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Bengals Scouts Revise The Script For Next Draft Phase

Tee Higgins after one of his 67 Bengals rookie record catches.
Tee Higgins after one of his 67 Bengals rookie record catches.

It doesn't look like there's going to a story coming out of this draft like last year's Tale of Tee when the Bengals picked off one of their best rookies ever with the first selection of the second round.

As the calendar inches inexorably to the end of the pandemic year, the Bengals draft room is steeling again for changes.

Each universe has its own date when COVID shuttered its world. For the Bengals, it's March 12. Tee Day. That's the day before the NFL shut it down and the Bengals were able to finish off a two-day visit with Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins at his pro day that verified they were in the right place.

"There's a little bit of the unknown now. We have to adjust," says Mike Potts, the Bengals director of college scouting. "It looks like we're not going to be able to do any of that."

What they did was send then wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell to Clemson the night before to allow Bicknell and Higgins to get to know each other over a quick bite in a social setting. It was a much different and far easier conversation than the 18-minute rapid-fire stress test team interview that took place a few days before with Higgins at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Then the next morning at the pro day, Bicknell ran the receivers workout while Potts and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor looked on. Also in attendance were defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner.

Part of the Bengals contingent was also able to watch tape with Higgins before heading back to Cincinnati and into the Paul Brown Stadium bunker to work the rest of the draft virtually.

Virtually, that's pretty much where they are now. Although last week's combine was wiped out, the pro days are back where the players work out at their schools. But they are not as we know them and that's about all we know.

Each school may end up having different mandates, but what Potts knows is they won't be able to fly in the night before and have dinner with a prospect. They might not be able to meet with them at all like they did with Higgins. It depends on what the school allows. The league is mandating a maximum of three people from each team and Potts says some schools are limiting it to one. He can see a scenario where the schools designate a small group of scouts to chart the measurables and limit the number of people that can come in contact with the player.

"There's not going to be the same access. We're not really going to be able to put our hands on them," Potts says. "And a lot of things we really don't know. If the receivers are working out and there's a defensive lineman ten feet away, are you allowed to talk to him? That's still being worked out. We're playing it by ear."

 Higgins was one of those no-brainers on tape and after they spent time with him he was a slam dunk. Smart. Engaging. Bright-eyed. Potts figures by the time Bicknell sat down with Higgins, about 95 percent of the work had been done. Higgins' pro day measurables weren't overpowering, but his tape and makeup were and when Potts' pored over some GPS numbers, they confirmed he played faster than he tested. Those numbers begat these digits: 67 catches for 908 yards in grabbing the most catches by a Bengals rookie in 39 years.

But those GPS coordinates came in a full slate of 2019 games, which is going to be hard to find this season. There are only a few draftable players that have no tape all from 2020, but several had many games cancelled, some opted out halfway through, others late in the season and in a continuing trend others opted out of bowl games.

Plus, among that work last year that the Bengals compiled before Higgins' pro day was a combine interview, which they don't have of anyone this year.

"(Higgins) was a great interview," Potts says. "We got to know him on a level more so than just the scouting reports from his (college) coaches and staff members. Now, it looks like we're going to be relying on Zooms to talk to guys."

This year there's a significant amount of game tape missing as well as the combine work, so instead of being able to compare Higgins' live work at his pro day next to, say, Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy's combine workout, scouts have to re-align.

"A big thing we're not going to get this year from an on field perspective is we're not going to be able to watch them go through all the individual drills at the combine back to back to back for comparison sake with all the other guys in the position group," Potts says. "In order to do that this year we're going to have to get film of all the pro days and watch them back to back to back on film. It's better than nothing, but it's not the same thing as being there in person."

The Bengals became quite proficient at Zooming interviews since it was the only access to the prospects after March 12 and they expect to be even better at it this year since they'll need it even more. They doubt they can watch film in the same room with a prospect like they did with Higgins, but they can get a feel for his knowledge of the game by using tape in the Zoom calls.

They were good enough at Zooming last year that they emerged with the complete book on overall No. 1 pick Joe Burrow even though he didn't throw at the combine and his pro day at LSU was wiped out.

"Can you imagine that only two people in the organization saw him throw live before the draft?" asks Potts, who along with director of player personnel Duke Tobin saw him throw in person. "That's hard to believe with the No. 1 pick, but there was no doubt he was the guy."

There was enough tape and Zooms so they could develop that conviction. And as Potts will tell you, it's all about conviction. Last year they could Zoom with prospects three times a week. This year it is five Zooms for the entire draft process, but there are also three phone calls a week permitted.

Far from ideal. You'd have to say this is the least amount of tape on college players combined with the least amount of access to scouting them in decades of the draft.

"This whole thing is about the level of conviction you have on players," Potts says. "That's going to be the interesting thing. How much conviction are you going to be able to have?"

Probably not as much as they had back when they left Clemson nearly 360 days ago, when they had the second round pick down to a Tee.