Director of Player Personnel Tim Ruskell knows the Bucs have to stay prepared for any possibility by scouting all available players
It's NFL Scouting Combine week, and in a way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are like bargain hunters in an upscale department store. Whole racks of tantalizing items bear price tags too steep for Tampa shoppers.
For the Bucs, the issue isn't money but draft picks, or lack thereof. Due to the well-justified deal that brought Head Coach Jon Gruden to Tampa, the team didn't pick until late in the third round last year and will have to wait almost as long this April to make a selection. The only pick surrendered to Oakland this year is a first-rounder, but winning the Super Bowl puts the Bucs last in the draft order, so the team's second-round choice is virtually a third-rounder.
Does that mean the Buc representatives up in Indianapolis are skipping the aisle displays at the Combine and heading to the clearance racks in back? Hardly.
The hallmark of Tampa Bay's ongoing scouting efforts – a 365-day-a-year job – is preparation. To remain ready for any possibility, the Bucs insist on having a well-researched opinion on every player in the league, recently in the league or likely to soon be in the league. That means the Bucs will produce a thorough dossier on, for example, Arizona State DE Terrell Suggs, who had an astounding 22 sacks in 2002 and is almost certain to be a top-15 pick. Tampa Bay picks 64th.
No one has been crossed off the Bucs' scouting list, not even USC QB Carson Palmer, the expected first pick in the draft and a very poor bet to be wearing red and pewter next year.
"You can't do that because you never know what could happen," said Tim Ruskell, Tampa Bay's highly-respected Director of Player Personnel. "A player could drop based on a poor workout, some new medical information or whatever. So you have to be prepared for a lot of those guys. You have to do something on just about everybody, just in case. You might have a chance to move up…you just don't know.
"It would be foolish to not prepare and then to have something fall when you're not ready for it. You don't want to be in that situation."
Two years ago, the Bucs went into the 2001 draft with the 21st pick in the first round and were thought, by outside analysts, to be eyeing a tight end or a defensive back. The team also had an obvious need at left tackle and had thus been repeatedly linked with Michigan's Jeff Backus. Tampa Bay wasn't expected to get a shot at the prized tackle duo of Florida's Kenyatta Walker or Texas' Leonard Davis. The Bucs didn't believe they could or would like to trade into the top 10 picks.
However, Walker remained available longer than expected due to surprisingly long run on defensive tackles, and the Bucs were eventually able to swing a deal with Buffalo for the 14th spot and a shot at Walker. On the inexorable War Room clock, decisions such as these are based on months worth of information gathering.
Is there an obvious scenario this year that would put the Bucs in the middle of the first round? Not to us. Still, that doesn't make the job any easier for the team's scouting staff. If anything, this year's Combine experience is even more demanding than usual because Tampa Bay is trying to make up for those long-gone picks. The Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002 with almost no rookie contributions and might be able to do the same in 2003, but there will be an eventual effect if the team fails to replenish its talent base.
Besides, those men beyond the expected first-rounders are not actually 'clearance-rack' players but extremely talented prospects who, in many cases, will become valuable NFL performers. CB Dwight Smith, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVII, was the 84th pick in the 2001 draft.
"This combine is probably even more important (despite the lack of early picks), because it puts a little more pressure on these other picks," said Ruskell. "You have to try to come up with players who can make it and can contribute in some way. So it's as much work as ever and it's more detailed work than ever."
There are 323 players at the combine this year, spending the early part of the week in a series of face-to-face meetings and medical examinations with team officials and the latter days showing their stuff on the field. The Bucs have spoken to some of these young men at post-season all-star games, such as the Senior Bowl, but still need to conduct a long list of interviews this week, at roughly 15 minutes per session.
Fortunately, the previous years' free-for-all approach to interviews has been replaced by a very structured schedule, a decision pushed through by Ruskell and Bucs General Manager Rich McKay since last year. Each team no longer needs a cadre of younger personnel staffers to chase down potential interviewees and wade through other team's recruiters.
"It's a lot better because it's less hectic," said Ruskell after a day-and-a-half of the new system. "You're not pulling guys in several different directions, you're not sending people up here just to track guys down and you're not fighting for time. They just basically show up at your door when it's your time. So it's a lot less chaotic and it requires a lot less manpower. It's better for the player and better for the teams."
In the past, the Bucs have relied very heavily on what they learn in these personal meetings when making decisions on potential players. Having seen these prospects on game film for months or years, the scouts come to Indianapolis with a fairly well-formed opinion on the players' physical abilities. The evaluations that come from the interviews – character, heart, intelligence, desire – are newer bits of information. For their part, most of the prospective draftees take the interview sessions seriously, according to Ruskell.
"Everybody's pretty excited about it," he said. "For a lot of these guys, this has been their dream most of their lives. So to get a chance to talk to the teams they've been watching for years on Sundays, that's a big event. Most of them stay pretty calm about it, but they're excited at the same time."
It's a virtual certainty that the player the Bucs take at or around pick number 64 will pay a visit to the team's interview room in Indianapolis, unless the team has already spoken to him at an all-star game. The Combine is extremely well-attended by the top prospects, and getting more so every year. In 2001, the first player taken in the draft who was not at the combine was South Florida kicker Bill Gramatica, in the fourth round (98th overall) by Arizona.
It's not as certain that all of the players working the interview rooms will perform in the physical drills on Thursday and Friday. Though a very good percentage of the players on hand do lace up their shoes for a run on the fast Indy turf, there are always a few who decline, for medical or other reasons. In most cases, those decisions aren't announced until the day of the drills, though some players will let their intentions be known during the interviews. Ruskell and company will find out who will be racing the stopwatch on Thursday morning.
And which of these men will be Bucs by late April? Ruskell and staff may not know that by the time they leave Indy, though under McKay they've had a strong track record of ending up with their targeted players. The good news is that there is plenty of talent to go around.
"It's similar to other years," said Ruskell. "There are good positions and bad positions in terms of strength. But there are clearly a lot of good players out there and we hope to get some ourselves. We're just working hard and going through all the checks and balances that we go through."