A couple of months after watching Princeton wide receiver Andrei Iosivas emerge from the upstart Ivy League to man up with the Power Five in last year's Senior Bowl, Bengals director of college scouting Mike Potts asked him to sit down in his Paycor Stadium office.
"Especially when you're making that kind of jump, you want to look the guy in the eye," Potts says. "You never for sure know the answer, but you want to have a good feeling in your gut one way or the other.
"Is this going to be too big for this guy?"
The gut retorted, 'No."
A week or so after that meeting, the Bengals drafted Iosivas in the sixth round and were rewarded with a solid rookie year on special teams and four touchdowns from scrimmage.
With Senior Bowl practices starting Tuesday in Mobile, Ala., and the game set for Saturday (1 p.m.- NFL Network), usually you would expect one, two, or maybe even three of those guys to become Bengals this April.
Since Zac Taylor became head coach in 2019, they've taken a dozen players from the Senior Bowl and they're still with the club in a variety of roles.
Linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, along with cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, are starters. Defensive linemen Cam Sample and Zach Carter, as well as tight end Drew Sample, are regular rotational players. Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither and safety Tycen Anderson are special teams staples. Running back Chris Evans and tackle D'Ante Smith are backups.
Iosivas and Illinois running back Chase Brown, a fifth-rounder, literally bolted out of last year's game with 4.3-second, 40-yard dash speed that should vault them into regular roles next season as the scouting season churns.
But the Senior Bowl isn't so senior anymore.
For the first time in the 75 years of the game, underclassmen are allowed and Bengals scouts like senior personnel executive Trey Brown are set to chronicle what that means to the talent level. Before, only fourth-year juniors with a degree could play. They've already seen the Senior Bowl evolve with the influx of NIL money into the college game, as well as extra eligibility because of the pandemic. The numbers of declared underclassmen throughout the draft have dipped.
"We'll find out," says Brown of how the addition of the younger players in Mobile impacts the talent. "One thing that is consistent is that we get a chance to see the top players from around the country go head-to-head with each other. High-end competition. Maybe the one thing that is different is the last couple of years a lot of these top players have had the opportunity to go back to school and weigh their options financially. Now you have to wait and see who attends these all-star games.
"This is really the first time coming out of the fall where we kind of get a confirmation of what the initial draft class is going to look like. Going into it, I would think some of these all-star games are supplementing some of those top senior prospects that end up going back to school or have the extra COVID year. They supplement some of those guys with the top junior prospects now that the juniors can play."
But while there are going to be more younger players, and perhaps less polished, there is also going to be that class of player who chose to stay a year longer.
"The NIL packages that these colleges can put together take some of that financial burden off of a player and they can go back to college for another year and develop their game," Potts says. "We may be getting them a year later, but in some ways it could make our jobs a little bit easier. Less of an element of projection, projecting their traits to what this guy could be two, three, four years down the road, and maybe they're a year closer to a finished product when we get them in some of those cases."
Iosivas was the classic projection coming out of the Ivy. Certainly not because of his athleticism. He was an All-American heptathlete. Certainly not because of his size at 6-3, 205 pounds. But he was always the best athlete on the field. What would happen when he wasn't?
"Not everybody that has his size and speed can just automatically translate to playing football in the NFL. So there's a lot of different angles to evaluate from," Potts says. "But when you see it with your own eyes and he's going against a DB from the SEC or the Big 10 at practice and he's beating them in a similar fashion that he was beating the guys that he played in the Ivy League, then that just gives you another level of confidence."
The Senior Bowl provides that proving ground for guys like Iosivas and Tulane's Cam Sample after they played against the non-powers. There's a reason players in Mobile get drafted if they perform well. Potts figures a third to half of the players headed to next month's NFL scouting combine play in the game.
"On top of that, you see (prospects) in person, so you get another exposure. Your whole staff sees them in person as opposed to maybe just the scouts that are in their area," Potts says. "Just as important, if not more, you get to sit down and interview all of the players that are there. So you have a very good reference point of what you're getting as a person and a player."
Practice for each team is in the mornings or early afternoon. The scouts rotate watching from the field and stands to get a different look and split up the viewing by positions.
They'll work the crowd, too. Maybe picking up a nugget from a scout with another team. Or they may see a college coach who has come to watch his player and get him off to the side for a few moments. Another good source of intel is the Senior Bowl staff itself.
If the scouts aren't at the practice field, they're in their downtown Mobile hotel watching tape of practice, or video of other prospects as they craft their reports.
Each night after dinner is reserved for interviews at the Mobile Convention Center, which is connected to the player hotel. Monday and Thursday night are the mandatory meetings with four players at a time in 10-minute time slots with the scout from that player's area handling the interview.
(No more taping those. Potts isn't so sure a player gives you a true vibe with a camera stuck in his face. They'll save that for Indy.)
And, for the first time this year, Tuesday and Wednesday are optional second interviews. But that doesn't mean they still won't reserve an 18-minute interview in front of the scouts and coaches at the combine next month.
"You might interview a guy at the Senior Bowl, but you might want to spend some more time with him at the combine," says Trey Brown, working Mobile for his third NFL team.
"If you didn't get enough time or you've got some other questions that popped up after watching him more on tape. Or watching the all-star game exposure."
Seniors or juniors. 2024 or 1954. The age-old scouting rituals apply at the Senior Bowl. Looking them in the eye. The Bengals only have to go back one year to see how it worked with Iosivas.
"We're not looking to make a case for a player. That's bias. We're looking to find out all the facts and then at the end of the day, make a final determination," Potts says. "Take a guy like Yoshi. We're not trying to make a case for him. We're trying to find out whether he is cut out for it and at the end of the day, we made the determination that he was."