Photos of the 2017 NFL Combine participants.
The NFL Scouting Combine will kick off on Tuesday and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have several dozen members of their football staff on hand in Indianapolis to take advantage of the week of in-depth player analysis.
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League representatives have been convening for this joint draft scouting opportunity since the early '80s, and they've been heading to Indy since 1987. These days, 330 NFL prospects are invited to the annual event, and media members attend in even greater numbers. It's become quite a show.
But even before the Combine became one of the NFL's high-profile events it was always good for generating news, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and – more often than not – hyperbole. Sometimes those stories have involved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here are five of them.
1. Workout Warrior Helps Bucs Land Hall of Famer
The term "workout warrior" was coined to describe Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula, who took the Combine by storm in 1995…as planned.
After a relatively underwhelming career at BC, Mamula declared for the draft as a junior-eligible and then turned to trainer Mike Boyle to help him prepare for the various skills drills at the Combine. Boyle had previously helped raise the draft stock of several other players, including defensive tackle Eric Swann, who didn't play in college but nonetheless went from the semi-professional Bay State Titans to the sixth pick in the 1991 draft. The results in 1995 were dramatic, as Mamula dominated every drill and suddenly found himself as a hot first-round prospect.
Mamula's pre-Combine preparation – which has now become the norm – paid off as he was selected seventh overall by the Philadelphia Eagles. While the "workout warrior" label was considered largely pejorative for years, partially on the misguided notion that Mamula was a complete bust, he was able to fashion a decent five-year career with the Eagles, recording 31.5 sacks.
So why is this a Buccaneers Combine story? The key is what happened after the Mamula pick. The Eagles could have been a landing spots for Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who might have been in the running for the first overall pick before some leaked pre-draft reports hurt his stock. Tampa Bay actually owned that seventh-overall selection before trading it to Philadelphia and moving down to #12. The Eagles passed in favor of Mamula and the Buccaneers let Sapp fall to them, ending up with a Hall of Famer as well as two extra picks in the second round (the Bucs gave a third-round pick back in the deal). Tampa Bay later used one of those acquired picks to package with another second-rounder and move back up into the first round, where it selected a second future Hall of Famer in linebacker Derrick Brooks at #28.
2. Bucs Flip Out of Number Three
The Buccaneers went to the playoffs in 2005 and 2007 but had a rough 2006 in between, dipping to 4-12. That tied Cleveland for the third worst record in the league, which meant a tiebreaker would have to be applied to see which club would pick third in the first round and which would pick fourth. The NFL only uses one method to break draft-order ties: strength of schedule, or the combined winning percentage of a team's full list of opponents the previous year. As happens relatively infrequently, the Buccaneers and Browns had the exact same SOS figure, which sent it to the second tie-breaking method, a coin flip.
The coin flip took place at the 2007 NFL Scouting Combine, a few months before the draft. General Manager Bruce Allen represented the Buccaneers and was actually the one who got to make the call. He chose heads; tails showed on top. Thus, Cleveland got to pick third and the Bucs fourth, though the two teams would alternate those spots in subsequent rounds.
In the end, it might not have mattered much. Oakland did as expected and took LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell first overall. The Combine coin flip seemed to make it less likely that the Bucs could get their hands on prized receiver Calvin Johnson, but that became moot when the Lions selected the Georgia Tech star second overall. Both Cleveland and Tampa Bay then passed on Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson. The Browns made an outstanding choice, it is now clear, in Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas, but chances are that wasn't the Buccaneers' top target anyway. Tampa Bay had spent both its first and second-round picks on offensive linemen the year before.
Instead, Tampa Bay took Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams. Adams showed some promise in his first two years with a total of 12.5 sacks but was ultimately traded to Chicago in 2009 and, tragically, passed away from an undetected heart ailment after finishing that first year with the Bears.
3. D3 Prospect Makes Believers Out of the Buccaneers
The 2015 Scouting Combine was the Buccaneers' chance to watch the top two quarterback prospects, Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, working out on the same field at the same time. Tampa Bay had the first-overall pick in the upcoming draft and it was no secret they were targeting a potential franchise passer. The Buccaneers would eventually settle on Winston, who would become the first player in NFL history to throw for over 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.
At one point during the week in Indianapolis, General Manager Jason Licht sent this text to Buccaneers Co-Chairmen Bryan and Joel Glazer: "I just watched my favorite player."
Jameis Winston, right?
Not in this case. Licht sent that text not during the quarterbacks' day on the field but the previous afternoon, when the offensive linemen were taking their turn in the spotlight. And there were actually two more words that completed that text: "I just watched my favorite player, Ali Marpet."
Marpet was an intriguing prospect out of a Division III program, Hobart. He had first come to the attention of area scout Andre Forde, who had recommended the Buccaneers take a closer look. They did so at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama in January and had indeed liked what they witnessed.
