NFL scouts are always on the lookout for the unexpected. A year ago, at the 2011 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, the scouts in attendance encountered something few dare to expect at that event: Good weather.
Every January, Mobile is a can't-miss destination for football personnel evaluators, as the Senior Bowl pulls in some of the nation's best draft-eligible talent together for one week of valuable competition. Most years, "The Port City" is also visited by a series of thunderstorms at that part of the month; Mobile is, after all, the rainiest city in the United States.
NFL staffers and college all-stars got a break in 2011, however, when Senior Bowl week was uncharacteristically mild and dry. Alas, this time around scouts and players woke up to a line of storms advancing on the city Monday morning, with more expected as the week progresses.
Scouts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded in their own pleasant climate for the Mobile experience on Sunday, as they moved on directly from the East-West Shrine Game, played in St. Petersburg on Saturday, to the Senior Bowl. A little rain won't slow the group down, however; this particular all-star game is a wellspring of valuable scouting information every January.
"The Senior Bowl really adds another layer to our evaluation of these guys," said Dennis Hickey, the Buccaneers' Director of Player Personnel. "We've obviously watched them on tape quite a bit and we've been to their schools and met with some of them in person. But the Senior Bowl is an all-star game, which means we get to see guys against top-notch competition. That goes for both the game and the practices all week."
As was the case last week with the East-West Shrine Game, the days leading up to the weekend are considered as important, if not more so, than the game that caps the week. That includes both practices in the morning and the afternoon and face-to-face meetings between teams and prospects in the evenings. That's why Tampa Bay's contingent of personnel men headed up to Mobile on Sunday evening, so they could be there for every part of the Senior Bowl proceedings.
"This is a big week for us, and it's all part of the process," said Hickey. "We evaluate during the season, in person and on tape, and we continue the process through these all-star games. The Combine and the Pro Days are coming up, too, and it all helps us put together a coherent picture on each of these guys. The value of this game is seeing these guys in a live setting, in NFL systems, just like last week back in St. Pete."
The Senior Bowl is often considered the top tier of the postseason all-star games and many of the participants will hear their names called on draft weekend in April. In fact, a handful of Senior Bowl veterans go on to become first-round picks every year; a dozen did just last year, including second-overall selection Von Miller and eighth-overall choice Jake Locker. In all, 83 players who made it to Mobile last January went on to be drafted a few months later, almost exactly a third of the entire 2011 NFL Draft class.
Three of those 83 ended up in Buccaneer uniforms: Washington LB Mason Foster, Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker and Florida safety Ahmad Black. The last time Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on a player who had been in that year's Senior Bowl was in 2006, when they selected Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph 23rd overall. Joseph will play in his second NFL Pro Bowl this Sunday, a day after the 2012 Senior Bowl is contested.
It's truly an all-star weekend in both the college and pro levels of football. The NFL stars might be enjoying a nicer climate in Honolulu, but their college counterparts have more at stake on Saturday (and throughout the week) as they try to improve their draft stock in the eyes of the pro scouts. Among the top prospects who will draw a lot of attention are Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard, North Alabama CB Janoris Jenkins, Baylor WR Kendall Wright, Alabama LB/DL Courtney Upshaw, North Carolina LB Zach Brown and Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler. There is, in fact, quite a bit of well-regarded offensive line talent on hand in Mobile this week, including Zeitler, Iowa State's Kelechi Osemele, Ohio State's Mike Adams and Florida State's Zebrie Sanders.
One other blocker the scouts will pay extra attention to is Amini Silatolu of Midwestern State, a Division II school of about 7,000 students located in Wichita Falls, Texas. Silatolu represents a sub-category of players that are often of special interest at the Senior Bowl, those from smaller school who are getting a chance to prove themselves against better-known prospects from power conferences.
"It's very useful to see guys like that live at the Senior Bowl," said Hickey. "We watch tape on them like any other player, but it can be misleading because it's difficult to gauge how good their competition is. We still put stock in the tape, but this Senior Bowl experience is just another piece in the puzzle when we're evaluating players like that."
As always, the two competing squads in the Senior Bowl will be directed by visiting NFL coaching staffs. This year, Leslie Frazier and his Minnesota Vikings staff will guide the North Team while Mike Shanahan and his Washington Redskins group will be in charge of the South Team. For most of the week, Frazier's team will practice for 90 minutes in the morning at Ladd-Peebles Stadium (site of Saturday's game, as well) while Shanahan's team will do the same in the afternoon. On Monday, however, the morning is occupied by the national scouting weigh-in, so both teams will practice in the afternoon, with the South Team heading to a different location. The game itself will kick off at 3:00 p.m. ET on Saturday.
And each night, the players try to make a good impression in a different way. Character evaluation is a very big part of the NFL scouting process, and nothing brings more information to the team than the sit-down interviews in the evening.
"That's a critical part of why we're there; it is every year," said Hickey. "These interviews are conducted in settings that we control, with the questions we want to ask. We want to find out what these guys are made of, and we get a much better feel for it when we have a chance to sit down and talk to them, face to face."
And all of that is well worth a week in Mobile, Alabama, whether the days are sunny or not.