Auburn QB Jason Campbell has impressed all the scouts and coaches attending the Senior Bowl, but some other players have more quietly moved up the draft board
Make no mistake, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came here to win.
That's what Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden told the assembled South squad at the end of Friday morning's walk-through, the last practice before Saturday's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. The Bucs' staff, like the Oakland Raiders coaches who are working with the North team, have spent an intense week trying to form a loose group of 50 college all-stars into a team capable of winning on Saturday.
But make no mistake on this either: Senior Bowl week is an equally important lead-in to another well-known Saturday event. The NFL Draft, which starts on Saturday, April 23, should feature many of the same names that are on the 2005 Senior Bowl rosters.
Exactly where players like Auburn RB Cadillac Williams and LSU DE Marcus Spears are drafted likely will be affected in some way by how they have performed on the practice field this week.
"Either you move up or you move down [as a player], and whatever way you go as a team you have to make those decisions based on the research that you have," said Gruden. "Some information is good, some is bad."
The Buccaneers consider a week of up-close work with the 50 South squad players to be a source of particularly good information, which is why they eagerly accepted the invite to Mobile. They expected to get more detailed and more personal information through this experience than they would have by merely attending the practices with the rest of the NFL's coaches and scouts.
"It's great not only to know the players on film and know their height, weight and speed…it's a lot different when you know the player personally," said Gruden. "It's been a great experience. This is what we like to do: coach. We'd rather be in the Super Bowl, but if you can't be there the Senior Bowl isn't a bad place to be."
There are many factors that play into the decision to draft a particular player, and athletic talent is obviously the most important one. Production in college is a good barometer of talent, but stat sheets and video clips don't say everything about a player that the Buccaneers need to know. For instance, USC DT/DE Shaun Cody was obviously a productive college player, with nine sacks for the national champions in 2004, but is he the type of lineman that fits into Tampa Bay's defensive scheme? And does he have the type of personality to flourish under the Bucs' coaching staff?
"You're looking for a guy who has production, a guy who has gotten it done at the college level," said Gruden. "But you're also looking for guys who like the game, guys who actually like coming in and studying. Guys who have the will to be great. Sometimes the best way to find that out is by coaching them one-on-one. That's what has been so rewarding about being here."
So do the Bucs like Cody, a name picked at random from the South roster for this illustration? That is the type of information the team is here in Mobile to gather, not share. The Bucs will hold their draft cards close to the vest for another three months, but suffice it to say that they have definitely come across some players at the Senior Bowl who will get serious draft-day consideration.
"Oh yeah, we've got some guys here who we like alright," said Gruden. "No doubt about that. Now, we're not going to make all that public, because we've been here working and a lot of people haven't. Obviously, there have been some flashes here on the practice field that you can't hide – Cadillac and Marcus Spears; Fred Gibson; Jason Campbell's been real good. There have been some stars that have shined real bright, and there have been some other guys who have quietly moved up the charts."
Of course, this week-long scouting opportunity works both ways. Some of the players the Bucs have encountered in Mobile will drop down the team's draft board. There are no bad players at the Senior Bowl, of course, but there are some who simply wouldn't be good fits in Tampa.
"Absolutely, there will be seven or eight guys, maybe a few more than that, where you say, 'You know what, that just won't work here,'" said Gruden. "Maybe they don't fit our system, maybe they don't fit the portfolio that we're looking for."
That is valuable information, as well, as the Bucs are holding 11 picks in the upcoming draft and are determined to make the most of them. The NFL Scouting Combine looms a month ahead, Buccaneer scouts will soon be fanning out across the country to attend individual workouts, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of hours of highlight-tape viewing still to come. But the Bucs have gotten a valuable head start on the draft-preparation process by coaching at the Senior Bowl.
The Buccaneer staff is determined to win the game on Saturday, but in one way it has already accomplished its goal for Senior Bowl week.