Outside of their player personnel department, it figures that no one scouts more college prospects for the Bengals than special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.
At some point he'll end up coaching most of them from all sides of the ball, as he did this season when a pair of rookie defenders, safety Shawn Williams and linebacker Jayson DiManche, ended up 1-2 in special teams tackles while running back Cedric Peerman again served as quarterback as personal punt protector, and four different kickers passed through in the wake of punter Kevin Huber's season-ending injury late in the year.
So if it's Tuesday in mid-February, Simmons is leafing through his notes from last year's NFL Scouting Combine. On Wednesday, Simmons drives over to this year's edition in Indianapolis that will be seen on NFL Network starting Thursday and running through next Tuesday, so now is always a good time to take the "2013 Draft" notebook off the shelf.
"It's always neat to go back and look; just to see how close you were," Simmons says.
This is the 12th combine Simmons is running the punting portion of the workouts and most of the Bengals assistants will be on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium as they help the NFL run the drills. That's because head coach Marvin Lewis likes his guys close to the action so they can pick up the scent that won't break through video of the action and the interviews. Matt Burke, the new linebackers coach, makes his Bengals field debut this week when the backers drop and cover.
Head strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton and assistant Jeff Friday also get to see all of the prospects since they oversee the workouts' pre- and post-stretching elements and have been known to provide insights that stray from the camera. And after the punters are done, Simmons goes into the stands to time every player's 40-yard dash as well as jot down his thoughts on their performance in drills with his own shorthand grades of 1 (bad) to 5 (excellent).
"Two, two, two drops," he is saying as he pauses at one name. "Not drafted."
Now he looks up running back Giovani Bernard, one of the Bengals second-round picks, the club's Rookie of the Year and an NFL Rookie of the Year nominee.
"I've got three red stars next to him," Simmons says, "which is a good thing."
"You look at all the guys we interviewed and look at all the guys that had great years this season," Simmons says.
Each team gets to interview 60 of the estimated 350 players for 15-minute blocks. The sessions are taped and while they serve as only a sliver of the scouting process, there's nothing like a first impression. The Bengals Requested 60 looked like a Rookie of the Year list with Bernard, eventual winner Eddie Lacy, the Packers running back, as well as Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, Vikings receiver-returner Cordarrelle Patterson, and Bills linebacker Kiki Alonso. The Bengals also ended up interviewing six of their 10 draft picks, which Simmons thinks is evidence of how well the personnel department prepares for the draft.
"Those guys do a hell of a job," Simmons says of the scouts. "This is what they do during the season. While we're trying to figure out how to run 'left alley wedge,' they're figuring out who we're going to target."
Since the coaches don't get involved in the college scouting until after their own season, they're relying heavily on the scouts to guide them early in the process before it begins to percolate in a synthesis of grade and opinions in the hunt for consensus. Simmons has been here for all of Lewis's 12 draft seasons and he understands why the Bengals have drawn rave reviews for the drafts that have formed the bulk of four playoff teams in the past five seasons.
"A lot has changed; we're much more thorough than we've ever been," Simmons says. "We do a much better job targeting people and then identifying them. And we've got a very good read on people. We're looking at different players, players that not only fit us, but the best players available at that time.
"There's so much that goes into the culmination. Scouts, coaches. It really is teamwork."
Simmons is looking at interview No. 60 from last season. Shawn Williams. Safety. Georgia. The guy that ended up being the Bengals third-round pick. If you had told Simmons in that session, "I'd like you to meet the guy that is going to replace Dan Skuta as your leading tackler," he might have had you committed. But if you told him, "Here's the guy that's going to help win the division by blocking a punt against Cleveland," he might have started to listen to you.
Simmons had already seen tape because Williams was on a list and if he was coming he was going to play for him. Looking at his No. 60 notes, Simmons recalls he asked Williams what positions he played on special teams (safety on kickoff, tackle on kick return, left guard on punt) and he asked him about his punt block in the bowl game against Nebraska. "Good … speaks softly" are other notes.
Simmons, by the way, detests the format of the combine. Since the players can practice the drills and rehearse their answers, he thinks there is little evidence to grade a player in a sport that lives on adjustment and performance in the heat of battle amid changing conditions and fatigue. He does like the chance to put a face and personality with a number and to look in the eyes of a guy like Williams so he can know "he has the look."
"The one positive is that the good ones stick out and the bad ones stick out," Simmons says. "The highs and lows."
But, you can get pretty close, too, as his notebook will confirm. The Bengals drafted SMU defensive end Margus Hunt in the second round.
"There's a star next to his name and a lot of 4s," Simmons says. "Can run. Good athlete."