Steven Radicevic, the Bengals director of pro scouting who may have overseen the greatest class in the 28-year history of NFL free agency, doesn't need a flip card or Google maps to get around the Bengals practices at the Super Bowl.
Not only did he and the rest of the Bengals scouts have a major role in building one of the best young rosters in the league, but he can lead you right to the spot at the UCLA practice facility the Bengals are using this week and show you where Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
That was 2012 and Radicevic, then UCLA's director of football operations, told Tobin he wanted get into NFL personnel. The job came a few months later.
"Back where it all began," says Radicevic, a former UCLA defensive tackle.
Tobin is back where he's been since he joined the Bengals in 1998, before the birth of two of his biggest draft jewels, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Tobin, son of legendary NFL architect (the 1985 Bears, kids) and Bengals scout Bill Tobin, has the family back in the Super Bowl with a nimble draft room he has rigged with early 21st century technology and the mid 20th-century principles of Paul and Mike Brown.
Suddenly, besides his dad, Tobin's senior man is Radecivic. He rounded out his young gun staff last spring with the hire of seasoned pro exec Trey Brown, now scouting for his third Super Bowl team after reports said he interviewed for the Raiders general manager job a few weeks ago.
"The great thing about our staff is the cohesion, no egos," Tobin says. "We try to involve all the scouts in all areas so we have more voices." Or the way director of college scouting Mike Potts sees it, "We never want to put one name on a player and or have one guy take credit. It's always multiple people involved in any decision."
The shift to put more seats at the table began when Tobin started overseeing all aspects of the draft about a dozen years ago, a stretch that has coincided with four division titles, seven playoffs and this week's Super Bowl berth. While Tobin opened the floor, he also streamlined the operation after the 2018 draft. He put Radicevic and Potts in their current jobs, in charge of organizing their respective boards, while allowing everyone to cross check both college and pro.
"We've got a blended approach," Tobin says. "They're all in the different areas because it's important to have a baseline of what's in the league, what's in college, what is in the draft and how they compare to each other."
Clearly, they've drafted well. Everyone knows the stat. With Chase, Higgins, Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon, they are the first team with a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rushers and two 1,000-yard receivers all under 26 years old.
Clearly, they barely whiffed the last two free agencies in racking up record spending. When their defense lined up for its first snap of the postseason, seven of the starters had been signed since 2020. One, Trey Hendrickson, set the franchise sack record. Two cornerbacks, Chidobe Awuzie and slot Mike Hilton, finished ranked 22nd and 29th in the Pro Football Focus rankings. Nose tackle D.J. Reader could have made the Pro Bowl. Strong safety Vonn Bell was an immediate captain.
But as Super as those moves were, four other moves of four different species by the personnel department define how this roster was made. If one of them wasn't done, the Bengals wouldn't be here. The transactions didn't grab first day-top-of-the-hour-click-bait headlines.
But they solidified a Super Bowl roster:
MARCH 23 - THE SIGNING OF CB ELI APPLE FOR A YEAR
Apple, 25, a former first-round pick of the Giants, was looking to settle down. Traded to the Saints after a rocky run in New York that included a one-game suspension before surfacing in Carolina, Apple hadn't been in the league since the Panthers cut him in October.
The Bengals were a week removed from inking Awuzie and Hilton, and the most expensive cornerback from the year before, Trae Waynes, had yet to take a snap because of injury.
But the Bengals wanted depth and Apple wanted a fresh start. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo liked him when he had him in New York. Potts had him rated highly coming out. And he had almost signed with them the year before, but the Waynes deal had drained the coffers and Apple signed in Carolina. Now they brought him in for a visit where a slew of his former Ohio State teammates already resided, particularly Bell, also a teammate in New Orleans.
"He's a guy that could use a change of scenery and he had a lot of talent. Long, lean, fast," Radicevic says. "You know how it is at cornerback. You can never have enough and he was still a young guy and it wasn't a lot of money. It made a lot of sense."
All free-agent visits include a stop by the corner office with Bengals president Mike Brown. Apple says it was the best part of his appointment.
"We talked for a long time," Apple says. "He was smiling, talking about his Ohio State ties and how much it meant to him and we connected off that. He said he kept an eye on me and respected me as a player. I knew right then I felt comfortable here. It's crazy I could have been here earlier, but it worked out.
