Greg Schiano was named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new head coach on January 26, and has since been working to put together his first NFL staff. Once that process is complete – and that is likely to happen sooner rather than later – Schiano and company will have to hit the ground running.
With a rich free agency period set to begin on March 13, the Buccaneers' decision-makers, Schiano obviously prominent among them, will have to decide what the market potentially could bring to the team. Though franchise and transition tags and early re-signings are sure to skim some of the available talent off the top before March 13, the likes of DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe Matt Flynn, Curtis Lofton and Cortland Finnegan, to name a few, could be switching teams. Of course, the Buccaneers must also make a long list of decisions regarding their own pending free agents, a group that includes Connor Barth, Earnest Graham, Ronde Barber and Jeremy Zuttah.
Before those decisions are due, however, there lies one of the most important stretch of days on the offseason calendar, a week-long event that could impact how the Buccaneers head into free agency. It's the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and it starts in less than three weeks.
More than 300 of the players sure to be most coveted in this year's NFL Draft will make the trek to Indy later this month, beginning on February 22. The young men who run 40-yard dashes, display their vertical leaps and work the evening interview rounds at the Combine will likely comprise about 80% of the roughly 254 players whose names will be called during April's draft.
The NFL brings these players to a central location every year in order to consolidate the scouting efforts of the 32 teams. Prospects can take one comprehensive physical instead of 32, they can have every scouting eye on them when they run the 40, and they can have face-to-face meetings with as many teams that show interest. By bringing the players in and out of Indianapolis in groups based on the positions they play, the NFL can reduce each prospect's time commitment to just a few days.
However, for the men on the other side, the team scouts, general managers and coaches, it's one long and intense week.
And an important one. The Buccaneers' draft preparations began last May and have already included hundreds of hours of videotape study, campus visits, all-star games and interviews. In the weeks leading up to April's draft, there will also be a series of Pro Days at various universities, where prospects can perform for scouts once again on their home turf. But there are no other opportunities for scouting as comprehensive and densely-packed as the Combine.
That makes it a critical week for Schiano and the Buccaneers. While General Manager Mark Dominik, Director of Player Personnel Dennis Hickey and their scouts have been forming a draft board for some time, they now must conform it to the specific needs and inclinations of the new coaching staff. For the first time, the Buccaneers' prospect rankings will be viewed through the lens of what Schiano intends to do on offense, defense and special teams.
(Note: As was the case in 2011, Buccaneers.com will be on hand for the busiest days of the NFL Scouting Combine, providing news updates and an up-close look at some of the brightest prospects in Indy. In addition, we will also once again talk to NFL experts who are in town for the event, getting an outside perspective on what Tampa Bay is expected to do in the 2012 draft. The on-site Combine coverage on Buccaneers.com will begin on Friday, February 24.)
Just as importantly, Schiano and his coaches are likely to have some specific opinions on the matter of character and mental make-up when it comes to the young men he wants to add to his team. Schiano's insistence on building a team-wide atmosphere of "TBA" – trust, belief and accountability – necessitate that he add players who he is sure will buy into that approach. The evening interviews at the player's Indianapolis hotel – which have always been considered the most important part of the week by Buccaneer talent evaluators – thus take on extra significance.
Of course, that's not to say the workouts on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf will be of no value. The fact that the Buccaneers own the fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft means that they can likely narrow down their first-round targets to a handful of players (barring a trade down). The Buccaneers and the other teams drafting in the top 10 will get a close look at some of the most intriguing prospects. Will Justin Blackmon's 40-time (assuming he runs) affect his likely top-10 status? What will Morris Claiborne's official height and weight measurables prove to be, and will he convince teams that he can be an elite performer no matter his size? Can Zach Brown or any of the available linebackers show enough to crack the top 10 or the top five?
These are the types of questions that will get answers, or at least some useful input, when the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine begins on February 22. The kickers, punters, tight ends and offensive linemen will arrive first, taking a day to go through physicals and other test before hitting the Lucas Oil field on the 23rd. Over the weekend, quarterbacks, receivers, linebackers and defensive ends will get their shot to impress the scouts. Early the following week, the workouts will conclude with the defensive backs.
The Tampa Bay contingent will be watching every group closely. Schiano, in particular, will be looking to soak up as much information as possible in preparation for April's draft. The Combine is important to Buccaneers brass every year; this February, it is even more critical than usual.