It's all in the cards

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The odyssey to orange has begun.

The personnel department has been grinding all fall, but when the Bengals coaches and scouts descend on the Senior Bowl Monday it marks the beginning of the final push for the April 27-29 draft.

They'll monitor the first few practices before the all-stars from the North and South play next Saturday (2:30 p.m.-NFL Network) in Mobile, Ala. Then in another month the contingent heads to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine before splitting off to cover the various workouts on college campuses.

And if you call them yellow, Duke Tobin, the Bengals director player personnel, won't get mad. Before he left for various college all-star games this week, he left a draft room where all of the nation's senior prospects have a yellow card printed and stuck to the wall in a preliminary ranking of position groups.

The "tag," as Tobin calls it, is the prospect's first true pro football card. There are no stats yet. Only vitals. It's a small rectangle that contains all the facts, ma'am: height, weight, 40-yard dash time, arm length, hand size, body fat percentage, a medical grade assigned by the Bengals doctors and an overall grade from the Bengals' scouting service along with his college jersey number.

Right now, the card is yellow.  Two weeks before the draft it will be fittingly orange, finalizing the work of a year scouting stripes. When they make the pick, that's the card president Mike Brown hands to vice president of player personnel Pete Brown and he reads off the name into his phone connected to the Bengals table in Philadelphia.

"We obviously have a lot more information on the guy in our data base," Tobin says. "This is basically a reference point, a visual representation of the player as a whole and it allows us to visualize him in comparison to the other players in the draft by virtue of where he is on the wall and by virtue of what's on his card."

Before the draft they'll move these cards around on their board like a house dealer as the grades evolve and the juniors aren't even on the board yet. By the end of January they will also have their yellow cards in place.

The card has been spit out by the Bengals' monstrous electronic data base churning in a two-minute drill since August and fitted for wall use by assistant Debbie LaRocca.

"It's a data base function rather than an in-putting function," Tobin says. "In-putting is an old technology and we don't do that. We collect and gather the data in an electronic format and down load it into our system."

All the players headed to Mobile have a card. Very rarely do the Bengals show up at an all-star game and they don't have a card for a player, which is already a sign right there. They hold the ninth pick and the only time they chose in that slot they selected USC linebacker Keith Rivers, a participant in the 2008 Senior Bowl.

Nowadays it's rare for a top 15 pick or so to show up in Mobile, although it is a fruitful spot for rounds beyond the first. This year's best prospects in the game are probably Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and Western Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp, projected as a mid-first rounders and they're probably playing positions that wouldn't interest the Bengals at No. 9.

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In about 12 hours, Jackson went from a card on the draft room wall to a Bengal.

But there are plenty of interesting guys. Defensive end? Michigan's Chris Wormley and Illinois' Dawuane Smoot. Wide receivers? East Carolina's Zay Jones and Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp, Outside linebacker? Wisconsin's Vince Biegel. There's even a kicker that special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons could find interesting in Arizona State's Zane Gonzalez.

Now's a good time to remember that the Bengals don't draft by numbers. They draft by tape. Exhibit A in the AFC North is Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the 2010 scouting combine. That may have put him in the sixth round, but he's going to the Hall of Fame because he plays the game a lot faster than the watch.

The Bengals put both combine 40 times on the prospect's card with the notation 'I,' after it, denoting he ran it in Indy. If he didn't run the 40 at the combine, they'll use the time at the campus workout known as a pro day and put a "W," after it.

At the moment, they're using a 40 time that was gathered by various NFL scouting combine services that clocked the top prospects during the spring before their last season, noted by a "V."

"We confirm the speed on tape," says Tobin and the Bengals did with last year's first-round pick, Houston cornerback William Jackson and his blistering 4.35 in Indy.

"If there's a difference between the combine and pro day speed, we may go in and get a third time or we'll determine what's the best time.

"If a kid asks, we'll recommend he run the 40 at the combine. That way he has a chance to improve it at the pro day, where he'd be putting his eggs all in one basket. And if you run the time you want in Indy, you've got that out of the way and you can focus on the football stuff at the pro day and don't have to worry about the track stuff, which we don't necessarily care about. We're looking for feet, hands, football movement."

Height is computed in eighths because it is, after all, a game of less than inches. It is four eighths instead of one half. Jackson's card from the 2016 draft says he's 6003, 6 feet and 3/8ths. Not quite 6-1.

The Bible is the combine measurement because Tobin says, "those guys are very thorough, very thorough." If there is no combine measurement, the next source is the pro day. Height is almost always written in stone, but they monitor weight, the most volatile number on the card.

"We keep an eye on weight throughout a guy's whole career in the NFL because it can shift in either direction," Tobin says.

Jackson was measured three times before the Bengals drafted him: at the combine, at his pro day, and when he came in for a visit before the draft.

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Duke Tobin's tags bring order to the draft board, but not nearly the whole story.

"Guys get measured at the Senior Bowl and by the time they get to the combine they may be 15, 20 pounds lighter or heavier depending what they're trying to show," Tobin says. "It's at the end of the season and they might have had trouble keeping weight through the year. But then when they've had had time to rest and recover, some guys go to the combine much heavier. They can go from 179 to 190 because they've had the chance to rebuild, rest, and recover."

But you can't beat body fat percentage to tell you what's really going on.

"If that's a high number, maybe his weight is inflated and he won't be able to hold his weight," Tobin says. "That's one thing we look at trying to predict future weight."

The future is now in the cards. But don't look for anyone of them to fall down the board after Mobile.

"In our view, it's only an opportunity to improve," Tobin says of the Senior Bowl. "We're not going to move you down based on a week practicing with people you just met  in a system you just learned. But you do have a chance to raise your stock."

The orange cards wait.

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