As far as instant gratification, it turned out to be one of the more productive draft picks in the history of the Bengals. At No. 37 in the top of the second round last year, they selected North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard and he bolted off the board to a club-record 56 catches by a running back while averaging 4.1 yards per 170 scintillating carries and earning a berth as a NFL Rookie of the Year finalist.
Not to mention capturing the imagination with humility and passion in the effort to pull his family out of poverty and despair in the wake of his mother’s death at age seven.
He went from borderline second-rounder to the red carpet of NFL awards night at the Super Bowl.
The pick also displayed why the Bengals have drafted so well over the past five years. True, Bernard is one of those rare no-brainers draped in war-room unanimity. But he had to get there through an intense series of checks and balances interlocking the personnel department, coaching staff, and ownership in their effort to pull consensus out of the myriad of names and numbers.
With this year’s first round on Thursday night, here’s how Bernard became a Bengal last year:
Like he does at every school he visits during the season, Greg Seamon, the Bengals’ east coast scout, sits down with the people he knows and trusts and talks about their pro prospects. During a discussion with North Carolina offensive coordinator John Shoop in the 2010 season, he tells Seamon he’s excited about a freshman running back that he can use in every aspect of the offense. This catches Seamon’s attention since Shoop is a former coordinator with the Bears and Raiders who runs the pro style. The kid is only 5-9, but the new NFL has been kind to short backs that can catch and jet in the ever growing spaces of the pro game.
It isn’t too long after that when Bernard tears up his knee and misses the rest of that frosh season. But Seamon files the conversation away.
“That’s the first line of defense for us, the area scouts,” says director of player personnel Duke Tobin. “Those are the guys on the ground and the guys closest to the programs. They’re going to see these guys before anybody else.”
After his sophomore season, Seamon thinks Bernard might have a shot at the pros, “but he was still a short player coming off a knee injury, so you weren’t going to put him in the Hall of Fame,” but in 2012 Shoop’s vision becomes reality.
Seamon can run down the stats for you. How Bernard led the ACC in all-purpose yards and yards from scrimmage and was among the national leaders in punt return yardage. There isn’t one moment that convinces Seamon the kid can be an elite player, but just a weekly dose of 100-yard rushing games, 50-yard catch games, and big plays on punts.
But there is one play…
“North Carolina had lost against North Carolina State. Gio had sprained his ankle and they took him off punt returns to preserve him on offense,” Seamon recalls. “North Carolina stopped them in the last minute and Gio convinced Coach to put him back on punt return. With a heavily-taped ankle, he ran it over 70 yards for the touchdown to win the game. Tough guy. Good teammate. A lot of kids with his ability that were a little dinged up might not have been so interested in going back out there. He practically demanded it.
“We all know the kind of guy Gio is and you saw it,” Seamon says. “No one on campus ever dinged his character.”
All of it makes Seamon’s report, which he files into the system the night of his campus visit. Every scout, owner, and football exec has access to everyone’s report. At the end of the year, Seamon likes to go back and check the end-of-season games to see who’s fumbling, or moping, or hurt because dynamics change.
But not Bernard.
“Everybody liked him on tape,” Seamon says. “It was just a matter of how much do you like him?”
THE CROSS CHECK
Since Bernard came out early as a junior, he undergoes a slightly different process. The Bengals dedicate most of the college season to scouting seniors before the juniors list is released in mid-January. They get a jump start on some juniors about a month before because of the NFL Advisory Board, the panel that advises underclassmen where they’ll probably be chosen in the draft.
All 32 teams are assigned players to give those juniors grades and the clubs are all apprised of the total list of players mulling heading into the draft. If the Bengals have some junior reports from the fall, like they do on Bernard, they’ll contribute them.
“Running backs tend to come out (early), so we focus on them a little earlier in the process,” Tobin says. “With that position group, it seems like if they have a strong junior year, they come out.”
But junior or senior, every Bengals’ prospect gets cross-checked. Each scout is in charge of a couple of positions that they rank and cross-check with the area scout. Bill Tobin, Duke’s father and the 44-year NFL veteran, ranks the running backs while scouting the Midwest.
Bill Tobin doesn’t mind lack of height. What he wants to see is speed, smarts, and aggressiveness. Needless to say, he sees plenty of that from Bernard and says so. What he really likes is the way he pass blocks. Bernard might not have been an A in that department, but Tobin notices he doesn’t back off, or try to measure up a guy, or duck his head. He’s an NFL pass protector in the making.
