Memphis RB DeAngelo Williams got a chance to compete against the nation's best players during the Senior Bowl week
It has frequently been remarked, even on this very web site, that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers "fell in love" with Cadillac Williams during the 2005 Senior Bowl.
While not necessarily inaccurate, that characterization might be a bit short of the full truth. It's safe to say, you see, that the Bucs had already begun to covet this particular Cadillac before they ever went to Mobile. The extensive highlight tape from Williams' senior season at Auburn took care of that.
The Senior Bowl isn't really about meeting new dance partners. It's more about finding out how they stack up in a crowded ballroom of the nation's best hoofers. It's one-on-one matchups, side-by-side comparisons and big-board rankings.
Dennis Hickey, Tampa Bay's director of college scouting, returned from that prospect dance on Friday and remarked again on how valuable a tool it is.
"You get to see first-hand players going against the best from around the country," said Hickey, who has been in the Bucs' player personnel department since 1996. "You get live competition, one-on-one drills, all of the things that help you further evaluate players that you can't always get even during actual games. It's very valuable."
There are, in effect, two types of comparisons going on during Senior Bowl practices, which are widely considered the most valuable part of the week, even if Saturday's game is the showpiece. On one hand, you have some of the nation's top players battling it out to see who is the best of the best. On the other hand, you have some lesser-known prospects from smaller schools seeking to prove they belong in that competition.
"Some guys' talent is obvious and it really stands out among this group of already very good players," said Hickey. "Those are the special guys that just jump out and make you say, 'Wow, this guy hardly belongs in this group and these are the best in the country.'
"And also there are guys to which you haven't had a lot of access, guys from lower-level Division I schools, maybe. You can't go everywhere and see everyone. This is an opportunity to see them live. Sometimes that works well for them because they look good against the better competition, and sometimes they can be a little disappointing because the stage is too big for them and they're not prepared for that."
Either way, a team's efforts to prepare itself for the upcoming draft are advanced. The Buccaneers, for instance, felt more secure in their belief that Williams could be an impact player after spending a week with him in Mobile last winter.
Of course, the Bucs were also designated as the coaching staff for the Senior Bowl's South team last year, which came with its own special level of access. Tampa Bay coaches were able to spend hours with Williams in meetings and on the sideline, and they were able to put the back into situations on the field that fed them specific information.
Those duties fell to the staffs of the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans this year, which relegated the Buccaneer representatives – basically most of the team's scouts and coaches – to the stands during practice. Obviously, that meant fewer opportunities for direct interaction this year, but it didn't really hinder the team's scouting efforts.
"You still get the same information," said Hickey. "I actually like it better because you get a view from above and you don't have to look over shoulders. You don't have to focus as much on networking and visiting, so you can focus in a little better."
The Bucs save their visiting for the evening, when their hotel rooms become headquarters for a series of interviews with certain players. Tampa Bay's player personnel staff considers the sit-down interview to be a critical part of its draft preparation, and it will eventually speak with hundreds of draft eligible players. College all-star games like the Senior Bowl are the perfect setting to put a dent into that massive project.
"You get face-to-face meetings with the guys and that helps us a lot because it's impossible to get everything done at the [NFL Scouting Combine]," said Hickey. "There, you're somewhat limited in the number of guys you can see, so we utilize the all-star games to visit with as many guys as we can. Before the combine, we will have talked to about 200 guys. It really benefits us to get those guys knocked out."
Last year, eight of the players on the Buc-coached South team were drafted in the first round the following April. Obviously, the talent was deep, even if some of the bigger names chose to turn down invitations, as happens each year. After four days of practice this year, Hickey came away impressed with this year's crop of Senior Bowl players, too.
"It was good," he said. "There's depth; it's very solid. There are a lot of good offensive tackles, there are some good quarterbacks, some good tight ends. There was good depth throughout it. The strongest positions were probably defensive end, offensive tackle and linebackers."
The running backs were deep in last year's game and the Bucs came away with a star in Williams. They also nabbed Barrett Ruud, Alex Smith and Dan Buenning off the North roster. Obviously, the Senior Bowl represents a wealth of talent. The job of the Buccaneers on hand, as usual, was to sort it all out.