MOBILE, Ala. — Lovie Smith turned down a chance to have his staff coach at the Senior Bowl, but he said the Bucs will go everywhere they can to make sure they find the best use of the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft.
"We're going to hit the pavement hard," Smith said Wednesday. "Yeah, we missed actually coaching here, but we're seeing all the practices. Our frequent-flyer miles will really add up this offseason. I'm going to travel a lot."
The Bucs were just hiring general manager Jason Licht a year ago this week, and director of player personnel Jon Robinson arrived after the draft in May, so Smith believes the team is far ahead in its evaluation process and much more aware of its strengths and weaknesses, something he said he didn't have until his first minicamp in April.
"We're in a lot better position this year to get great evaluations," he said. "We know our roster now, instead of waiting for that early minicamp to see exactly what we had on the field."
Smith is still completing his coaching staff — new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who is recovering from hip surgery, will be in the office to start work Monday, but the team likely needs a quarterbacks coach to replace Marcus Arroyo, who did not return. Smith stopped short of saying that all the other assistants would return.
"It was an easy hire," Smith said of Koetter, who spent the past three years running the Falcons offense. "I had him pegged. After he came available, I looked at a lot of different people. A lot of people had interest in the situation we feel like we have in Tampa, but he was a perfect fit for what we want to do."
Smith went with Licht to Pasadena, Calif., to see the draft's top two quarterbacks, Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, play in a national semifinal, then went to the national championship game.
"We got there early, went to see all the warmups," Smith said of the FSU-Oregon Rose Bowl matchup. "We got the chance to see two potential guys that maybe are going to be high draft picks, got to watch them in detail, throughout the game, in between. I think anytime you have the chance to watch somebody so something you can make an evaluation on, you do it."
Given the No. 1 overall choice is part of eight draft picks and another chance to improve the team through free agency, Smith is optimistic that the Bucs can take a big step forward, taking so many close losses in 2014 and turning them into wins.
"We're a lot closer," Smith said. "Every losing team is saying that, right? 'Hey, yeah, we're here.' But we're a lot closer. I'm going to say that. I think we're pretty close. I think we're one of those teams that can make a quick turnaround. … You are what your record says you are. We're a 2-14 team. If you look a little bit closer, though, I think you'll come to the same conclusion that we're a coming team. We're close. I can say that, and it's just not coach talk I'm giving you. I really feel like we're close, and we're going to see a marked improvement next year."
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Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 226-3346.