fast football team as much as anything, so we like athletic ability and a little bit of quickness and speed at every position, even the quarterback position. We just want good football players as much as anything, again we feel like we have quite a few and just want to add a couple more."
(On if their opinions have changed after the combine and pro days)
JL: "We try not to let the pro day really dictate where the player, whether he gets massaged up the board or not. Opinions have changed only if Lovie and I hadn't really had a chance to see a lot out of the player early, especially underclassmen, I think you make a lot of mistakes with underclassmen. The scouts haven't really done a full evaluation on them on the fall to give us a skeleton on the player, so we're all kind of starting from square one. I would say the pro days and combine haven't really changed, you tweak it here and there but no major moves, you've got to be careful with major moves."
(On if the interviews they've had with prospects has changed their views)
JL: "I'll interviews and the time that we've spent, extensive time with prospects whether we snuck out under the radar and did a workout, or had them in here in the building. I would say a little bit because like Lovie said we want the right type of person here and that goes a long way."
(On Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel)
JL: "Very impressive interview. We had a great day with him. Lovie and him both have Texas roots. We enjoyed every minute that he was here. Sharp guy."
(On what makes Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans stand out)
JL: "Sammy for his explosive speed and the way he runs with anger when he has the ball in his hands. He can make plays all over the field with his speed and quickness. He's got great hands too. Mike Evans great ball skills, size, he can run too, it's deceptive but just both of them are unique in their own way."
(On how manipulation goes on between teams leading up to the draft)
JL: "I think we just kind of have to ignore them because I don't know if people are using if it's reverse psychology, if they really do like the player or they don't. You just have to filter it out to be honest with you."
(On the moves of the offseason and how much the draft day will define how he is perceived)
JL: "I don't look at it that way. Like we've said, our staff, we work in unison, we work together. I actually think when a draft pick or an undrafted free agent exceeds their expectations and you feel like you've hit, I think sometimes the general manager or the head coach get falsely glorified for it when it's really the scouts have done, in a lot of cases, most of the work on it. We're making the decision, we're doing our work, I will get judged that's just the way it is but you can't look at it that way, you just have to look forward."
(On the draft being the key to the franchise)
JL: "Absolutely and it will. I'm sure you guys will write about whether these players are good or not for the next couple of years, it's just the way it is. I'm expecting it."
(On how much can a failed draft hurt a team's future)
LS: "Is it hard to make up and is it a hindrance? That's probably one of the reasons why Jason and I are both here right now, so that's just a part of it. If you have to have one guy remaining you would like for it to be [defensive tackle] Gerald [McCoy] of course, that is a part of it. Of course our plan, it's for us to do better on the draft and make that our foundation, I feel like we'll do that. Again I think it started with free agency and we're going to keep that momentum going through this draft."
(On he decided on which workouts he would attend)
LS: "Well first off if it was close, [Central Florida quarterback] Blake Bortles was down here. Priority for me and for us, it had to be our roster first, so the evaluation of it, free agency and then when our players got here, it's about getting our hands them. I haven't gone to as many as I will next year, but the priority had to be here. But nowadays with what you can see video-wise, you don't have to be there to get a great shot of the players. I feel like I know this draft as well as any draft I've ever been a part of, without going out to as many as I have in the past."
(On if the year off helped familiarize himself with this draft class)
LS: "I think, and I said this earlier, I highly recommend taking a year off. Letting somebody else pay you and then taking a year off. To be able to do that I think it did help, to be able to watch a lot more of just college football then I would have been in the past."
(On if the team is hoping for their top draft pick to be an immediate contributor)
LS: "That's a tricky question, on how I answer it. I guess I could be saying a little bit on how I answer it. As a general rule, the seventh pick, you want them to play fairly soon. There's no rebuilding around here. We're trying to put together a roster to be able to win as quick as we possibly can. The seventh pick normally plays fairly soon."
(On the ideal mental make-up of a first-round pick)
JL: "There's a high bust rate up there, especially where we're picking, so you want somebody that can handle the expectations that are placed on them from us, from you guys, from our fans. He's got to be a mentally strong player in addition to being a great player – he's got to be very mentally strong. That's probably the number one thing we look for."
(On if Manziel's celebrity would influence the team's decision)
JL: "In terms of the fan interest and selling tickets, we are lucky to work for the Glazers, who have hired us both to make the best football decision. We would be basing the decision on whether or not he makes us a better football team. I think, as a Heisman Trophy winner, a lot of the situations he's been in, really you can't blame him for. If I were young and had a Heisman Trophy on my mantle I would probably be in a lot more trouble than the next guy. I think we are just going to make the best football decision, what's best for our football team. I think Lovie and his staff can handle the rest of it."
