The draft starts in Mobile, and so did Dave Ziegler's tenure as the Las Vegas Raiders General Manager.
Days after his introductory press conference with college teammate and Raiders new Head Coach Josh McDaniels in 2021, Ziegler found himself on a flight to Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. It wasn't his first rodeo at the Senior Bowl, however he admitted things were vastly different this time around as the longtime scout and New England Patriots director of player personnel was now steering the ship.
"This time during last year it was much more of a scramble," Ziegler said. "Probably at least the first two weeks of my job I spent solely on coaching interviews, so there wasn't a lot of scouting going on during that time."
Fast-forward 365 days later, Ziegler has settled into a seat in Hancock Whitney Stadium with a great view at the 50-yard line overlooking the field with assistant general manager Champ Kelly and several other scouts. Kelly was one of Ziegler's first hires upon arriving to Las Vegas, having met while serving in the scouting department for the Denver Broncos over a decade ago.
Despite the Raiders finishing with a 6-11 record this past season, Ziegler finds himself in an advantageous situation heading into the 2023 offseason. The Silver and Black have the No. 7 pick in the upcoming draft with close to 10 more picks at their disposal. They were also able to nominate defensive coordinator Patrick Graham to serve as a head coach in the Senior Bowl, giving him close access to the players coming out in the draft.
"Much different place now this year," reflected Ziegler. "We have so much of a better idea of what our roster is now. We have a really good understanding of who's on the team, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what our holes are, what our big picture perspective is. Last year when we got here [to Mobile], you have the film that you watched on players but you haven't seen them practice, you haven't met them and got to know their personalities. What drives them, what doesn't drive them.
"All of those things come together where we're at a place now with a lot more clarity and a great understanding of where the Las Vegas Raiders are, where they need to go and what the improvements need to be in the offseason."
The Raiders general manager also stated how beneficial it's been for the coaching staff to become more comfortable with player personnel, and getting a better understanding of the longterm vision of the team as a whole.
"We're so much further ahead, not just from the scouting but the learning," said Ziegler. "Everybody was always pulling in the same direction from the beginning. We have a lot of good people here, but now people are pulling in the right direction with knowledge and with perspective and with an understanding of what we're looking for.
"Much, much different place than we were a year ago, [but] that doesn't guarantee you anything. It definitely gives you a leg up in terms of achieving success, but you still have to put in the work. You still have to go to the practices, interview the players, you still have a lot of pieces to the puzzle that have to be put together to ultimately have a successful draft in this case."
Ziegler believes the most valuable part of being at the Senior Bowl is evaluating talent from lower FBS, FCS and Division II or III programs, as well as players trying their hand at a different position. The week of practice plus the bowl game gives those athletes opportunities to showcase their skills and raise their draft stock.
The general manager doesn't have to look much further for an example than his first pick with the Raiders organization in Dylan Parham. The offensive lineman, from Conference USA's Memphis, jumped out to Ziegler and his staff at last year's Senior Bowl – prompting the team to draft him with the 90th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Parham started all 17 games as a rookie at left guard, right guard and center, earning a PFWA 2022 All-Rookie Team selection.
"Dylan went to Memphis, and they play good competition, but he also got the opportunity out here to play against some of the top defensive players from different conferences and see how he matched up against those people," said Ziegler. "It was important to see his level of consistency stay the same based off the stuff we've seen on film.
"We also got to see Dylan play guard and center here. He played a lot of guard at Memphis and the opportunity to see him play center – snap the ball, call out the defense, make some of the calls – those were some of the things we talked about after we drafted him. His versatility and his consistency as an offensive lineman, we got to see those things at the Senior Bowl on full display. It was a piece to the puzzle that went into the decision of drafting him."
The joy of the Senior Bowl, going into his second season as the Raiders GM, hasn't ceased. He noted more understanding in certain aspects, especially at having a better pulse on the locker room and who may be in it this upcoming season. After all, Ziegler is still a former player and scout at heart.
"I love this time of year. This is a really exciting time for anyone who's in scouting," he said. "This is the first opportunity you get through the season to have some clarity on what your strengths and your weaknesses are as a team. And you have a plan on how you want to improve them team, and this one of the first opportunities this whole spring of finding those pieces and finding those different players that are going to help your team – and hopefully be the life blood of your team for years to come."
The Play Football Opening Night was hosted at Allegiant Stadium where youth football teams were able to meet NFL players as well as enjoy activities and food.