The Senior Bowl marks about the three-month mark before the NFL Draft, making it the start of the busiest time for club personnel staff. The game itself held this past Saturday, and the week of practices leading up to it, provides one of the first opportunities to get face time with the prospects these staffs have been evaluating for months or even years.
Last year at this time, Director of College Scouting Mike Biehl and his staff had their sights set on shoring up the defensive line as they ended up taking defensive tackle Vita Vea, who was still on the board as the Bucs went to make their first pick at no. 12 overall after trading back. There was a lot of emphasis on 'character guys,' which has become a calling card of sorts for General Manager Jason Licht as he's now filled the Bucs' locker room with not only talented players, but all-around good men.
That hasn't changed for 2019, but Director of College Scouting Mike Biehl did have another criteria the Bucs will be focusing on this year and it's pretty darn simple: get guys who love the game.
"I think the number one thing that we're trying to find is guys that love football," Biehl said, simply. "They love to play the game, they love to compete. They're coachable. Talent is one thing, but [we want to] get the right person, guys that really, truly love to play the game and just want to win."
Last year, Vea had enough tape at a top program to surround him with enough buzz without going to the 2018 Senior Bowl, but the later rounds of the Bucs draft would reveal a couple of players who seemingly helped their connection with Tampa Bay by participating. Cornerback M.J. Stewart, offensive lineman Alex Cappa and wide receiver Justin Watson were all among those Bucs' personnel staff interviewed in Mobile. Raise your hand if you knew who any of those guys were in the weeks leading up to the draft and I have a cookie for you – especially in the case of Cappa and Watson, who came from smaller programs. The Senior Bowl is the chance for NFL staffs to evaluate smaller school prospects against big-time talent and it's totally unique in that way.
"You have some small school guys here that have never really played against the best competition," said Biehl. "And they get to come here and kind of show their talents, see how they compete, and see if they fold or if they rise to the occasion."
The other component to the week is the interview process, which is where that love for football can really come through. Scouts have already talked to a prospect's teachers, coaches, academic advisers before they are even out of college. Biehl says even the players themselves have no idea the amount of information NFL scouts truly have on them – but it's all secondhand. Sitting down with them during the week of the Senior Bowl can help confirm or deny those accounts and allow scouts to get a little more in-depth with the player because of some more unorthodox questions.
"We have some stuff that we do to kind of get them to think outside the box a little bit, but it's just simple questions, some brain teasers and things like that," Biehl said.
View photos of the 2019 Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Pictures by AP Images.
While much of that process remains the same each time, there is a key difference this year for Bucs' personnel in that the coaching staff is now all new. It means taking into account the preferences of a group of coaches that personnel staffers haven't had a whole lot of time with. Biehl, however doesn't foresee any issues with the transition or how they'll work together because of the core philosophy of new Head Coach Bruce Arians.
"I think any time you have change on the coaching side, you're going to be dealing with tweaks and different schemes and things like that," Biehl said. "They'll be involved in it, just like it has been in the past. Meeting with Bruce [Arians] the times we have, he's very emphatic in saying that we are all one. It's not going to be coaches and personnel, it's going to be all as one. We're all pulling the same direction and we're just trying to find the best players that help the Bucs win."
Biehl alluded to what some of those inevitable tweaks might be. It's a good year for running back talent, by his account, and Coach Arians has already stated how integral a solid run game will be to his offense. Whether or not that can be accomplished with the players already on the Bucs' roster remains to be seen. But in a draft that's heavy in defensive line talent as well as safety prospects, the Bucs could be looking very closely at the players available to them at no. 5 in those position groups, with maybe some changes coming to that side of the ball.
"Initially, the defensive scheme a little bit, but it's still playing football," Biehl said about what fares to be different this year. But he made sure to emphasize looking for the right players is still the objective.
"Whether you have a three-man front or a four-man front, it's still football. We're just looking to find good players and I think when we find them, this coaching staff is going to do a great job of putting them in situations to succeed and it's going to be fun."