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Bengals Combine Draft Efforts At New-Look Senior Bowl 

Duke Tobin at last year's NFL scouting combine.
Duke Tobin at last year's NFL scouting combine.

The Senior Bowl, as much of an informal NFL job fair and a leisurely coaches convention as much as it has been a college all-star game in laid-back Mardi Gras Mobile, Ala., has suddenly become none of the above.

It is the 2021 version of the NFL scouting combine with Indianapolis' hectic schedule to match. Here it is just before Wednesday morning's practice and Bengals scout Christian Sarkisian is just now getting to the Mexican eatery Roosters, his favorite Senior Bowl fare.

And Mardi Gras has been cancelled.

"The biggest difference down here is just the lack of socialization," says Sarkisian, who practiced COVID protocols in several locales last season as the Bengals man in Big 12 territory, as well as the Big 10 West. "A lot of it is because of COVID, but it's also the schedule. It's packed."

Or, as Andrew Johnson says, "It is the combine now." Throw in daily testing for players, coaches and NFL officials, and it is Indy on a swab.

Johnson, the Bengals East Coast scout who also traverses the mid-Atlantic as well as some Midwestern pockets, says after watching prospects this week "that could be it," for viewing players live before the draft at the end of April.

With next month's combine now reserved for only physicals, if that, the Senior Bowl is allowing each prospect to be interviewed by each team in evening sessions at the Mobile Convention Center on the Mobile River.

Two weeks ago, after the Bengals personnel department saw the notice pretty much eliminating the combine as we know it, the scouts went into meetings to prepare for a Senior Bowl that could be their last in-person access to players if that player's school doesn't have a pro day.

"In order to get our questions ready for each guy, we drilled down into specific subjects," Sarkisian says.

What was once a week filled with many impromptu meetings (this year, anyway, Johnson isn't allowed to squire away, say, East Carolina left tackle D'Ante Smith from one of the two crowded lobbies and talk to him alone in a secluded corner of the Renaissance Hotel) are now scheduled as rigidly as the combine interviews.

The 20-minute break between the two practices stretching from 11-4 doesn't help much ("You want to make sure you're there when they do anything," Sarkisian says) and after a quick team dinner, the Bengals' scouting party of 10 (the number for all teams) has to be in place at 6:30 p.m. before the first players arrive at 7.

The team gets two prospects every 15 minutes with Johnson leading the questioning at one table and Sarkisian at the other as director of player personnel Duke Tobin and some of his staff, along with head coach Zac Taylor and his coordinators, roam between the two.

If they're lucky, they're out of there around 11:15.

"By that time, you don't want to go out anyway because you've already been talking for four to five hours, Sarkisian says.

Make that yelling. With the players behind plexiglass, Johnson says the biggest challenge of this week is just to hear the answers. He's asked them to speak up, but he's still taking notes.

"You want guys to be themselves, but if you're asking a quiet guy to yell, well, it's still a good opportunity to get to know them," Johnson says.

But have no fear. Johnson and Sarkisian have set up small cameras at each table and are taping each interview. That seems to be working even with Bengals' Vicar of Video Travis Brammer and his staff 750 miles away at Paul Brown Stadium.

"We checked out the sound after the Monday night interviews and it's good," Johnson says. "There's not much to the camera. There's a button we flick on and off."

But other than playing it by ear, Johnson loves how the week is going because it so compact. What he also likes is the absence of the annual flock of agents looking to boost their players, the yearly infestation of college coaches looking for a shot at the pros, the new cycle of college grads looking to latch on to any area of an NFL team and the seasonal influx of fans being fans.

"All that stuff," Johnson says, "gets to be exhausting. Now, this week, you've been able to just focus on your job."

But COVID has made sure no job is easy. The National and American rosters have some players who either played a limited number of games or didn't play at all last season. Smith, the East Carolina left tackle that Johnson had charted for 27 straight starts, is one of those only-in-2020 cases.

Before Smith could play in the '20 opener, he went through three different quarantines. He played in the opener, left before it was over with an undisclosed injury and then decided not to play the rest of the year and get ready for the draft. Obviously he couldn't train or eat the way he wanted in the run-up to the season, when his school had him listed at 275 pounds, so Tuesday's weigh-in was big for him.

Smith tipped at 294 pounds. Better, but he'll need more than that to play tackle in the NFL. So there are already a lot of strength questions, plus he hasn't played in basically a year. But there are also those 35-inch arms that the scouts love.

"I thought he practiced pretty well for some of the kids who were out of it this year," Johnson says. "It's tough to project. There are a lot of guys down here that are rusty, but even in a regular year guys get down here and haven't played in a while."

Sarkisian thinks the players who opted out of this season or didn't play much looked pretty good. He could tell they had been training and Tuesday looked like any other first day. The small school offensive linemen that didn't get a lot of snaps in the season, he felt, held their own.

"It's like the first couple days of (Bengals) training camp. It's not quite there and things need to get cleaned up," Sarkisian says. "Big, inside guys who can move people. They're working on their technique."

Sarkisian believes the Bengals' experience coaching last year's Senior Bowl is helping the staff this year. They'll be quicker not to rush to judgment.

"The big thing is noting the confidence gains," Sarkisian says. "Being part of the position meetings, you saw guys take that step from the first practice to that second practice to that third practice into the game. Last year we all learned seeing guys' confidence grow and when you expect them to take a step through the week."

Another way Mobile has turned into the combine is the new Hancock Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama now houses all things Senior Bowl.

Although it's on a smaller scale than Indy's Lucas Oil Stadium, the Bengals can still work out of a suite where scouts and coaches open up their laptops and lay out their spread sheets while poring over the rosters. It's not Indy, but it's a $78 million facility that has replaced Ladd-Peebles, a stadium old enough to have hosted a country western show headlined by Hank Snow with an unknown Elvis Presley as a warm-up act.

"Beautiful stadium. As nice as any in the Group of Five conferences," Sarkisian says.

Elvis and pretty much every other social activity has left the building in early 2021. Downtown Mobile, Johnson says, has an odd stillness to it. You just don't see as many old friends from around the league grabbing a coffee on the way to practice or having a night cap at the end of the day to pass on gossip and tales.

It's like they all went to Indy. Except, no one is allowed on the field. Which is why Sarkisian and Johnson are always trying to get there early. They have the suite and assigned seats. But that's not enough.

"I want to get as close as I can get to the field," Sarkisian says. "I want to feel the guys' speed, I want to be able to feel their physicality. I've watched a lot of games from the box this year and you've got the camera angles. But I want to be able to see them."

This may be it.