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Cross-Checking Bengals As Offseason Whirlwind Takes Flight

Sam Hubbard impressed in his combine.
Sam Hubbard impressed in his combine.

As the Bengals re-convene from the NFL scouting combine and get ready for next week's start of free agency, plans to check in on the scouts periodically between now and the April 28-30 draft.

INDIANAPOLIS _ Mike Potts, the old William and Mary quarterback who beat Townson on the 409 yards he threw in their stadium named after Johnny Unitas, calls an old-fashioned-black-high-tops audible

The Bengals are huddled up in last week's NFL scouting combine and Potts, the director of college scouting, had this nagging sensation.

The scouts, coaches and ownership are due in their viewing suite at Lucas Oil Stadium to watch workouts. But Potts has one stubborn question on a prospect, so he lingers in their video suite down the hall to watch a few clips. Potts had watched him play live last fall. So had area scouts Trey Brown and Christian Sarkisian, who had also watched film on him and had written extensive reports on him.

But the day before, Potts had been intrigued with the prospect's 18-minute interview and he wanted just a little ….


Even though as he watches the draft is eight weeks away.

"The more information," Potts says, "the more clarity. The more work you do, the clearer it gets."

Which gives you a clearer glimpse into how in the last two years the Bengals have pulled off their best back-to-back drafts in history despite the two most unorthodox offseasons in recent scouting memory.

Duke Tobin, the Bengals exec-of-the-year director of player personnel, likes to talk about how his small but tight-knit staff cross-checks each other into consensus. They may not be there yet on this prospect, but they're closer than before Potts clicked the video.

"We're always talking, always communicating," Potts says. "If you miss something, we know we can go to each other and talk it out."

This is the fourth draft Potts has had the title of director of college scouting but only the third combine because last year COVID wiped it out. That was a year after COVID eliminated the bulk of the 2020 post-combine campus workouts. Now, in the first year of normalcy, Potts and the scouts seem to be hitting their strides after three Aprils of drafting seven players who played at least 84 percent of the snaps in last month's Super Bowl.

"It's good to see everybody back," says Potts at 6:45 a.m. in the Westin Hotel lobby, his usual start time combine week on a day that won't end until 10 p.m. because of the new Hollywood schedule. "This is the one time you see most of these guys together. It's just a piece of the evaluation.

"But you get to see them do position drills one after the other so you can get some kind of a comparison. And I think the interviews are still important even though you'll be able to Zoom these guys later. The interviews aren't make-or-break. But I don't think we've walked out of too many of them still being interested if we get the sense they're not passionate, not smart. "

Potts grabs a black coffee and a vanilla almond breakfast bar and needles the absent Steven Radicevic, the Bengals director of pro scouting not too far behind him this morning.

"You know he's going to get some kind of latte or something," Potts says.

The Tobin cross-check dynamic at work.

Potts and Radicevic are close, not just because of their jobs. They're virtually the same age and are dedicated dads with a combined five children five years old and younger. And yet they have a built-in cross-check. They have vastly different filters because they were brought up in the game differently. While Potts was an East Coast quarterback, Radicevic was a West Coast defensive tackle at UCLA.

Black coffee and latte.

"Love his personality," says Trey Brown of Potts during one of those 10-minute indoor walks from the lobby to the stadium that makes Indy so Indy. "He's a former quarterback. He's got natural leadership ability. That command. Being able to articulate a vision. We're close in age, temperment and personality. We feed off his energy. He brings it every day. And it's good to be able to have somebody where you can match their intensity and their passion."

Brown is the newest addition to the Bengals staff but one of their most experienced and a glove-like fit. More cross-checks. Another UCLA defender, Brown and Potts were both born this combine week 37 years ago and came out of the 2008 undrafted. While Potts threw two incompletions when he got the fourth quarter in the Steelers preseason opener against the Eagles in his only NFL appearance, Brown played in all four Bears preseason games at cornerback and picked off the Browns' Ken Dorsey in the next-to-last snap of the preseason.

"Trey was a better prospect than me," says Potts, always scouting, of a Jim Thorpe Award candidate.

But both got cut and scrounged in the minors the next few seasons, Brown in the UFL and Potts in the second arena league throwing indoors in Tampa, Tulsa and Manchester, N.H., before they were scouting by 2011.

"Offense and defense like to battle. We get those competitive juices flowing," Brown says. "He loves the game. He's passionate. That's what you want. You want to be around guys like that. We all feed off each other."

Brown's arrival not only added another set of eyes that has worked in four leagues and now for three Super Bowl teams, it's freed up Potts to look more at the top 150 or so prospects in-depth while Brown ties up loose ends in the south east as the Bengals expand their cross-checking tools.

"The biggest thing in scouting is flexibility and (Potts) does a really good job letting us go where the players are," Brown says. "If a guy pops up in another area, he can adjust the schedule."

They're all big mornings now, from here to the draft. This morning, the first prospect interview isn't for a couple of hours, but Potts wants to look at the tape of those scheduled to come into the room before noon to jog his memory. He leads the group through the 18-minute session, starting with a series of standard questions and then finishing up with the player talking about himself as he watches the tape.

"Some guys eyes light up when the tape goes on," says Potts, recalling the session with Washington tight end Drew Sample before the Bengals took him in the second round in 2019. "He was up at the screen talking about not only his job, but what everybody else was supposed to do."

Potts could have stayed in his hotel room to watch the video on his laptop, but the Bengals take advantage of being able to drive to the combine. It allows video director Travis Brammer to bring a server wrapped with the last three years of college and NFL tape, since everyone is also watching pro tape with free agency here in days. Brammer also brings along two massive screens as he magically transforms a Colts suite into Paul Brown Stadium west for a week, a nice home-field advantage over many teams.

