INDIANAPOLIS — Now that the draft is like everything else in the NFL and a 365-day proposition, the people who analyze it have turned it into the game's Dow Jones report. And they'll tell you in the last four drafts the Bengals have been bullish with four Pro Bowl selections, a double-digit sacker, and seven players with at least two playoff starts.
"You've got to give the Bengals, who justifiably years ago took a lot of heat for their drafting, (credit)," says the NFL Network's Mike Mayock. "The reason they're in the playoffs back‑to‑back years is because they've done a much better job over the last four or five years."
On Friday, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis pointed to the expanded role of Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin as a reason for the spate of success. Since the Bengals are a one-voice organization in which Lewis does the talking, the personnel department works largely in the shadows of Paul Brown Stadium. But Lewis shed some light on Tobin's growing influence during his media availability at the NFL Scouting Combine, much like he did last year after the Bengals put four players in the Pro Bowl 24 years old or younger.
"He’s done a very good job of putting the information together, the cross-checking of things, the organization of things. He’s really streamlined it, I think both personnel and coaching-wise," Lewis said of Tobin. "We have a pretty good blueprint for what we’re looking for what we do on offense, defense and special teams. We’ve shown some flexibility that for whatever reason we may have had a little higher grade on and were available to us when it was our turn to pick. We’ve done a great job of doing what those guys have done on their college campus and tried to give them at least that No. 1 thing to do when we got them on our field."
Tobin is heading into his 15th draft with the club and his growing influence marks a departure from the coaching-centric scouting philosophy that Bengals president Mike Brown seems to be tweaking.
"I’ve been very impressed with Duke from the very onset. He’s continued to grow. Mike has given him a great deal of responsibility and put him in charge of a lot of things," Lewis said. "He’s my liaison as far as what we do on the pro side, when we have injuries (during the season) and he’s directing the scouting efforts throughout and making sure that everything’s done and the cross-checks are done so we’re able to do everything we have to evaluate these guys."
The April 25-27 draft ends the first full scouting season of the club's two new twentysomething scouts that came from the college game and were recruited by Tobin. Steve Radicevic replaced Tobin as the West Coast scout, hired when Tobin was impressed how he performed as UCLA's director of football operations. That has freed up Tobin to become a cross-checker deluxe while also hitting the top 40-45 colleges. Livingston, a former assistant coach at Vanderbilt and safety at William and Mary, is roaming his native southeast.
"They’re two young guys who were collegiate coaches so they understand these players. They had great ties to where they were working and they’re excited about their jobs and what they’d done," Lewis said. "I think one of the best parts of scouting is the ability to compare from last year and see what the guy did in the NFL. I always tease people that there’d never have been a Ray Lewis if there hadn’t been a Micheal Barrow or a Jessie Armstead because they showed me how good Ray could be because they were coming out my first two years evaluating guys in the NFL."
The solid drafts have the Bengals treating free agency like intramurals. The only players they'll pursue, at least in the first weeks of free agency that starts March 12 are their own and there are several (23) as well as huge ones, ranging from all four specialists as well as starting right tackle
"Let’s keep betting on our guys. Let’s bet on our guys and move forward," Lewis said of the strategy to re-sign their own. "We’ve got to bet on them. We’ve got to bet on our process. We’ve trained these guys; we’ve grown these guys from the ground up (so) let’s continue to bet on them and the process as we keep moving forward. We’ve got to know that if we’re not successful we’ve got to be on a parallel path, whatever it may be. We’ve always got the draft to fall back on if there is a guy available that way.
"It’s not going to be an emotional thing. I know at the end of the day that I’m going to be comfortable with those guys we put in that room and now we’ve got to coach them up. ... There’s been very few unrestricted free agents signed by a team and it’s been that beneficial. I think it’s better served that way. We have good players. We want to retain our good players and keep growing them up and keep rewarding them for their maturity and the levels they play at."
Lewis said the Bengals have had constructive talks with some of their free agents, but nothing to report. He did say they'd use the franchise tag if they have to, but wouldn't say whom, but the conventional wisdom is Johnson. Various reports have the Bengals about $50 million under the salary cap, but they've also got tons of guys to sign and have seven starting slots unsigned.
"Rey has played two different spots for us. He really grew in his role and leadership and so forth. We’ve been to the playoffs three times in Rey’s four-year career," Lewis said. "He’s been a great part of our success. He’s a free-agent player. He’s going to have some opportunity, just like our other guys. We’ve just got to see what happens.
"We want to have all of our guys come back. That’s all we can do."
No matter how the smoke clears, the Bengals are going to have most of a team back that is going to see a head coach still stewing over its 19-13 Wild Card loss in Houston. The tentative, sloppy way the Bengals played after going 7-1 down the stretch surprised Lewis.
"We’ve had opportunities and haven’t played as well in those games. I didn’t think that would be an issue for us. We played the last half of the season like those were playoff games," Lewis said. "We knew that if we lost the games we were going to be out of it. We put wins together but didn’t go down in Houston and play well. We were relaxed but didn’t have that resolve or attack.
"I think a little bit of it is youth but I think also it comes back to me as the head coach. It’s my job with how we prepare our guys to understand how important each and every play is. We have certain plays, certain isolation plays. We went into that game saying we’re going to be able to do this and did. We’ve got to go execute it."
Lewis called himself out a few times during the course of the day, saying he and his staff have to coach better. He seemed to be saying that he wanted to make sure he keeps the offense on the straight and narrow and not let it stray far from the run. He pointed to the four-game winning streak that pulled the Bengals out of a 3-5 start in a stretch they averaged 154 yards on the ground.
"I know what I feel is important for us to do win in the AFC North and I can’t let us get away from those principles," he said. "I have to coach better and I’ve got to be demanding on the things I think are important. Everybody wants to start the year and we’re going to be Star Wars and we’re going to zip and zap the ball here and there. Then you look up and we’re not very good. But when we got back to what the principles are of how you win, then we got better. You’ve got to be able to be physical, you’ve got to be able to run the football, we’ve got to be productive with the football, we’ve got to win on third down, we’ve got to get in third down situations that are manageable. And the same thing defensively."
That may have sounded like he wanted to retool the running game, but Lewis indicated he doesn't. Yet he did say he wanted to "limit" the elements, and that new running backs coach and Lewis's special assistant, Hue Jackson, is going to help offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. With what they think is a talented enough roster to keep homegrown, Lewis wants the simplicity to showcase the talent.
"We’ve got to limit what we do and we’ve got to get sound principles of what we do," Lewis said. "And I think Hue gives us another opportunity with another mind to help Jay with input. Jay does a tremendous job, and you always want to have as many people as you can that can provide the right input and also do a great job of coaching their position. And our coaches have done a nice job of that."