The Bucs got a good look at QB Chris Simms in last year's Senior Bowl before drafting him three months later
At least this year they can stay the whole week.
The Senior Bowl proceedings are underway in Mobile, Alabama, with players filtering in on Sunday and practices beginning Monday afternoon. Like every team in the National Football League, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have a phalanx of coaches and personnel men on hand to get an up-close look at many of the most important draft-eligible players in the country.
And this year, the Buc representatives can stay through Saturday's game, if they wish. Twelve months ago, most of Tampa Bay's party had cleared out by Thursday in order to refocus on that Sunday's NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia.
Obviously, the Bucs would prefer to be preparing for the Super Bowl again this January, but that task will be left to the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots. The Buccaneers, under new General Manager Bruce Allen, will instead join 29 other teams in focusing on the 2004 draft.
"It's like the (NFL scouting combine) in that everybody in the league is there and everybody is working very hard," said Tampa Bay's Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster. "Scouts, general managers, head coaches...you see just about everybody there."
The Senior Bowl attracts dozens of players who are likely to hear their names called on the first day of the draft, and it can be a very exciting game. It is certainly a unique affair, with NFL hopefuls being coached by full professional staffs on each side, in this case the San Diego Chargers' crew for the South and the Cincinnati Bengals' group for the North. However, the game itself might be the least important part of the week, from the scouts' point of view.
"Really, the practices are at least as important as the game, if not more so," said Webster. "You want to get a long look at all of these players, and some of them might get only a little bit of playing time in the game itself. The practices are all full-pads and full-speed, so some of it is as competitive as an actual game, and as informative."
In 1999, the Buccaneers' coaching staff was in charge of the South squad. A few months later, the Bucs selected two players from that team with their first two draft picks, LSU DT Anthony McFarland and Tulane QB Shaun King.
Last year, the Bucs eventually drafted one player they saw at the Senior Bowl, Texas QB Chris Simms, and picked up another one, Florida RB Earnest Graham, as an undrafted free agent. Late in the year, the team added a third 2003 Senior Bowl vet, C Ben Claxton, to its practice squad.
This year's game will feature 95 of the nation's top outgoing seniors, with stars at every position. Among the possible NFL stars of the future on display will be North Carolina State QB Philip Rivers, Tulane QB J.P. Losman, Florida State RB Greg Jones, LSU WR Devery Henderson, Georgia TE Ben Watson, Florida T Max Starks, Virginia Tech C Jake Grove, Oregon State DT Dwan Edwards, Florida State LB Michael Boulware, Notre Dame LB Courtney Watson, USC CB Will Poole and Purdue S Stuart Schweigert.
Even though the Bucs have only had playoff conflicts in 2000 and 2003, they have sometimes pulled out of Mobile before the game was played. How the team approaches Senior Bowl week this year will be up to Allen, who will be among the Bucs' men on hand, but it's certain that they will work hard during the week to evaluate prospects.
"Every practice is important," said Webster, who in the past has also spent hours after workouts interviewing players off the field. "It doesn't really matter if the schemes and formations the teams are running are not like ours because there are a lot of one-on-one drills. That's where you get much of your evaluation done, watching receivers and defensive backs or offensive and defensive linemen go at each other one on one."
Both teams will practice on Monday afternoon, but Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will feature two-a-days...for the scouts. The North and South will practice once each on those days, alternating between the morning and afternoon. A lighter day on Friday will allow the visiting players to make some community appearances before game day on Saturday. The 55th Senior Bowl will kick off at 4:00 p.m. ET and will be televised nationally by ESPN.