As the suite begins to fill, a familiar foe pops in to tap Potts on the shoulder. Tumbo Abanikanda, recently promoted to national scout for the Falcons, once shared an office with Potts ten years ago when they were breaking in as scouting assistants in Atlanta.

"It wasn't any bigger from here to there," says Potts, looking at about a third of the suite. "I think it used to be a storage closet."

But they both had roomy drafts last year, when the Falcons picked at No. 4 and the Bengals No. 5. Abanikanda earned his promotion well as the area scout for Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. He and Potts, working the same area for LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, joked a little about how much they not only liked the guy they got, but how much they liked the other guy. Chase and Pitts are going to be remembered as the two best first-rounders in that '21 draft.

"It worked out for both of us, didn't it?" says Abanikanda and then he was gone to his interview as Potts finished off his prep.

With Tobin at a weigh-in, the four big and plush armchairs looking at each other have one missing with a coordinator choosing to take a wooden chair behind them. Head coach Zac Taylor and the position coach sit next to each other across from the prospect.

Potts has set up two rows of tables and he runs the computer screen with Sarkisian sitting next to him. Behind them at another table are Brown and area scout Andrew Johnson. Behind them in various stand-alone chairs are director of player relations Eric Ball and director of security Mark Herren. Ownership at this particular interview is repped by Elizabeth and Caroline Blackburn.

But the Bengal of the moment is director of operations Jeff Brickner. Brickner is charged with getting the next prospect to the suite on time so that not a moment of the 18 minutes is lost. Each team gets only 45 players during the week, so efficiency is the watchword. The master schedule of appointments is scattered throughout the building, so Brickner has to meet the prospect at his last appointment at the door and hurry him to the Bengals and prevent the kid1 from getting lost in the byzantine byways of Lucas Oil.

(Brickner, by the way, is a vestige of when the combine was the wild, wild west and the teams had rooms around the pool at the players hotel for interviews.

It was every team for itself back then. No schedule. No appointments. Just a block of time to get every prospect teams could get their hands on. Actual fights between teams would ensue trying to get players for interviews. Then Bengals head coach Bruce Coslet appointed Brickner as his "runner,' and Brickner cleverly worked enough alliances that he never got into a fight. But he did see a guy get thrown into a pool once and one of his fellow runners got jacked up against a wall by one of his own position coaches angry he missed a player.)

But it's much more civilized now as Potts starts from the list of questions. They've tweaked the generic info (starting with the cell phone number) over time. Even if they know the answer, they'll ask it. After they meet in December after the college season and in February before the combine, Sarkisian tailors questions for each prospect,

"Walk us through your injury history."

"Are you going to do (all the combine workouts)?"

When the answer is all but one drill, Potts asks why and if he'll do it at his pro day.

"Give me anything off the field we need to know about."

"Talk about your family and your support group and how you grew up and how you got to where you are."

Like many prospects, it hasn't been an easy road. So after hearing his story, Potts says, "Tell me what you learned about yourself."

"I know you had a change in coaches. How were their styles different?"

When the player delves into a topic, Potts presses him on how a conflict was resolved: "Did you take it upon yourself? Do you consider yourself a leader in the group?"

"Break down your strengths and weaknesses. You talked before about what you wanted to improve on. Did you accomplish that?"

"Last thing, before we go to the tape. Name one guy on your team that's in this draft class that you would want on your team. Also, who is the best guy you played against in this draft class?"

After the first answer, Potts seems a bit surprised and names a couple of other guys on his team. Taylor underlines it: "You're trying to win a Super Bowl. Take the relationship part out of it. You want to win the Super Bowl." And the guy stood his ground.

"Let's get to the tape."

Of course, the best foe the kid names appears on Potts' screen and everybody gets a chuckle.

"What is the name of this (call)? What's your responsibility? Show everybody where you are. Talk us through your technique snap to whistle."

Here Potts lets the position coach chime in, asking three different questions about technique and scheme adjustments. Then the two-minute warning buzzes on a countdown clock.

"One last (snap) and then we have to let you go. What do you call it? What does that mean to you? What is the opposite of it?"

Time's up. If they're interested, they Zoom him until the draft.

"Have to let you go man great job," Potts says. "Appreciate you."

Not Drew Sample or Joe Burrow, but who is?

"Most of them fall somewhere in between and there's only so much you can gather from these interviews," Potts says. "But after you do so many of them, you've got a good catalogue of memory to compare guys and you get an instinct on a guy to keep looking or not."

That's just one interview. Potts does that 44 more times over the course of the week. That's in between watching some pro tape in his down time and then monitoring the combine workouts with his laptop.

The coaches tend to sit in the stands and the scouts mix it up between the stands and the suite, but Potts is anchored to the computer. While pumping in 40-yard dash times, he's also swapping screens putting together a tentative pro day travel schedule to individual schools for the coaches.

"You find out who's not working here and you have to prioritize with them who do we want to go see in person," says Potts, who greeted the coaches just back from the Super Bowl with the scouts' list of their top -layers at each position at the combine."

When Potts gets a break, he'll pick up his field glasses but he probably wasn't watching the drill.

"I like to see what they're doing between reps," Potts says. "When you see how they interact with the people, that can tell you a lot about them."

Long day. But Potts is used to them. Make a day longer now and it shortens those days in April when they set up their draft board.

Potts has to laugh when someone asks him to scout himself out of William and Mary.

"I don't want to completely crush myself. But I don't want up prop myself up, either," Potts says. "Good size for the position at 6-4, 220. I had that going for me. Good arm strength. Probably the way the game is going now, not the real athletic guy as a ball carrier or extending plays."

But he's certainly extending plays now.

"The more information you can get," Potts says.