"So the first time I saw him was at the Senior Bowl, and I was extremely impressed," Licht later said. "He didn't just hold his own, he was impressive doing it. He looked very good. He looked like he came from a football factory. I'm saying to myself: 'He's big, he's athletic, he's smart, he's tough. What's not to like?' The only knock you put on him was that he played Division III.
Photos from G Ali Marpet's 2016 campaign.
"You still had reservations – was he just a one-week wonder?"
So the Combine was a big moment for the Buccaneers and their burgeoning love affair with Marpet. He did not disappoint, either on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium nor later in private interviews.
"He just blew it out," said Licht. "He had a great workout. You don't want to put everything into one workout, but it was all starting to add up. The Senior Bowl practices versus top competition. Then he goes to the Combine and you find out he's a great kid, perfect. He reminded me of the offensive linemen who have been so successful with the Patriots – Logan Mankins when he was coming out, Joe Andruzzi, Stephen Neal – all these guys who were successful in New England. He had that kind of presence about him and that mindset, that toughness, that intelligence."
The Buccaneers were sold, enough so that they traded up into the bottom of the second round to make sure they didn't miss out on Marpet. So far, the returns have been excellent. Despite making that rather dramatic transition from Division III to the NFL, Marpet was a Day One starter at right guard and after two seasons he looks like a future Pro Bowler on the Bucs' offensive line.
4. Small School Receivers Fail to Pan Out
Not every foray into the lower levels of college football has worked out for the Buccaneers as well as the Marpet pick. In two cases during the 2000s, the team took a chance on smaller-school wideouts and came up empty, and the Combine played a part in both cases.
The 2008 NFL Draft was an unusual one in that the first one came and went without a single receiver being selected. That year's class of wideouts was considered relatively deep at the middle tier, without any real first-round standouts. As it turned out, a whopping 10 receivers would come off the board in Round Two, with the Buccaneers picking the last of those, Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson.
In the long run, Jordy Nelson (#36 to Green Bay) and DeSean Jackson (#49 to Philadelphia) have been the best finds among those 10. A few, such as Malcolm Kelly (#51 to Washington) and Limas Sweed (#53 to Pittsburgh) failed to pan out. Jackson, however, proved to be the biggest bust, never catching a single pass in the NFL and lasting just one year in Tampa. The Bucs thought he could make an immediate impact as a return man, but he lost that job at midseason to eventual Pro Bowler Clifton Smith.
Jackson's work at the Combine most likely helped convince the Buccaneers he could make the jump from Appalachian State to productive NFL player. Specifically, Jackson led all receivers that year with a 4.27-second time in the 40-yard dash. In his case, speed was not enough on the next level.
Three years earlier, the Buccaneers had used a fifth-round pick on Pearl River Community College wide receiver Larry Brackins, who had been the first junior college player ever invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Brackins was big (6-4, 205) and he had looked like a man among boys at Pearl River. The funny thing is, Brackins did not light it up in Indianapolis. His 40 time was a disappointing 4.65 and the only category in which he rated as above average among that class of receivers was something everyone already knew, his height. Brackins fared poorly in the broad jump and the shuttle run, as well.
The Buccaneers bit anyway and ended up with a wasted pick. Brackins didn't make the team and never surfaced in the NFL.
5. Number 40 Nails the 40
The 1996 season was Tony Dungy's first at the Buccaneers' helm, and it was no surprise that he and General Manager Rich McKay spent both of the team's first-round picks on defensive players that year. The Bucs were rumored to be interested in Purdue fullback Mike Alstott but instead went with Cal defensive end Regan Upshaw at #12 and North Carolina defensive tackle Marcus Jones at #22.
Tampa Bay's interest in Alstott was real, however. Fullbacks essentially never get drafted in the first round, but the Purdue product was a tailback trapped in a fullback's body, one with amazing balance, power and will. The Buccaneers eagerly snapped him up five picks into the second round. Alstott went on to make six Pro Bowls, span a generation of diehard A-Train fans in the Bay area and have his name emblazoned on Raymond James Stadium as part of the team's Ring of Honor. He is Tampa Bay's all-time leader in touchdowns by a wide margin and is also the franchise's second-leading rusher.
NFL scouts liked almost everything they saw on Alstott's tape from Purdue. The one facet of his game that remained a question mark in their reports was his raw speed. Alstott knew this and, long before Mamula's example led to a cottage industry of preparing prospects for the Combine, he started making two trips a week to a training center called Acceleration in (coincidentally) Indianapolis. This went on for more than two months. Each time he would drive an hour to the facility, work out, stay in a motel next door, work out again the next morning and then drive an hour back to campus to get to his classes on time.
"It was a lot of treadmill work and a lot of explosive movements to prepare for the 40," he said years later. "That's all anybody talked about – 40, 40, 40, 40, 40. So that's what I concentrated on."
When Alstott finally went back Indy for the actual Combine, he nailed that 40-yard dash, putting up a time of 4.65 seconds. Given the rest of his skill set, that was more than good enough for the scouts…and, obviously, for the Buccaneers.