The players gathered in Mobile, Alabama for the 2018 Senior Bowl will commence their week of practice on Tuesday afternoon. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, like the other 31 NFL teams, will have multiple sets of eyes on the potential draft picks showing off their talents on the Ladd-Peebles Stadium field. Chances are, those Buccaneer personnel executives will be watching several young men they will later select in the 2018 NFL Draft.
That was the case a year ago, when half of Tampa Bay's eventual six-man draft class participated in the Senior Bowl. Of course, the Senior Bowl was far from the first time Buccaneer scouts had evaluated Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, Texas A&M safety Justin Evans or USC defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, their first, second and seventh-round picks in 2017, respectively.
Every now and then, however, the Senior Bowl is a starting point in the scouting on a player, at least from the personal perspective of the general manager and those closest to him on the decision-making chain. That is what happened three seasons ago, when Hobart offensive lineman Ali Marpet came to Mobile to practice and play against FBS competition.
View some of the top photos of C Ali Marpet from the 2017 season.
Hobart, a liberal arts college in central New York, hadn't produced an NFL player since the 1930s before Marpet came along. Still, Buccaneers area scout Andre Forde put the school on his itinerary in order to get a look at the Division III lineman. Forde sent positive reviews back to One Buccaneer Place, but General Manager Jason Licht hadn't actually seen him play before the Senior bowl.
"That's really the first time I set eyes on him," said Licht after the 2017 draft. "Now we had talked about him at length. Andre Forde put a lot of work into it. I knew who he was. I was excited to get a chance to watch him. You can't watch everyone at once so you have to prioritize who you're watching at that time of year. You've got hundreds of guys that you need to watch, and I had a lot of work to do to catch up to my scouts."
Hobart was the smallest program to send a player to the 2015 Senior Bowl, but Marpet himself was a big draw during the week of practice. Though he played left tackle in lesser competition in the Liberty League, he was expected to work at guard in the NFL, so that's where he practiced during the week leading up to the game. Scouts liked what they saw when Marpet went up against top-level pass-rushers, and so did Licht.
"So the first time I saw him was at the Senior Bowl, and I was extremely impressed," said the Bucs' G.M. "He didn't just hold his own, he was impressive doing it. He looked very good. He looked like he came from a football factory. I'm saying to myself: 'He's big, he's athletic, he's smart, he's tough. What's not to like?' The only knock you put on him was that he played Division III."
Marpet's stock continued to rise in the months leading up to the 2015 draft, and the Buccaneers in particular were growing very interested by the time he came to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Tampa Bay was hoping to use its high second-round pick on an offensive tackle but thought they could potentially nab another O-Line starter in the third round if Marpet lasted that long. As it turned out, Licht would trade up four spots, from the top of the third into the bottom of the second, to make sure he didn't miss on the small-school prospect. The price was a flop of 19 spots in the fourth round with the Indianapolis Colts. Marpet's background – and how that would affect the thinking of every other team picking before the Buccaneers – made it difficult to know exactly how long he would stay on the board.
"You have no idea at that point, really," said Licht. "You put a grade on him talent-wise, which for us was ultimately a starter. We have a special grade for a small-school guy that may or may not need some developmental work but probably will just from where he's from, but he's going to become a starter. But you still don't know where he's going to get drafted."
Marpet's rapid rise continued after the draft and he was a starter at right guard by Week One of his rookie season. Now three years into his NFL career – two at guard and one at center – he is seen as a rising star on the interior line, which makes the Bucs' draft investment in him a very good one. And from Marpet's point of view, competing in the Senior Bowl, against FBS and FCS competition, proved to be a very good move.
There are similar stories every January in Mobile. Prospects who are intriguing enough as athletic talents to get a Senior Bowl invite despite small-school origins, can have a make-or-break week on the practice field. If they show they can be just as effective against tougher competition, their draft stock has the potential to rise dramatically.
There are some small-school prospects beginning practice on Tuesday who could catch the Bucs' interest, just like Marpet did three years ago. For instance, there are a pair of small-school cornerbacks on the North Team who may be of interest, and cornerback could become a position of significant need for Tampa Bay if Brent Grimes does not choose to return. Michael Joseph played his college ball at Dubuque, a D-III school in Iowa that boasts Tony Danza as one of its alumni but hasn't sent a player to the NFL since 1987. And cornerback Taron Johnson played at Weber State, an FCS school with a bit more of a higher profile but one that hasn't produced an NFL draft pick since 2009.
The six-foot Joseph has good size for the cornerback position and some kick-return abilities, and he racked up seven interceptions in his junior season. Johnson was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year this past season and is Weber State's all-time leader in pass break-ups, with 42.
Pictures from Ali Marpet's college career (Photos: Hobart Athletics)
There are some Division II invitees who play in the trenches who also could interest the Buccaneers if they choose to address either line. Tampa Bay finished last in the NFL with 22 sacks on defense this past season and wasn't as stout up the middle as it had hoped to be, so its scouts might want to check out 6-5, 300-pound defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd. The native Canadian starred at Fort Hays State, a Kansas school that hasn't had a player in the NFL since the turn of the millennium. Shepherd was the Defensive Player of the Year in the MIAA Conference after recording 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2017.
One of the more promising pass-rushing prospects in Mobile this week is Marcus Davenport of Texas-San Antonio, who is widely considered a potential first-round draft pick. UTSA is an FBS school in Conference USA, but it's football program has only been in existence since 2011. The Roadrunners have only had one player drafted to this point, with the Minnesota Vikings taking tight end David Morgan in the sixth round in 2016. Davenport is a long-limbed, six-foot-seven edge rusher with a quick get-off and some run-stopping abilities. UTSA occasionally played against big-time programs like Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, but this week Davenport will get almost exclusively top-notch competition.
On the other side of the line are D-II offensive tackles Alex Cappa of Humboldt State and Desmond Harrison of West Georgia. Harrison is an athletic left-tackle type who played at Texas before moving to West Georgia. Cappa is making a big jump up in competition but is projected by some as an eventual starter in the NFL.
All of the small-school prospects in Mobile have ample time to catch the scouts' eyes this week, with six hours of practice between Tuesday and Thursday and the actual game on Saturday. For some, they will just be introducing themselves to NFL evaluators, as Marpet did with most of the Buccaneers' brass in 2015. They would be well-served to emulate the week-long performance turned in by Marpet, who flashed earlier and never tailed off.
"You still had reservations – was he just a one-week wonder?" said Licht. "In the game he played great, but it wasn't really that. It was from Day One of practices to the last day, he got better and better and better and better. At the end of the week, we watched every snap over again, and I'm not just talking about the reps he got in the game. He got hundreds of reps during the week and he just got better every day."