Attention Shifts to Senior Bowl

A little over a year ago, Russell Wilson started for the North team and Brandon Weeden opened for the South as the 61st Senior Bowl was played in Mobile, Alabama.  Weeden and Wilson would end up as first and third-round picks, respectively, in the NFL Draft a few months later, and by the fall the former would be starting for the Cleveland Browns and the latter for the Seattle Seahawks.

In fact, the 2012 Senior Bowl was a pretty remarkable showcase for NFL-ready offensive talent.  Note, for instance, the three quarterbacks that took turns throwing passes for the South team: Weeden, Nick Foles and Ryan Lindley.  All three would end up as starters in the NFL in 2012 (for Cleveland, Philadelphia and Arizona, respectively), and Wilson’s backup on the North team, Kirk Cousins, would get one start in place of his injured Washington Redskins teammate, fellow rookie Robert Griffin III.

Those passers shared the backfield with the likes of Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Vick Ballard, all of whom were productive rookie starters in the NFL in 2012 (putting it mildly, in the cases of Martin and Morris).  In all, 82 players who took part in last year’s Senior Bowl went on to hear their names called on draft weekend, including eight in the first round.

The Buccaneers obviously liked what they saw.  They were responsible for two of those 82 picks, taking Martin in the first round and Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David in the second.  Martin and David played so well  in their shared debut season that they are top candidates for the NFL’s Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year Awards.  Tampa Bay also signed Iowa State cornerback Leonard Johnson as a free agent after the draft, and were glad they did when Johnson not only made the team but eventually became a starter at right cornerback, finishing second on the team with three interceptions.

Well, it’s time to check out the talent in Mobile once again.  It is highly likely that some of it will once again end up on the Buccaneers’ roster come April.  The 2011 game produced Tampa Bay picks Mason Foster, Luke Stocker and Ahmad Black, for example.   And that’s why virtually everybody in the Bucs’ personnel and coaching offices will be in the “Port City” this week.  That includes General Manager Mark Dominik, Head Coach Greg Schiano, Director of Player Personnel Dennis Hickey, Director of College Scouting Eric Stokes and a host of other scouts and coaches.

The Senior Bowl annually attracts about 800 NFL team employees over the course of its week of practices and Saturday’s game.  Additionally, coaches and scouts who are between jobs – there are always some, with the annual head coaching turnover – treat the Mobile week as something of a job market and are on hand, as well.  The two teams are even coached by full NFL team staffs; this year, Jim Schwartz and the Lions will direct the South squad while Dennis Allen and the Raiders will lead the North squad.

The participating players actually arrived in Mobile over the weekend, some of them taking part in an introductory press conference on Sunday evening.  On Saturday night, the players and NFL reps got together to begin one of the most important processes of the entire week: one-on-one interviews.  Those will continue each evening during the week, but the players will also display their skills on the field in front of team scouts during the mornings and afternoons.  The practices started on Monday afternoon, in fact, after the morning was used for weigh-ins.

So, which players will be drawing the most attention in Mobile this year?  Some of the best action will be in the OL/DL one-on-one battles in practice, where the likes of Central Michigan T Eric Fisher and Oklahoma T Lane Johnson will be tested by potential high draft picks like BYU DE Ezekial Ansah, Missouri Southern defensive tackle Brandon Williams and SMU defensive tackle Margus Hunt.

As for the quarterbacks, the situation could be quite similar to last year.  Griffin and Andrew Luck were juniors (and likely wouldn’t have gone to Mobile, anyway, given that they were already certain to be drafted 1-2), so the quarterbacks jockeying for draft position behind them got the Senior Bowl stage.  This year, the presumptive first two quarterbacks drafted, Geno Smith and Matt Barkley, won’t be in Alabama  so Zac Dysert, Mike Glennon, Landry Jones, E.J. Manuel, Ryan Nassib, and Tyler Wilson will get a chance to show what they can do and potentially help their draft stock.

Buccaneer scouts and coaches will be watching.  Fans can, too, thanks to the NFL Network Senior Bowl coverage that has expanded significantly in recent years. Click here for a full schedule of the Network’s programming this week, including an hour of coverage from the Monday Senior Bowl practice at 4:00 p.m. ET.

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