(On Licht's role in the selection of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady)
JL: "I can't remember – I was an area scout, I think I scouted the Southeast, so I didn't have a lot of exposure to him during the fall, but we watched him a lot as a group. I'll say this: we had some people there that were big fans of his the whole time. It's not that we said we wanted to draft a tall lanky quarterback that ran a 5.3 40, those weren't the traits we were looking for. We were looking for the mental make-up. I know [Patriots Head] Coach [Bill] Belichick did a lot of homework on him, along with our staff on his mental make-up. Watching the tape, he was the guy that would go in and lead them back and lead them back to victory. That's why he is what he is."
(On his first season being in the war room and what he has learned from his experiences there)
JL: "2001 was my first year in the war room. I learned from a lot of different people and I guess the number one thing – I was thinking about this last night – just be patient. Be patient and don't get anxious and don't stress. Let it come to you. Lovie tells me that every day."
(On if the team is going to have to draft for need based off of the current roster)
LS: "I think, if we had to play tomorrow, we could line up a pretty competitive team at every positions, but you're always trying to upgrade. There are some positions we would like to upgrade, but I'll be saying that every year, and that's the way you should always be thinking. I like – again, going back to the mini-camp – having a chance to see these guys, last week, we're close."
(On coming to a consensus Top 10 draft board)
JL: "No, not really."
LS: "You guys should all be able to come inside, back to the war room again. We have this picture about the war room and what all goes on in there and everything happening that day. There's so much preparation that goes on before. Those decisions are made well in advance. So much work goes into it, like Jason and I, we've watched players and gone back over them again and again and again, with the staff, with the scouts. So, as far as what we're going to do, it's a little bit easier than you might think."
(On if the draft board is set)
LS: "I figured that might be the next question I got. No, it's not. You keep evaluating right up until [you pick], going back over it again and again and again, just like anything else."
(On if there is a specific question Smith asks draft prospects)
LS: "Yes, there is one question that I ask most of the guys. Since 2004, I've had three players to get it right. I figure you will ask 'What is that question?' It's between the players and I; I can't tell you that. But, there is one."
JL: "I'm glad you said that."
LS: "Besides that, there are some things you want to ask. As much as anything, it's just a conversation, a one-on-one. A lot of questions you want to get answered. Everybody comes into the room as we talk with them, with the history. You want to get answers for yourself. Guys normally tell you the truth when you look at a man in the eye and ask him questions."
(On what Smith hopes to gain from asking his question)
LS: "Information. [laughs] How's that? I'll take the easy way."
(On what Licht has learned about Smith's scouting)
JL: "That when we watch offensive lineman he's like this [leans back], but when we watch defensive players he's like this [leans forward]."
JL: "[I'm] right in the middle."
(On if the situation with the Los Angeles Clippers is troubling)
LS: "Of course, we know the answer to that. Of course it's troubling. People in a certain position – if it's all true, believe me I listen to a little bit of news, but most of it is 'draft, draft,' but I know a little bit about what's going on. It is troubling and again, everyone has someone that's over them. As an owner, they have a commissioner that I'm sure is going to come down and do the right thing for the good of the league."
(On prospects from Chicago that did not pan out under Smith)
LS: "We look at that. We always go back to all of our draft picks. Even for me, guys that I thought would be a certain way in the league and how they turned out. A common trait that stopped them? I can't say that necessarily. I would like to think we aren't bringing anybody in [who is not dedicated to football]. I thinks as much as anything on how – injuries, you don't expect anything like that. If you just do you your homework as much as you can and you keep getting as many opinions as you can, normally you have a good idea."
(On watching Texas A&M tape and evaluating their three top prospects)
JL: "They're easy to evaluate because we've seen a lot of tape on them. I wouldn't say we've seen more tape on them than anybody else, but when you're going through all the receivers, you happen to watch the linemen that are on their team and in their case we've seen [tackle Jake Matthews] a little bit more. Just as exposed to him a little bit more. It's an interesting situation there where they've got three very good players. They've got some coming up the pipeline too."
(On what Licht expects making his first selection as GM will be like)
JL: "This will be my first year. I had more of that going on early in the process, when we were setting the board, just making sure it's right and then going over it again and again and again with Lovie. We're going to do it again tonight and leading up until early next week. On draft day, it will be simple. Lovie's got his own grading scale: where we have numbers and things, Lovie's just 'I like him,' or 'I love him,' so he makes it a little easier on me."