The Bengals are not only in the final three weeks of preparing for the April 27-29 NFL Draft. As evidenced from the past month of acquisitions, they're also stockpiling scouting reports for future free agency periods.
They just got done signing two starters (tight end Irv Smith Jr. and safety Nick Scott) and a potential starter (right tackle Cody Ford) with the help of their 2019 draft notes. They went back to 2017 to get a backup cornerback in Sidney Jones IV.
And when they picked off rotational pass rusher Tarell Basham earlier in the week, area scout Andrew Johnson recalled first meeting then Ohio University defensive coordinator and future famous dad Jimmy Burrow at Basham's 2017 pro day. The adjectives "competitive," "high-energy," "long," along with an NFL projection had been first recorded seven drafts ago.
So, the draft never ends.
If you're looking for the advantages of having the same coaching and scouting staff for years, that's one of the sweet spots for the Bengals. When they went to the market for a tight end a few weeks ago, position coach James Casey recalled how they were looking for one in 2019, the draft they took Drew Sample in the second round.
They had Alabama's Smith on the radar and Casey actually lunched with him in Tuscaloosa during a pro day visit.
"We were all saying the same things when we were looking at the free agents. We were all informed enough on these guys because we had studied a lot of them," Casey said.
Footnote on that second round in 2019: The Bengals liked Ford enough to explore trading up to get him. But even though they didn't get him and even though they had a different offensive line coach, they had enough info on him for what director of college scouting Mike Potts calls key baseline evaluations.
Potts says since access to players on other teams is basically shut off once they get into the league, it makes their scouting reports coming out of college so crucial. Their current NFL film is obviously a priority and is put under the microscope. But the initial reports allow the personnel staff to narrow and focus their lists quickly, with grades on character and medical still fresh and relevant enough to be a qualifier or disqualifier.
When Scott's name bubbled up as they mulled the safety situation, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor may have been hesitant to approach his contacts with the Rams early in free agency, not knowing what their old team had planned for him. But in their own building, Johnson, the East Coast scout who followed Scott at Penn State, already had the character cold:
Great family. Father teaches at Harvard. Two-time captain. Roomed with the Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley.
"That's my job to know," Johnson says.
It's another example of Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin talking about the value of experience scouting in the NFL and how the individual scouts develop their own internal big board of comparisons and experiences down through the years.
Trey Brown, senior personnel executive, wasn't in Paycor Stadium's 2017 draft room. But he was there when the Eagles selected Washington cornerback Sidney Jones IV, a particularly tough call in the second round at No. 43. Just a month before, Jones, smooth and long at 6-0, 180 pounds, had been what appeared to be a top 20 selection before injuring his Achilles' at his pro day.
With Jones surfacing as a free agent after not playing much for the Seahawks and Raiders last season, Brown had plenty of intel but with an important caveat.
It is the Bengals in 2023 and they've got their starters. There is no timeline for No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie's ACL rehab, but Zac Taylor is upbeat. Second-rounder Cam Taylor-Britt is coming off the best season by a Bengals rookie cornerback in 15 years. So with playoff hero Eli Apple unsigned, the idea is seasoned depth.
"Anytime you're looking at guys in free agency, you have to be mindful to evaluate what the guy looks like now as opposed to what he looked like when he came out," says Brown, a Jim Thorpe semifinalist when he played cornerback at UCLA. "We studied the tape over the last year and he has a lot of ability and very good physical traits.
"Are they competitive? Can they cover? How instinctive are they? And can they match up with elite wide receivers in this league? Sidney checked those boxes to a high degree. He's a very good athlete with good cover skills and speed. Smart kid. Understands the game. Hard worker. He adds good value to our depth in the cornerback room."
And there are the intangibles, which Brown has seen in Jones' compelling battles with injury, trade and constant change during his six seasons.
"Sidney has been one of those guys that had to battle," Brown says. "Coming into the league injured, he had to battle through that and other things over the course of his career, which makes you a better player when you've gone through those things. He's battle-tested. He's played snaps in this league. He's played at a high level. He's started games in this league. Where we are trying to add good guys into the room, he fits that mold."
There is plenty of tape. Four teams in 57 games and 27 starts. And the intangibles were on display when he came into sign last week.
"I thrive in a place where it's family-oriented. A brotherhood," says Jones, who has a four-month-old. "I've heard great things about the organization. That's always a positive because I've been in a few places and it's definitely a different experience everywhere."
Jones' pro day injury has turned from one of those sad draft stories to one of the more inspiring. He has been up front about his battles with depression and anxiety and has reached back into the community to tell his story and help others. And, like he says, "I'm young. I've got plenty of ball left." He turns just 27 next month.
"To be honest, that was tough," says Jones of that awful day his life ripped along with his Achilles. "I didn't know how tough it was going to be until stuff just wasn't going the way I thought. Looking back at it, coming into the league and having that hovering over my head and having to get through the hurdles of that, I'm grateful to do what I've been able to do and overcome that and continue to put years into the league.
"I'm looking to re-set myself and show everybody what I can do."
He already got a good sign when word got out he was coming to Cincinnati. Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals Pro Bowl linebacker from a decade ago, is a relative by marriage and reached out.
"He said I would love it there," Jones says.
The draft never ends.