To know the path the Bengals are taking to the April 25-27 NFL Draft, take a look at last year's route.
A year ago this week, the only place in Cincinnati where Alabama safety Jordan Battle was a household name was in the Bengals draft room.
The Bengals were a good four months from drafting their 2023 rookie of the year and building their draft board. But by Jan. 23, 2023, Battle had already been discussed with the player personnel department and ownership in Paycor Stadium meetings taking place even as the team prepared for its last regular-season game.
No board yet, but his name had a grade given by the scouts on a list of safeties that would hold up with his third-round selection.
"We would have put an initial talent and round grade on him at that point and it was based off where we took him," says director of college scouting Mike Potts a year later. "He was already in the mix."
So was seventh-rounder D.J. Ivey. He had already been discussed and graded in the initial meetings despite not getting a combine invite.
So there's a pretty good chance this season's top rookie has already been discussed as Potts and director of player personnel Duke Tobin finalize trips the next two weeks to the biggest all-star games.
On Thursday night the scouts leave for Frisco, Tex., for the East-West Game at The Star, the Cowboys' practice facility. On Sunday night they take off for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
When they return to file their reports, they'll also need to submit the names of the 45 prospects they're allowed to interview in 18-minute sessions at the Feb. 29-March 3 NFL scouting combine. The two weeks or so leading into the scouting extravaganza in Indianapolis are the scene of another round of meetings with ownership.
The scouts had a bunch of reasons to put Battle on that list of 45 prospects, starting with need and his SEC-tested 44 starts for the Crimson Tide across four seasons.
"In those initial meetings, we went over all of his character and medical information that we had from our school visits throughout the fall. Obviously, he checked all those boxes as far as character and intelligence," Potts says. "When you have that much on your college resume, you feel like you've been scouting him already for three or four years."
The coaches, who no longer attend next week's Senior Bowl in the name of efficiency, won't get involved until they head to Indy with lists of players supplied by the scouts. The coaches are welcome to pop in and head coach Zac Taylor and his coordinators are occasional guests.
"Usually before we go to the combine, they're not far enough in the process at that point to say, 'Hey, I've got a really strong feeling about this guy,' unless he had previous exposure to the player," Potts says. "After we get through the combine and they've been exposed to interviews with the players and they've had more time to watch more tape on the players and see how they perform in the combine, they'll start to develop stronger feelings."
That's when the scouts begin to get feedback from the coaches. "I'd like to do a little more on his guy. Can you send me to this guy's pro day?" Or maybe, 'This guy really turned me off. He may not be a good fit for us. Maybe we should use our time and efforts elsewhere."
Pro days are the campus visits that take place the month after the combine. The NFL's version of March Madness. Often, they can be campus workouts if the prospect chose not work at the combine or, like Ivey, wasn't invited.
Even while the prospects are running their 40-yard dashes at the combine, Potts is in the Bengals suite high above the Lucas Oil Stadium turf consulting with the coaches to craft their pro day travel schedule.
Maybe an interview went awry to scratch one visit. Maybe one was added after an eye-popping workout.
"Sometimes there are ten of them on the same day and you have to decide on how you and divide and conquer," Potts says. "We want a plan of attack."
Battle's combine was so good, that the Bengals didn't have to see him at his pro day, although they saw him because the Alabama pro day is so well attended by the NFL Potts calls it "a mini combine." Battle not only ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash, but the Bengals called his 18-minute interview one of the best they could remember.
"The combine isn't the end of the process. But he was very effective. He ran well and he needed to check that box and he polished it. He wanted to prove something," Potts says.
They begin their final draft meeting as the pro days are ending, three weeks before the draft. All the information gathered in the last year by coaches, scouts, and execs is culled for one final grade assigned roughly about a week out.
"I don't think Battle's changed that much," Potts says.
Ivey's route had a few more obstacles because of the lack of a combine, but his Miami tape showed that 4.3-second 40-speed and his coverability that he brought to his impressive training camp. He kept flashing it right up until he tore his ACL in the Dec. 16 win over the Vikings as they hold up hope they've found a fourth or fifth cornerback and maybe more.
Potts always has a bunch of different lists going and one of them contains the potential non-combine players they want to bring in for a physical and interview two weeks before the draft. When Ivey fattened up his resume at the NFL Players Association All-Star Game a year ago this week and then didn't get the Indy invite, Potts put him on the list of potentials.
What solidified Ivey's Paycor invite was his pro day, which Potts attended with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. With Ivey working next to fellow cornerback
Tyrique Stevenson, a future second-round pick of the Bears, both were extremely impressed. Before he left the facility, Potts called Bengals defensive quality control coach Louie Cioffi, a guy who helps him set up visits, to get one squared away with Ivey.
"We liked him enough to have draftable grades early. He checked that box with that evaluation. He checked the box of what we saw at the all-star game. He had a really good workout at his pro day and then he checks that final walkthrough (at the pre-draft visit)," Potts says.
"If he was testing at the combine, we would have been a month further along in the process. So that just kind of pushed the final box."
The next Battle and Ivey? A Battle-tested combine prospect and a non-invitee?
They're already talking about them.