"Seeing Coach Lou, knowing Vonn, I just felt comfortable from the jump," Apple says.
You can never have enough corners, right? Waynes was never healthy after training camp, Apple played 16 games for the first time in his career, took a career-high 979 snaps and none better than in the playoffs. He converged with linebacker Germaine Pratt on the pick that saved the Wild Card. His tip set up Logan Wilson's pick with 20 seconds left in the divisional game and he almost got one in overtime last week the play before his buddy Bell got it. He swung that AFC title game to the Bengals with his sure tackle of sleek, slippery Tyreek Hill at the Bengals 1 as the first half died.
Although the Bengals have made the Super Bowl with two club record-setting free agent classes, don't look for it to become a trend. Earlier in the century, the Bengals had set or nearly set league spending records (Carson Palmer, Willie Anderson, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins), but they were their own players.
"It goes year-to-year. It depends on your roster," Tobin says. "The last few years we needed to improve and we had to look elsewhere. Other years it demands you keep your own players, Other years, it's a mix. It depends on the year."
MAY 1 - THE DRAFTING OF EVAN MCPHERSON
Potts, the old William and Mary quarterback who scouts the SEC, knew what he saw at Florida's 2020 opener when McPherson hit a bomb against Ole Miss.
"You don't have to be an expert on kickers to know this guy kicked a ball better than most people on the planet," Potts says. "But he was a junior and most kickers don't come out early."
But Potts looked up in October and saw the guy was having a phenomenal year and that it could happen. At the same time, former Bengals kicker Shayne Graham, McPherson's coach, was sending his old coach, Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, clips of McPherson hitting 68-yarders in practice.
As one Bengals insider says, "Any team founded by Paul Brown is going to have the coaches involved in bringing players in," and this is as good of an example as there is.
One of Potts' jobs is to identify the top players at each position and give the coaches the list after the season ends and when Potts and Simmons got done hashing it out, McPherson was the top kicker on their board for the draft. But the biggest question was how to play it.
Potts had seen him kick live, but only from the stands because of COVID restrictions. Because of COVID, the only time Simmons could see him live was at Florida's pro day, but did they want to risk tipping their hand by sending Simmons to watch him, a virtual must if they were going to draft him?
"He had such a good year that we knew there were going to be a ton of special teams coaches that were going to be there, so Darrin went," Potts says. "And I couldn't imagine a more perfect pro day for a kicker. If he wasn't perfect, he was close. And in front of all those special teams coaches. It was special."
Potts and Simmons ganged up on Graham with questions during the workout, Simmons asked to hold on some of McPherson's kicks and put him through the Darrin Mind Games. At the end, Potts walked him to the car in the parking lot, their first meeting.
"Talking to the people at Florida, they said he was a guy who was extremely confident in his abilities but he wasn't abrasive or cocky," Potts says. "A good kid. He's proven to be all of that. I'm not sure I've seen a kicker have a better year. Rookie or not."
As they like to say, it's a process. Head coach Zac Taylor's coaching staff, hired the season after Tobin re-organized the department, is getting more and more comfortable with the scouts. The scouts were really high on guys like Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins and, in free agency, Awuzie. When they pan out like that, it only breeds confidence between the floors.
"It's really important that everybody who is going to touch a player when he comes into the building has a familiarity with him and is on board with him," Tobin says. "And he understands why he's here."
Taylor was also at the workout and he was adamant. In the fifth round, McPherson was the one guy that could win games. What also helped is that Tobin was able to swing a deal the day before for extra fourth-rounders that finished their needs on both lines. If not for that trade, would they have taken McPherson in the fifth or a lineman?
The kicker is this year when Potts went to Florida, McPherson had already given them last-snap wins over Minnesota and Jacksonville. Gators head coach Dan Mullen told him McPherson was the best kicker he ever had but had never kicked a game winner for him.
"And he's already got two for you," Mullen told Potts.
Now he's got two in the playoffs alone and chasing Hall of Fame records.
AUG. 30 - THE B.J. HILL TRADE
It was the middle of training camp and the Bengals were getting calls from other teams about Billy Price, taking all the reps at center with Trey Hopkins rehabbing his ACL. The Giants, because of nagging injuries in their interior, were particularly persistent. And despite signing three technique Larry Ogunjobi to a one-year, $6 million deal, the Bengals were still in the hunt for a solid rotational inside player. They had been devastated there last year with injury and had been carved up in the middle of the field.