The other Tobin also files a cross check on Bernard because he hits all the top prospects. But Duke Tobin knows that a fourth report is going to be just as valuable.
“The more you get the coaches involved, the more they can start visualizing the guy in the scheme,” Duke Tobin says. “That sometimes can break ties between two different players. ‘Comparable ability level, but this guy fits what we’re looking to do. We can get him involved early.’ That helps when coaches get involved. We want to take guys that can contribute early. No sense taking guys that are going to be three-year projects, especially early in the draft. With Gio there was a clear, identified role from our coaching staff.”
The coaches start getting involved in the draft in late January, Senior Bowl time. But after getting prepped by the scouts, they are hitting the ground running a month later at the NFL Scouting Combine and for the first time since the James Brooks trade, the retired Jim Anderson, a.k.a. J.A. isn’t the running backs coach when the league gathers for the 2013 combine.
But his successor, Hue Jackson, is no stranger to the Bengals under head coach Marvin Lewis after overseeing two of the most prolific wide receivers in club history when he was the position coach for Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh a decade before. And he’s familiar with NFL running backs because he turned the Raiders into a top ten rushing team as the head coach and offensive coordinator.
Jackson first hears of Bernard’s name back in October, when he’s casually talking to Seamon, his offensive coordinator when he quarterbacked Pacific all those years ago. Here’s a guy you’ve got to look at when you get a chance, Seamon tells him as he’s listing players to watch.
“I trust Coach Seamon, so I went looking for the tape (after the season),” Jackson says. “That was my first exposure, watching the tape. But I didn’t know him as a running back, I thought he was a tremendous punt returner.”
Jackson first studies the multi-purpose backs and how they catch, how they run screens, and how they run routes out of the backfield. Then he watches what he calls, “the runners,’ his interest percolates because Bernard is right there with that group. Plus, his speed and work in space gives them something to pair with meat-and-potatoes back
“We’re looking for a guy who could do different things than we already had at the time. We were looking for a complement to Benny. He had to catch the ball, he had to have versatility. That’s how it started,” Jackson says.
The Bengals are one of eight teams that schedule Bernard for a 15-minute interview session at the combine. Bernard feels his sit down with the Bengals is his worst interview of the lot. He thinks he flopped the psychological part of the discussion, particularly when he’s asked to recite a group of numbers backward.
But when Jackson leads the grease board session with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden jumping in, Bernard feels comfortable. So must have Jackson because he later pulls aside Bernard for a quick seven-minute discussion that is their first meeting and he feels the vibe.
“He looked me in the eye. You could have a conversation with him. Pleasant. You could tell football is important to him. He wasn’t just there for the show,” Jackson says.
THE TRASH CAN DRILL
As Bernard remembers it, just two running backs coaches are on campus for the Tar Heels pro day a few weeks after the combine. Seamon accompanies Jackson to Chapel Hill, N.C., and after the standard running, lifting, and jumping, Jackson runs the drills for the backs, allowing him to use his notorious Trash Can Drill.
(This is after Bernard effortlessly catches the ball.)
Jackson places a trash can directly in front of him to represent the tackler and instructs the backs to run full speed straight at him. When he points at the last instant, they have to cut in that direction. Those who aren’t going in the second round can frequently crash into Jackson because he waits what seems an interminable span to point the finger. And it happens a few times here with the non-Gio backs.
“The test was to see how a guy could cut laterally at full speed. Gio was remarkable. His feet were just alive," Seamon says. "Not only did he break laterally, but then as soon as that second foot hit the ground whether he was breaking right or left, he had the ability to then accelerate out of that. Those are NFL moves. There are very few big, wide open holes in the NFL. As a running back you have to be able to defeat the tackler. If you’re not big, you can’t run them over. You have to make them miss in a small space. He can spin and duck, but you’ve got to have quick feet to be an elite back and from the things Hue made him do you could see the wonderful agility. I think Hue walked out of there with a pretty big smile.”
But Jackson isn’t sold yet.
“He had that jump cut mobility as J.A. taught me a long time ago,’ Jackson says. It confirmed for me his speed, quickness and suddenness…I walked out of there thinking he was a guy. You continue to do more work, talk to the people around the university...We knew what kind of player he was. Could he handle the grind of the NFL and trying to be a consistent player? I’ve never been one to fear size. As long as they have desire, courage and want to.”
