Final grades

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It's not like the Bengals sat around Paul Brown Stadium Wednesday on Draft Eve twiddling their thumbs. But they were ready to start picking players about 10 days ago instead of Thursday night at around 11 p.m., when their 21st pick begins to come into focus.

"The sooner the better for us and I'm sure most teams it's not good to mull on this stuff," says Duke Tobin, with a TV-sized computer monitor overlooking his desk where a laptop and iPad perch. "We're ready now. We were ready by the time the pro days ended and had the meetings with the coaches by position."

This marks the 10th draft the Bengals have relied more on cyberspace than paper and that's one of the many reasons things aren't quite as hectic in a war room that is now more like an armistice conference.

Only crumbs are left from the massive numbers that have been crunched. A year ago there were 12,000 college football players eligible for the 2015 draft. The Bengals whittled it down to visit campuses to scout about 1,200 of them, generating between 3-4,000 scouting reports, and the computer has helped Tobin melt it all into one final grade in a box.

If you're seeking reasons why the Bengals' drafts have been universally praised the past several years, one big one is because Tobin has been the point man in funneling all the spigots of the information age into one pool. With specifications outlined by Tobin, Geoff Smith, the club's football IT consultant, built a data system from scratch that allows for uniformity and clarity in the Bengals' unique system of blending opinions from both scouts and coaches.

About the middle of the last decade is the final time Tobin cut out a 40-yard-dash time from a list and pasted it underneath other measurables in a scouting report, a now defunct art that had been reserved for 1960s newspapers editors and 21st century directors of player personnel in the NFL who were dealing with information that had sped ahead of technology.

No more. Technology has won this 40-yard dash. And the number runners are winning the drafts.

Head coach Marvin Lewis has saluted Tobin the last several years for his growing influence in the draft in which he has pretty much become a de facto general manger working in unison with Bengals president Mike Brown.

Or, as one in the Armistice Conference calls him, "The Duke of the Draft."

Brown still runs the draft meetings, chairs the draft day process, and has the final say. But Tobin is the man driving the process into a simple, small box on the upper left hand side of each prospect's computer file:

The Grade.

"He's still in control," Lewis said of Brown recently. "This is a big day. He's been ready for the draft since the day we finished the season. He keeps his worksheet and he changes that worksheet daily. But he allows Duke to work almost as the GM spot and do those kinds of duties for him. And then, he has, obviously, the final say so on everything we do."

Tobin is the guy responsible for putting that number (10 is the best, 1 is a reject) in the box. But not after what he feels has been a proper airing out of the prospect among coaches and scouts. The grade computes to a round value.

"I try to come to a consensus, but I also try to hear what the room is trying to say about him within the other players at that position," Tobin says. "I try to stack the position group based on the reports we have…The grade is a predictor of NFL ability. The round value is where he will sit on our board in that particular draft."

Tobin's goal in sifting through the numbers is to give his scouting staff and the coaches continuity and guidelines in the inherently subjective and far-flung world of player evaluation. You've got everyone from 50-year career scouts, young position coaches, and the National Football Scouting service ranking 1,200 players from every level of football spitting out measurable in all-star games, pro days, and the NFL scouting combine and the Bengals have to corral it all to find the best players for them.

"Integration and timeliness," says Smith, a former Procter and Gamble exec. "You have to integrate real time information with multiple opinions and measurables. From what I can see, you don't need more opinions. You need a consistent process to organize those opinions with the same criteria."

Or, as Tobin says, "We're trying to gather all the objective information that is out there so we can make the best possible subjective decision."

Making things even more difficult is that it's a system on the move.  Tobin, who hits the top prospects, has area scouts on the road throughout the fall and they need to be able to have access to the system. They're using the drop-down menus sorted by school. Then when the coaches get into the picture after the season, they're using the drop-down menus sorted by positions.

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The Bengals stuck with their grade in the 2013 first round and selected Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert.

