Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey has been working on the Bucs' draft board since last May
Every morning for the past two weeks, the coaches and scouts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have started their day in the same place. The draft room in the team's new state-of-the-art facility is just left of General Manager Bruce Allen's office, and right now every path in the football side of the building leads to that destination.
Meetings begin early in the morning, break for an hour at lunch time and resume full-speed at 1:00. Though the specific topics discussed in that room will change rapidly from hour to hour and minute to minute, every minute of every meeting is aimed at one unchanging goal: Get the board right.
That would be the draft board, the single most important tool that will get the Bucs through the seven rounds of the NFL Draft this weekend, as well as the undrafted free agent signing period just after. It is a complicated thing, featuring hundreds of names and countless nuggets of information, and it has been in constant flux since the last week of May, 2006.
The Bucs began work on their 2007 draft board 11 months ago, just like every team around the league. It took rudimentary shape over the summer as scouts watched game tape from the 2006 NCAA season, pinpointing upcoming seniors who appeared to be worth further study. Those players then sorted themselves out during the fall, showing through game action where they belonged on the Bucs' grading scale. Postseason all-star games, the NFL Scouting Combine, more video study, campus Pro Days and face-to-face meetings further refined the board.
Finally, this month, the Buccaneers' scouts returned from the road and, with the help of the team's coaches, began to sift out the final player grades and the rankings within and across positions. Now, though the board is still fluid, the decisions being made are small but critical. Daily debates determine little tweaks on the board, which could have large consequences on draft weekend.
By Thursday evening, the board will be set.
"We are in the process of lining up our board right now," said Dennis Hickey, the Bucs' director of college scouting, on Tuesday. "That's what these meetings are for. We have players rated, it's just a matter of, in the next couple of days, tweaking and fine-tuning if there is added information. Maybe you watch a 2004 tape to see if there was something that we missed, or we wanted to check more on, like a corner's ball skills. You are continuing to get exposure to the player, but it's narrowing down quickly."
The Bucs want to finish that sort of wrangling by the end of Thursday in order to use Friday to go over a variety of possible draft-weekend scenarios.
Everybody invited into the draft room – and this is the most secure spot in the building in the weeks leading up to the draft – gets a say. Scouts share what only they could have gathered – eye-witness accounts of prospects in practice, say, or the fruits of a sit-down meeting with a college administrator. Buccaneer assistant coaches take the floor to fight for a valued prospect at their position, and what his addition would mean to the team's fortunes.
It's an organized debate for the most part, according to General Manager Bruce Allen, though the more passionate speakers can get the room heated up a bit. It's all in pursuit of the same goal, says Allen: improving the team. It is also a very satisfying part of the job for these coaches and scouts, a time of the year when their hard work comes to a head, and the debates are intense because so much is at stake.
"You'll compare three guards and there will be a great debate about which guard is better than the other guard," said Allen. "That's fun. But there's nothing better than when you say, 'That guard versus that DB versus that linebacker versus that wide receiver versus that quarterback, that tight end.' When you have all your scouts in the room and all the coaches in the room, to watch the debate that ensues from that question is marvelous. The spirit…these coaches could become campaign managers when they're done coaching. They make up highlight tapes that are unbelievable; if the receiver ever dropped the ball, you wouldn't know it. That part of the debate is quite exciting."
And indispensable. Months of hard work, particularly by the scouts, goes into each player ranking, and a board of 400 or so prospects represents an enormous number of minute decisions and player-vs.-player comparisons. But the product of all that preparation will be put into use in a very fast-paced and very final two days, so the board has to be just right going into draft weekend. And again, that is the point of these final two weeks of all-day meetings.
"We just kind of hash it out," said Hickey. "There are a lot of disagreements just because it's a subjective thing, the evaluation of players. So that's what we're doing now, and it's not crazy; it's calm, it's collected. We're just trying to get each individual player right."
Of course, it's impossible to know, with absolute certainty, that you have it right on every player. Every team in the league has drafted players that haven't panned out as the team's scouts and coaches expected. The reason is obvious; as Hickey puts it, player evaluation is, at its heart, subjective. The Bucs will strive for perfection in their evaluations anyway.
"It's not an exact science," said Hickey. "That's how mistakes can be made. But you try to eliminate as much as that as possible by doing your due diligence. You try to eliminate as much of that room for margin of error as possible, but there is no way to completely eliminate it. We try to get as much exposure as possible to equip us to make the best decision."