THE THANK YOU NOTE
Jackson is convinced in April when Bernard is one of the 30 prospects the Bengals are allowed to visit the facility a day before the draft. For the first time he can spend time getting to know Bernard both in and out of the office. For the first time he tests Bernard on retaining part of the playbook and he’s impressed when he spits it back at him.
“I knew after that day that he was one of my guys,” Jackson says. “He burned with the desire to be the best. He came out early for all the right reasons. It confirmed what his coaches and people on campus had been saying.”
The stadium visits are another piece of the puzzle. Maybe fourth or fifth on the list, Tobin says. The prospect meets the people in the training and equipment rooms, and other staffers that bump into him in the hallways. His set meetings are with the coordinator, position coach, Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown. They compare notes and if he comes into the building mumbling, that could be a tiebreaker.
Bernard comes as advertised. He literally sends his own RSVP. The Bengals know he’s coming. After the combine, he writes thank you notes to the eight teams that invited him in for a sit down at the combine.
“Every note was different. You’re not going to have the same type of meeting with another coach,” Bernard says. “I thought it would be a good idea. I thought it would be something that helped me out. It paid off at the end.”
With about 10 days before the draft _ unless it is in May when it is three weeks before the draft _ the Bengals start crafting their final two boards in draft-room meetings chaired by Brown where all three layers of the process meet.
The position board and the overall grade board have been changed and updated all year, but this is the final version. The toughest and most important board is lining up all the players based on grade.
“The hard thing is blending them all together and this is where the people who have seen them all come to the forefront. Trying to blend the positions and the coordinators are a big help on their side of the ball,” Tobin says. “Who’s a more important fit? We try to use what our (coaching) staff is thinking to try to blend them together to get one through 21. You can even go down where we were picking in the second round to 53.”
The Bengals eventually extend it out through four rounds before the draft, writing the names in marker on a grease board, and then fill in the rest as the draft unfolds. After each position coach and area scout speaks and the others add their own insights, Brown usually steers them to a consensus for the overall ranking.
The differences the past five years? Tobin has a bigger presence in the draft room, there is more cross-checking, and for the most part they have steadfastly held to the grades and not been swayed by the depth chart. Four people have written reports on Bernard and Lewis and Gruden have also watched film of him extensively.
Lewis continues to also have big presence in the process as a guy that Brown continually confers with in the days leading up to the draft, as well as during the picks. Lewis’ ability to deal with young players has also been a factor in the success of the last five drafts.
“We like guys that fit and guys that everybody feels good about,” Tobin says. “We want the guy walking in to have the best chance. And if somebody is dead set against a guy, we try to resolve the issue and if we can’t resolve the issue, we’ll go a different direction. Mike has been great at managing different opinions and trying to find a consensus.”
But as Tobin says, Bernard is an easy pick. After Seamon’s conversation with Shoop three years before, all they’ve been able to uncover is gold about Bernard and the talent, character and fit in the offense is reflected in his final grade.
The 11th overall player on the Bengals board.
After all, who sends thank you notes?
It is Saturday, the draft is heading into the fifth round, and the room is feeling pretty good. On Thursday night, the Bengals are stunned that their No. 6 player, Notre Dame tight end
Then on Friday night they make Bernard the first running back taken in another no-brainer. They sign right tackle
“There are some years the picks are harder. They all disappear and the fit might not be perfect and the player might not be perfect,” Tobin says. “We’ve been fortunate to have some drafts where guys that have been our focus have been there. Some of that is luck and some of it is analysis of what teams do and the likelihood of the guy lasting to us. We had a high second-round pick and that was part of the strategy. We had a number of guys we liked. We weren’t holding our breath for one guy. We liked this one the best.
“Some drafts are harder than others. You can get disappointed, then you have to re-focus, Tobin says. “As long as you stay true to the talent level. There’s always another guy you have a good grade that you can go to.”
Bernard stands in the doorway of the draft room Saturday. He gives a salute and "Thank you," and when he walks over to Brown to shake his hand, Brown says, "Thank you for your note."
"Thank you for the pick," Bernard says.
Seamon is back in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago for the North Carolina pro day. Suddenly he hears someone running up behind him and now he’s getting hugged. He turns around and it is Bernard.
He tells Seamon he’s here because it is his class that is working out today for its big shot and he wanted to be here to support the guys that he came in with four years ago.
“He didn’t have to get on a plane and fly to North Carolina just to be there on that day to lend moral support,” Seamon says. “He’s a good one. Good guy on and off the field. Bright future.”