Just over a year ago, Super Bowl-bound Arizona Cardinals CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie helped solidify his draft status at the Senior Bowl
Just a little over a year ago, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was involved in a "bowl" game.
Much like the game he's about to play, this one started with an "S," had two syllables and featured NFL coaches on the sidelines.
Obviously, the Super Bowl Rodgers-Cromartie and his Cardinals will contest on February 1 in Tampa is the biggest game of his life so far. However, had he not performed so well last January in the 2008 Senior Bowl, Rodgers-Cromartie might not even be on the Cardinals' roster at this most heady of times.
Arizona is certainly glad to have the former Tennessee State standout as they head into the franchise's first championship game in more than 60 years. Rodgers-Cromartie started 11 games as a rookie and contributed 42 tackles and a team-high four interceptions, one of which he returned 99 yards for a touchdown. To get him, the Cardinals had to use the 16th overall pick in the first round of last April's NFL Draft.
Would they have done so if Rodgers-Cromartie hadn't stood out among the competition at last year's Senior Bowl? Perhaps. But it certainly helped the young player's stock when he proved that, despite his small-school background, he was more than capable of hanging with the big-name players from the big-time programs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey, who just returned from the site of the 2009 Senior Bowl on Thursday, said Rodgers-Cromartie's performance of a year ago were a large part of his eventual evaluation.
"Everybody could see how he prepared," said Hickey. "He stood out at practice, was practically the MVP of the game and you could say at the end of the week, 'Alright, that guy's going to be able to make the transition.' Other guys, you see that maybe they're going to take a little longer to develop."
Leodis McKelvin of Troy impressed, too, and was taken 11th by the Bills. Both young cornerbacks took advantage of one of the best things the Senior Bowl offers each January: a chance for players of all backgrounds to compete against each other on a level playing field. And while the official competition – the game itself, that is – takes place on the Saturday of Senior Bowl week, NFL scouts get most of their information from the week of practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
"You're watching everybody during the week, but you have an even keener interest in those [small-school] guys because a lot times you don't get to see them compete against top-level competition," said Hickey. "A lot of times they're men among boys at their schools. Every year there are several guys in that situation, guys from Jackson State or Cal-Poly or Liberty, places like that. This is a really good chance to evaluate those small-school guys and see how they adjust to the competition."
There are five players from schools in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision participating in this year's Senior Bowl, which will be televised on the NFL Network beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET on Saturday. There's even a similarly-named defensive back – Jackson State's Domonique Johnson – trying to duplicate the Mobile success of Rodgers-Cromartie. Also relishing a chance to mix in with the stars from Alabama, LSU and the like are Central Arkansas quarterback Nathan Brown, Sam Houston State quarterback Rhett Bomar, Liberty running back Rashad Jennings and Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden.
And even though the game obviously does not include the potential high-profile draftees who have declared as juniors, it still includes some of the talent that is of most interest to league scouts right now. The early mock drafts that have been popping up often include such young men as Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji, Mississippi tackle Michael Oher, USC linebacker Brian Cushing, Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith, Baylor tackle Jason Smith and Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew…and all of those players are in this year's Senior Bowl. So are such high-profile players as Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, Texas wide receiver Quan Cosby and USC linebacker Clay Matthews.
The level of talent in the Senior Bowl is always intriguing, though it often has hot spots and weaker positions. What's interesting each year for visiting scouts is finding out which players are going to perform significantly better than expected.
"The exciting thing is that some players elevated their play," said Hickey, though he declined to name names for obvious reasons. "You were expecting them to perform at a certain level and some of them did better than that. Some players didn't quite do that, but it's a difficult situation. They're in a new situation with a new offense, so you try not to downgrade a guy too much for what happens at the Senior Bowl, but you definitely give credit to the guys who rise to the top."
Not only do Senior Bowl participants practice against top-level competition, they do it within NFL constructs. This year, the two sides are being coached by the Cincinnati Bengals and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have imported their own way of running practice and their own offensive and defensive schemes.
The Buccaneers last sent their staff to the game two years ago. Every team's staff can watch the practices from beginning to end, but the actual participating teams do get a chance for more direct interaction with the players. During the 2007 Senior Bowl week, for instance, the Bucs followed through on a plan to see if Syracuse cornerback Tanard Jackson would be a fit at safety, as they suspected he would. When that experiment went well, the Bucs drafted Jackson in the fourth round three months later.
Those decisions are in the hands of the Bengals and Jaguars now, but it is very common for the coaching staffs to try players at different positions for the enlightenment of everyone.
"They plays at left tackle and right tackle," said Hickey. "Centers will play center and guard. They move guys around. Guys will play outside linebacker, inside linebacker, defensive end. It's great because you can put them in a lot of different situations. A lot of times in evaluations you project what a guy will be able to do but you've never actually seen him in that role.
"For instance, we never saw Jeremy Zuttah as a center. We never saw him play there. We knew he did in practice but never in game situations, so we had to project. If we were coaching Zuttah [in last year's Senior Bowl] we could have tried him at center. Obviously he did a real nice job for us and it worked out but with Tanard and some other prospects that's the great thing about the Senior Bowl. You put them wherever you want to evaluate them."
The Bucs were able to work with Tanard on the field, in the meeting rooms and at just about any point of the day since they were coaching the North squad that year. Even without that advantage, however, the Senior Bowl is a great chance for NFL personnel departments to advance the lengthy project of getting familiar with all of the potential draftees on their boards. Just as they do night after night at the Scouting Combine in late February, the Bucs use the evenings at the Senior Bowl to host a series of sit-down meetings with the players.
"We interviewed a lot of guys every night," said Hickey. "That's an important part, to get time with these guys, get a feel for their stories, their makeup, their mental capacity and how they would fit in our locker room. Are they good teammates? Sometimes it's hard just from the information you gather from the people around him to really know how a guy is going to fit until you get to meet him. You ask some tough questions, get them out of their comfort zone a little bit."
Hickey said the Bucs very much valued those marathon interview nights, but the most significant part of the week remained the practices on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Whether it was a young running back from Liberty or a potential top-10 pick from a big school, every player at the Senior Bowl was given an ideal platform to promote himself.
"Every year, the goal is, number one, you get to see players in a competitive environment versus quality players," summarized Hickey. "You get to see how they learn new offenses, how they handle being out of the comfort level of their school or their system. And you get to see the best of the best compete."