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Zooming Behind The Scenes As Bengals Interview Draft Prospects: 'It's A Personal Game'

Mark Duffner

The Zoom Interview came into the NFL Draft lexicon during the 2020 pandemic and like hand sanitizer, it stuck. Two weeks before another draft in the Zooming '20s, the Zooms are in their final, valuable stages for this spring as the Bengals plot their board for the April 25-27 event.

"You're on right now. I got you. A-plus," senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner tells a prospect staring out of his computer earlier this week. "Where are you right now?"

Better yet, where is Duffner? In the middle of three one-hour Zooms this afternoon with his notes piled around him like sandbags in a foxhole.

And where this particular prospect is right now is looking at the possibility of not being drafted. So both Duffner and his cyber visitor spend the next 50 minutes or so selling each other.

But even if the guy is one of the draftable Duffner Zooms, there is still only a dart-board toss of a chance the Bengals get him.

Yet each session is carefully recorded and logged. This is what Duffner and the rest of the coaching staff, in conjunction with the scouting staff, have been doing during the 51 days the league allows Zooming of prospects, from March 4 until the day before the draft.

Duffner makes sure he has written this player's last name phonetically and at the end of the Zoom he'll check his notes and try it on the man himself.

"It's never a moot point developing a relationship with players," Duffner says. "If we do get them, we've already started a connection and are that much further along in relationship building and teaching. If we don't get him in the draft, free agency comes around in the next three, four years, and there's a chance we'll get them on the rebound."

When Duffner was the Buccaneers linebackers coach in 2017, he worked out an outside linebacker from Florida Atlantic named Trey Hendrickson. Hendrickson has morphed into a two-time Pro Bowler on the Bengals edge, a spot Duffner works with Marion Hobby ("the best line coach out there," he tells the prospect) and the position Duffner seeks this spring.

He figures this is the 30th edger he's Zoomed. Teams are allowed three one-hour Zooms per player and Duffner figures he'll do a total of about 60, with the follow-up calls not as extensive as the first contact. Plus, he's already met most of them at the NFL scouting combine, where he's on the field for the drills, or at pro days.

And Hobby also checks in with some of the edgers as well in a collaborative effort along the front.

"You watch film and try to determine what kind player he is. You watch him at the combine and see what kind of athlete he is," Duffner says. "Change of direction, speed, quickness, strength. In these Zooms, one-on-one connections, you're trying to determine the man. What's his makeup? His thought process? How passionate he is. What kind of personality he is. The best you can."

In 50 minutes, Duffner, 70, wears every hat from his 50 seasons as a coach. Recruiter as the head man at Holy Cross and then Maryland. Technician as the 28-year NFL assistant. Mentor as the Hall-of-Famer at Holy Cross, where he lost five games in six seasons.

"What was your weight when you got to college? What is it now? What do you think is your best playing weight?" Duffner asks the prospect and after he hears the answers, he offers, "Don't fool around with your weight too much. Be what you think is your quickest and fastest weight if you're on the Bengals or another team. Speed has been an attribute of yours. You don't want to fool with that. Sometimes rookies think they have to be bigger. Don't do that."

Duffner talks various kinds of techniques up front and which ones the prospect likes playing and why. From being on the field at the combine and watching tape, he already knows the answer, but he wants to get an idea of the player's intellect.

"I see what you told me at the combine," says Duffner, glancing at his notes of their informal face-to-face in Indianapolis.

Duffner also wants to gauge how he learns. He runs through how he and Hobby teach.

"If you see it, if you say it, if you write it, if you do it, we all learn it," Duffner tells him. "We'll go through alignment and assignment. Then I show you a cutup. We'll see it and talk through it first. Then we'll go outside the office here and walk through situations and do it as a unit. Then we go out to practice and rep it. With that kind of progression, do you think you'd be in pretty good shape?"


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But Duffner spends more time trying to find that man he talks about rather than the player. He knows the player. The man he's Zooming with now, like all the men of the draft, have their unique background.

This one is particularly powerful, an eloquent story involving loss and faith. Duffner gently coaxes the story along, asking about the most influential people in his life and goals after football.

"He's well prepared. Well thought out. A serious guy," Duffner says later.

He's about to sign off. He tells the prospect he'll touch base one more time before the draft.

"You have any questions about the Bengals, call me," Duffner says.

He tries out a few nicknames for him.

"I'll probably call you this," Duffner says. "Not one time will I call you by your last name. Not one time. That's impersonal. This is a personal game."

And then the face was gone, but the draft keeps Zooming.