There was a match. Hopkins showed he could be back for Opening Day. It looked like Price wouldn't be playing much, so the Bengals gave the Giants a list of players with Hill at the top. Tobin and Radicevic framed a deal that also got them a conditional seventh-round pick.
"We knew it had to be a guy they could move easily and was in the last year of his deal," Radicevic says. "And he was a guy we had good grades on coming out of school, Lou liked him when he had him in New York and he had a North Carolina State teammate here in Pratt. "
The teams talked for about week or so before finalizing the deal the day after the preseason finale. With Joe Burrow's knee and Ja'Marr Chase's drops the 8,000-pound monsters of camp, the deal meandered under the radar. Probably because Hill had never come close to the 5.5 sacks and 48 tackles of his rookie year in 2018.
But Anarumo was high-fiving any Bengals scout he could find because they felt like he was an extremely solid player who could provide 300-400 solid snaps and be productive among a talented group. And he was a terrific locker-room guy, out of the same strong-silent-type mold as his college roommate Pratt.
It turned out Hill matched those 5.5 sacks in 502 plays, the most snaps since his rookie year, and he's been a man possessed in the playoffs with Ogunjobi (foot) sidelined. With the help of Bell's confusing zone blitz, Hill picked off Patrick Mahomes to turn the AFC title game and he had a massive sack in the last drive against the Raiders in the Wild Card.
"It never ends. You wake up every day trying to get better," Tobin says.
OCT. 14 - THE TRE FLOWERS WAIVER CLAIM
Radicevic usually heads out on the road to scout the west for Potts later in the week, after he and Tobin, along with other scouts, either Andrew Johnson or Christian Sarkisian, sift through the NFL waiver wire and various Tuesday workouts. A few days after Waynes severely re-aggravated his hamstring and was now going to be out for about two months, Flowers popped up on the waiver wire. It would have been an intriguing name even if Waynes hadn't been hurt.
Like Hill, Flowers was out of the class of 2018, a 6-3, 208-pound safety who Seattle converted to cornerback and started him in 40 games, three in the playoffs. Plus, you can't ever have enough corners, right?
When they saw the name on the wire, they had 24 hours to get a claim in if they wanted. Tobin and Radicevic flipped on the tape and watched about ten Seattle games. Potts chimed in from the road that he loved his length and speed when he was coming out and thought he could play here if the coaches could use him.
The next step was to get the coaches' eyes on him. Anarumo and cornerbacks coach Steven Jackson were wrapped up in game planning for the Lions, but they got free to watch some clips. Anarumo told Radicevic he thought he could use some of that position versatility.
There was also the matter of how he got the on wire. There were reports he had demanded a trade as he lost his job during a tough season in Seattle, where there had been an assembly line of players through the secondary.
"While the coaches were watching film, we were digging into our research and getting into his background," Radicevic says. "From what we found out, everything we heard was positive. A good character guy. This is another guy where a change of scenery would do him well. And when you look at our locker room, with guys like Vonn and Sam Hubbard, it's such a strong locker room, it's easier to bring in guys and get them acclimated.
"And he was a guy that had played a lot of quality snaps. Winning snaps.
Before putting in the claim the next day, they ran it by Bengals president Mike Brown and then just had to wait to see if they got him.
"You have to hand it to Lou," Radicevic says. "He's using him the way he envisioned it."
Flowers emerged as the Bengals tight end checker, a hybrid specialty player, and came up huge in the win over the Chiefs in the game that won the AFC North with 13 snaps, making sure Travis Kelce didn't go Hall of Faming. In the Wild Card, he made sure during his 21 snaps that Raiders tight end Darren Waller was plastered in the end zone on the final sequence.
Flowers took just nine snaps in K.C. last week, but he has emerged as even a bigger factor on special teams. Before he got here, he had never played gunner. But after injuries to their two guys, Brandon Wilson and Stanley Morgan, Jr., he's now the Bengals' leading postseason tackler in the kicking game. In Arrowhead last week he helped stifle the Chiefs' dangerous punt returns and in the divisional win his diving tackle with 2:43 left at the Titans 16 helped set up the killing turnover.
"You're always looking," Radicevic says.
Four moves. Four different transactions using a little 20th century to make a 21st century Super Bowl.
Which one would they be here without?