Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin's department, seeking to stay hot in the wake of drafting Pro Football Focus's best rookie class, is looking at less face time and more FaceTime with the 2021 prospects as the pandemic continues to make its mark on the NFL.
Because pro scouts didn't have their usual access to college practice facilities during last season and with the format for next month's NFL scouting combine and the ensuing pro days possibly curtailed, the Bengals are probably going to get, at the very least, half the live looks of their pick at No. 5 than they glimpsed overall No. 1 pick Joe Burrow last year.
Throw into the mix that many of the prospects didn't play a full slate of games in 2020 and, as Bengals director of college scouting Mike Potts says, "It's completely different at this point."
"The (game) tape is always the most important thing," Potts says. "This year's tape is going to be pored over more than the typical year. Who knows how many pro days, if any, there will be? How many players can you bring in for visits, if any? There is a lot up in the air. This year, the tape is even more important, if that's possible."
But the Bengals are confident they can adjust. They already have. After living through the final six weeks of the last draft in an alternative reality, they produced the NFL's most enviable group.
"We've gotten comfortable with the things we're going to have to do," Potts says. "Interviewing guys virtually. Focusing on the tape. Working the phones."
At least when the Bengals first meet prospects at next week's Senior Bowl, they'll be able to look them in the eye. They can't shake their hands, but they can gaze into the windows of the soul.
Although, they may have to peer through Plexiglas to do it as they wait to hear the final arrangements in Mobile, Ala. Each team is allowed to take just 10 representatives to this Senior Bowl because of the CORONA virus and they're going to be tested daily with Tobin taking most of his scouts and head coach Zac Taylor taking his three coordinators.
Potts figures when the NFL shut down because of COVID back on March 13, the Bengals had about 90 percent of their draft work done. Now it's hard to say how much they can get accomplished by this March 13, but they know what to do now.
If it's not virtual, it's digital. If it's not digital, it's digits. As in old-fashioned dialing of the phone. Which is what Bengals director of pro scouting Steven Radicevic plans to do until he heads to Mobile next Monday.
As the Bengals West Coast scout, he'll be turning to his teeming contacts in the Pac 12 and beyond. This week he'll be calling coaches on their time from his car, his home and his office. That afternoon drive home figures to be fruitful.
"I'm fortunate to have spent a lot of time out there and come across some quality coaches. And they spread out across the country," Radicevic says. "It's hard not going into the schools during the season. So I have to call as many guys as I can to make sure we get the right background on these players. Now's an ideal time to get guys on the phone. They've got some time on their hands before spring ball."
Potts says the best scouts are going to be revealed this spring because they have to rely on their contacts more than usual. Before 2020, when the Bengals went into a college to scout practice during the week, so much of it was more than practice.
They'd get there at 7 a.m. before the afternoon workout and would spend their time watching tape as well as talking with their sources in that program. That means everyone from head coaches to academic counselors. Whatever your sources are.
At a big school, Potts could be routinely joined by a handful of scouts from other teams and they could all have an audience with, say, the strength coach in his office. Or, he might rub shoulders with the running backs coach on the practice field for a minute or two and get a nugget for his report during stretching.
Or, say Radicevic was visiting Cal and he could slide into the offensive line room and talk to the coach privately.
But this season that campus visit has been replaced by monstrous Zoom calls with individual college staffs that could have as many as 100 scouts on the computer screens. Different colleges roll out a different set of people to discuss prospects, but the challenges are the same throughout society.
Face Time is OK, but it's nothing like face-to-face. Zoom is fine, but not exactly Zingy or Zippy.
"There's no question about it," says Potts of the value of in-person work. "I think if somebody told you differently they'd be lying to you or they think they're getting better information than they actually are.
"Any source we're getting information from, we need to trust. We're going to get much more accurate information from someone we have a relationship with and trust one-on-one over the phone. Much more than if you're on a Zoom call. Even if there's just one or two people they're not as comfortable with on the call, they're not going to be as comfortable giving out the details you would need to feel comfortable drafting a guy."
Potts figures the Bengals went to more games in person than in 2019. But since they didn't see them in practice and may not see them at pro days or the combine, there is going to be less eye ball time. Plus, two all-star games have been reduced to virtual, the East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. The Tropical Bowl and the College Gridiron Showcase are still on.
But after going through last year, Radicevic is confident they'll get the same football information. With the combine physicals and pro day workouts on each college campus still in limbo, the challenge is similar to what they faced last year with non-combine players that didn't get a physical.
"The hardest part is being able to get these guys physicalled up and checked out medically to make sure they're good to go," Radicevic says. "A lot of these guys are going to end up sending out personalized videos."
When the league shut down most of the pro days back in March the Bengals had the advantage of coaching the Senior Bowl, where they plucked a guy from their North team (fourth-round linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither) and two from the South team (third-round linebacker Logan Wilson and sixth-round tackle Hakeem Adeniji). With this year's restrictions and opt-outs, that advantage for teams coaching the game dwindled.
And, besides, they scouted their two biggest prizes in the draft, Burrow and second-round wide receiver Tee Higgins, largely off games and tape. Burrow didn't throw at the combine and head coach Zac Taylor and his staff never saw Burrow throw in person because the LSU pro day was cancelled. But Potts saw him play a couple of games as a senior and a few more as a junior.
Higgins' pro day at Clemson was the last one before the league shut down and while it was nice that wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell could meet Higgins the night before and helped run the receivers' workout, Potts had already put in 95 percent of his work in on him. He had the big grade for him in the laptop and the workout was simply 'putting the bow on it."
It's a good thing the Bengals go mainly off tape. Higgins didn't have great numbers on the pro day in some of the drills, but the Bengals were convinced from his tape and his interviews he was the guy he turned out to be. Last year the teams were allowed to call a prospect three times a week before the draft and you figure they'll be able to get a handle on guys like they did last season.
"A lot of his stuff," Potts says, "is to be determined.
"You're always striving to get the coaches and scouts on the same page. From my perspective, Tee's pro day was no big deal. But it was good the coaches could see it."
Tape is so important and while there's not as much of that, either, the Bengals think there is enough. Even though Radicevic is scouting a team like California that played just four games.
"You can get a feel for a guy after three games. If it's three games and it's new film, you feel pretty good about it," Radicevic says. "The hard part is some guys have played two games or one game due to COVID restrictions, so you have to go one year back to '19 film and in some cases I've had to look at '18 film on some guys. It's going to be harder to rank those guys. You obviously feel more comfortable watching guys that played last year."
But this is where the connections with the college coaches really come in. They've got a feel if the prospect has an upside or if he's maxed out. The Bengals love those three- and four-year starters (who doesn't?) and last year Logan Wilson's 52 games at Wyoming and Adeniji's 48 games at Kansas were so enticing.
But how many 40- and 50-game guys are going to be out there this year?
"You try to project Radicevic says. "Hopefully the kid's character and work ethic is going to outweigh the limited game film you have and you know what you're going to get from him. It will make it hard, but we'll be able to adjust."
Really, is it all that different than the challenges of the past with injured players? What if you've got a very talented player with just 17 games because they opted out or his team didn't have many games and he's matched against a much more experienced player with about 35 starts but isn't as talented?
The Bengals may have to face that question right away. Oregon tackle Penei Sewell opted-out of 2020 after just two seasons. And why not? Here's a guy that was named the best lineman in the country in that sophomore year of 2019 he received PFF's highest grade ever for an offensive lineman. He's played just two years and won't turn 21 until the fifth week of the season. But, he's also allowed just one sack over 1,376 snaps during those 20 games.
"There are," Potts says, "a lot of unanswered questions that need to be answered over the next three months."