The draft is more difficult for the Bucs to figure out this season, but they're ready for almost any development
The clock is ticking.
Not the clock, the one that will repeatedly tick off 10, seven and five-minute intervals through most of the coming weekend. Not the official clock of the 2008 NFL Draft, which will officially start at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 26.
In a larger sense, a clock has been ticking at One Buccaneer Place since last summer, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' scouts, still decompressing from the 2007 draft, began scouring the nation for the next wave of talent. There may have been times when the hours seemed to go by slowly, during a a long drive from one campus to another or in the press box after a college game as reports were filled out.
No longer. Time is short and moving fast now, and that clock will stop at the same time the draft clock begins.
This is the homestretch of the Buccaneers' long, long road to being ready for the draft. This week and last, the team's scouting and personnel staffs have spent virtually every working hour in meetings inside the special 'Draft Room' located right next to General Manager Bruce Allen's office.
"It's a nine to 10-month process for our scouts," said Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey on Tuesday, as he met the press in a rare break from those meetings. "We've been building toward these draft meetings. It's been a collaborative effort. We've gotten together with all the coaches these last few weeks leading up to the draft. We get together as an organization and we hash it out. There are different opinions and in the end we come up with a final decision come draft day."
Hickey and his staff have been working on the team's draft board for most of the year since last April. It took shape gradually, with film study, combine and workout results and meetings with players all factoring into the production of very specific grades for each prospect. Some players made significant moves up and down the board during the 2007 college season, but by this point the basic shape of the rankings is in place. These last few weeks have been more about fine-tuning that board.
"Our coaches have evaluated these players, our scouts have evaluated these players and we've lined them up and assigned them grades," said Hickey. "At this point, we're just kind of lining them up within the grades, 'stacking' them as some might say, [determining] where we see these players."
There have been clutches of current Buccaneers on the practice fields behind One Buccaneer Place these past two weeks, usually in the morning or early afternoon, but only for the brief, relatively unorganized workouts allowed this time of year. Before these two weeks of wall-to-wall draft meetings, the coaches had a chance to work with most of the roster more extensively during a trio of "organized team activity days."
That field work was valuable to the team's draft preparations, too. Like every team in the league, the Bucs affected their draft strategy with the moves they made in March and early April through free agency. It's one thing to note on paper how the depth chart has been filled out at one spot or another, but it's another to actually get all the signees together with their new teammates and see how it all fits together.
"The good thing is, we had three days of OTAs and we got to see all the new additions to our roster," said Hickey. "Our pro department, Bruce, Jon [Gruden], they've all brought in several people, free agents, that are really going to help our team. It was good to get an idea of what we have with the new players. That's helped our process."
Another handful of players has visited team headquarters in recent weeks, neither returning Bucs nor free agent pick-ups. A few of the players eligible in this year's draft were flown into Tampa for an in-person meeting with the Bucs' coaches and personnel men. That's an annual process across the league, an adjunct to the rounds of interviews and evaluations that go on at the all-star games, the combine and the college's pro days.
"Pre-draft visits [are conducted] for a couple of reasons," said Hickey. "One may be medical – maybe our doctors want to see the prospect again – or maybe we just want to have the rest of the organization see [the player]. During the combine, there are a lot of things going on. We just get another look at the guy. Sometimes, it's comparing two guys, maybe because we have them kind of the same, just to see how they fit in with the organization and with everyone here."
All of which just adds to the incredible volume of information that the Buccaneers – any team in the NFL, really – produce in preparation for the draft. These final two weeks of draft meetings take all day, every day because the Bucs are obsessed with being thorough. Hickey says the team wants to completely scout not just the top prospects but all 350 or so men who have a good shot of being selected or signed as college free agents right after the draft. The team wants its scouts and coaches to be as well-versed on all of that information as possible.
On the other hand, the Bucs are not interested in anyone outside their inner circle becoming privy to that information, or at least the opinions based on that information. Nor is any other team in the league. At this time of the year, you're just as likely to run across misinformation as anything useful regarding a team's draft plans. However, Hickey says the Bucs don't bother too much with planting false leads.
"We don't get into that much," he said. "I know there's a lot of posturing, especially at the top of the draft. We're just focused on evaluating players correctly. That's our focus, taking care of our evaluations, getting our guys right that we have targeted or that we have at that pick."
The draft room will remain busy throughout this week. With this year's later start for Round One on Saturday, there will even be team for more meetings on Saturday afternoon, should the team so desire. With what's at stake, the Bucs are likely to use all the time remaining on that clock that started ticking almost a year ago.
"We want to get each pick exactly right," said Hickey. "That doesn't mean we always will, but that's my job, to get that right."