"You need to have a usable system not only in the office, but on the road and that's not an easy thing," Tobin says. "Can you access it as a Bengals scout and change things in the system? Can the system handle two data fields coming in at the same time? So we built it from scratch because we needed something that fits our needs. Geoff has been so valuable there."

The system is evolving yearly and Smith thinks they're on the brink of maybe the biggest breakthrough of all.  Soon they'll be able to take the NCAA stats that the system updates during the season and scouts and coaches will be able to click on the number of touchdowns scored by the prospects and immediately view all of them. At the very least, the time is near where the video cut-ups and written reports can be accessed in the same click.

A long way from when Lewis got the job 12 years go.

"In '03 we were still dealing with videotape and now everything is off a server. It's instantaneous," Lewis said. "Before if you wanted to look at the same prospect I wanted to look at, I might have to wait for you to get done with those videos. We were always going around to somebody else's office saying 'Hey, do you have that tape?' We've got a sign-out sheet to know who's got it.

"Yeah, we were still doing that then. I had one of those big, huge (VCR) machines at home. Now I can carry a season on a little thing like (a tablet). For the process for me as a head coach, that's the biggest change."

But besides the added input provided by a team psychologist and a director of security, which is a product of the off-field incidents that pock-marked the last decade, Lewis sees pretty much the same volume of information. But now it's in one spot.

"We still print out books for everybody. The (volume of) paper might not have fallen off," Tobin says. "But the information on it has gotten a lot more reliable and consistent."

That's the key word for Tobin. He's a stickler for consistency. The last thing you want to do with him is root around for a correct arm length or a 40 time, or a Senior Bowl workout. To him, time can't be wasted on the basics. So Smith created "The Blessed Version of Truth," in the display line.

That's the top line of each prospect's report. It spews phone numbers for him and his agent, as well as measurables for size/strength and speed/athleticism, using the NFL scouting combine. If he didn't go to the combine, then they'll use their next best source. Next to those measurables are the Bengals' medical grade along with the character/background check that includes test scores for mental aptitude.

"We have rules to put in the most reliable measurables," Tobin says. "Those are the critical things, the most basic things we have to have. And then to look deeper, we can go into the drop-downs. And it's all in the same place."

Underneath the "Display of Truth," are ten menu items stretched across the page: short report, character, measurables, National Football Scouting, playing history, injury history, stats-defense, stats-offense, stats-special teams, photos. If scouts and coaches want to delve deeper, having a touch has new meaning.

The short report button reveals not only the scouting reports, but also the evaluations of position specific traits you couldn't get on static paper. For instance, a receiver report pops up with a list of traits such as route running and hands among others while a quarterback has footwork and delivery on his list. Every prospect has at least three reports written on him by the area scout, a cross-checker and the position coach, and usually there are more.

Move to character and a click reveals any arrests, court cases, or disciplinary action by his college coaches.

But paper hasn't been banned. The computer file of each prospect is printed out and bound in a notebook titled "Bengals 2015 NFL Draft." And there'll be a time, two or three years from now after a waiver-wire transaction releases a player in the league when Tobin reaches for it and looks up that player for a head start on another evaluation.

The biggest number on the page is one of the smallest.

The Grade. In Red. Upper left-hand box.

A first-rounder is a starter, an impact player who is a potential Pro Bowler. A second-rounder is a starter that might need some development, but it will have to be quickly. The third and fourth round is reserved for situational players that may need development. The fifth-seventh rounds are backups. For now. Tell that to wide receiver Marvin Jones and safety George Iloka, starters and the last two picks in the fifth round in 2012.

Of all the infinite number of numbers crunched, it comes down to that round in the box.

"Any information we get, and we think all information is valuable," Tobin says, "our thinking is how to take it and use it so we can get the best grade possible."

It all starts in hours. But, wait. The first numbers for the 1,200 guys up for the 2016 draft should be arriving any day in May.

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