Forget the buzz you've heard out of Mobile, Alabama in recent days about surprises and disappointments, rising and falling stock and practice-field standouts. The real overachiever during this week of Senior Bowl practices and preparations? The weather.
Mobile is the rainiest city in the United States, in terms of total annual rainfall, and that fact would come as no surprise to the hundreds of NFL scouts and coaches who make the annual Senior Bowl trek in January. It is not uncommon for the game itself to be played in a downpour, and rarely do the two teams make it through a week of practices untouched by wet weather.
That's just a fact of life for the players who come to put their skills on display and the NFL talent evaluators who show up to gather information for their draft boards, and it rarely detracts from the value or enjoyment of the week. Every year, the spate of practices – one each for the North and South squads each day from Monday through Thursday – is an invaluable scouting opportunity for the 32 NFL teams.
But when the weather relents, as it has this week, that makes the Senior Bowl experience even better. Dennis Hickey, director of college scouting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, certainly made the most of his week in suddenly sunny Mobile.
"Actually, everything went really smoothly throughout the process," said Hickey. "The weather cooperated, so we got in a lot of good evaluations. There was good practice tempo and it was a great opportunity to see good players in an NFL environment. They follow an NFL practice schedule and play NFL offenses."
Hickey was part of a 15-person team the Buccaneers sent to Mobile, most of them arriving on Sunday in order to get in some pre-practice interaction with the assembled players. The entire Buc group returned to Tampa on Thursday after spending four solid days evaluating practices first-hand during the mornings and afternoons and conducting interviews with the prospects in the evenings.
The game itself, which will kick off at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, is a good scouting opportunity, as well, but team representatives can watch the game on the NFL Network and study the videotape later. It is the four days of practice that are the biggest draw for NFL scouts and coaches. Because the two teams are led by NFL coaching staffs – this year the job fell to Cincinnati for the North team and Buffalo for the South team – the onlookers know that the players will be performing within NFL schemes and at positions they may be best suited for at the professional level.
"You got to see a lot of guys in different spots," said Hickey. "Whether it's corners playing safety, offensive tackles playing guard, moving guys around – you were just seeing them in different spots. You could see left tackles playing at right tackle, defensive ends rushing inside and vice versa, linebackers playing multiple spots, things like that."
Scouts also get to see many of the players who will figure prominently into draft weekend in April. Last year, 10 participants in the Senior Bowl were later selected in the first round of the 2010 draft. Another 13 went in the second round and by the end of the three-day process a whopping 84 players from the 2010 Senior Bowl had heard their names called. The junior-eligible prospects – obviously not part of the talent pool for the Senior Bowl – tend to take up a lot of the first-round spots, but the overwhelming majority of the approximately 100 players in this weekend's game are likely to be drafted in a few months.
Virtually every team finds some future talent at the Senior Bowl. Last year, 30 of the 32 NFL teams drafted at least one player who had participated in that game in January. The Buccaneers were not one of the exceptions, snapping up Florida State linebacker Dekoda Watson in the seventh round. Other 2010 Senior Bowl players who eventually ended up in Tampa included safety Larry Asante, running back LeGarrette Blount and guard Ted Larsen.
The 2009 Senior Bowl featured 11 players who would go in the first round of that year's draft, and a total of 86 soon-to-be-selected players overall. It was 11 first-rounders and 82 draftees overall in 2008. There is little doubt that the 2011 game will produce another wave of NFL invaders.
"Like every year, it's kind of weighted in some different areas," said Hickey. "But it's a good roster, good players. We're all excited to see these guys practice and play. They're the cream of the senior class and they performed very well this week."
Indeed, many of the young men who competed in practice this week have been showing up in the first round of the earliest versions of the online mock drafts for 2011. Washington quarterback Jake Locker was on hand to try to solidify his first-round status, and NFL scouts got a good look at such intriguing prospects as Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller and Washington tackle Gabe Carimi. Other notables included Miami DL Allen Bailey, Iowa DL Christian Ballard, Boston College OL Anthony Castonzo, California DL Cameron Jordan, Purdue DL Ryan Kerrigan and Colorado OL Nate Solder.
Fans of college football in the Sunshine State will find the South roster dotted with Gators (DB Ahmad Black), Seminoles (QB Christian Ponder) and Hurricanes (LB Colin McCarthy). The North roster draws a lot of talent from the Big Ten and the upper reaches of the Big 12 and the PAC 10, and the two teams should be evenly matched. Last year, the North won, 31-13, breaking the South's two-year Senior Bowl winning streak.
"It's always kind of hard to judge [the strength of the teams] because they're putting together an offense and a defense in one week, and so they keep it pretty simple," said Hickey. "But I think it will be a very competitive game and I'm looking forward to seeing it."
The game itself will simply put a cap on a very productive – and pleasantly mild – week in Mobile. One of the most important ongoing projects for the Buccaneers' scouting department between the end of the college season and the start of the draft is the accumulation of sit-down interviews with the entire pool of draft-eligible men. Hundreds of these very important interviews will take place at events such as the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February and the various university Pro Days that begin in March. It would be difficult to get them all done without opportunities such as the Senior Bowl.
"We started with the interviews at the other games this month – the Cactus Bowl in early January, the East-West [Shrine Game] the week before," said Hickey. "We try to interview almost all of the players, either with individual scouts or me. We try to get as many interviews as possible, get a feel for their personality and character and ask them questions about injuries or any other issues that may have come up. This gets us started and we'll continue the interviews at the combine."
All of the various evaluations will continue at the Combine, and beyond. The players will run and jump and throw in Indy, undergo medical examinations and share their personal histories. They'll try once again to impress the scouts during their on-campus workouts, all in an effort to cement their spots in the 2011 draft. As it is every year, the week in Mobile, Alabama proved to be a very important part of that process.