Scouting In Cyberspace

Injuries have pushed Jordan Franks into games.
Injuries have pushed Jordan Franks into games.

It may seem like Jordan Franks surfaced at the snap of Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's fingers last Sunday when he suddenly popped out of the huddle for his first NFL down and Lazor conjured up a wheel route that smoked Buccaneers linebacker Devonte Bond for 32 yards down quarterback Andy Dalton's right sideline.

Franks, an undrafted rookie tight end, then stayed on the sidelines for the rest of the game with the straightest line in the NFL: one snap, one target, one catch. With the injury-riddled Bengals strapped for tight ends, no doubt Franks sees more and more time as the season goes on. And the unlikely journey to the league of a former defensive end and rotational tight end with 12 catches underscores how important scouting is to building an NFL team that is deep enough to withstand the weekly demolition derby that reduces rosters to rubble.

"Fast guy. Good kid. I'm glad we've got him," says Steven Radicevic, the Bengals pro scouting director.

Even though no one knows where this opportunity takes Franks and the Bengals after just one fleeting snap, Radicevic is off to find the next one. The football staff may have been off for the bye weekend, but the scouts are where they always seem to be. On the tarmac.

Radicevic, who scouts The Coast for the draft, won't get home from his western swing until the middle of this week. But by then he'll have already inputted the information he gathered in the player personnel department's burgeoning technology empire. Before he left, it was that technology embedded in an overhauled custom-made pro scouting program that also allowed him to leave director of player personnel Duke Tobin the famed "Ready List," of pro players if the Bengals suddenly need help on the roster or on the practice squad once practice resumes this week.

Radicevic's week sums up the core of Tobin's philosophy.

"We use our guys in multiple areas," Tobin says of the college-pro mix, "so you maintain the perspective of what's playing in the NFL and what's available in college. From a technology standpoint, we've built an in-house system that serves to directly fit the needs of our organization."

Under Tobin's direction about a decade ago, the Bengals moved to comprehensive cyberspace scouting and it has mirrored the club's success since 2009. Since that season they won a surprise AFC North title with a sweep of the division, the Patriots (nine) and the Packers (eight) are the only teams that have gone to the postseason more than the Bengals' six.

And since 2011 they've got the league's sixth best winning percentage with drafts that have stood the test of time. Back in September, The Buffalo News released a survey reporting the Bengals led the NFL with 58 drafted players on Opening Day rosters throughout the league, a whopping 20 more than the average.

The beefed-up technology is nice, but Tobin insists the true scouting comes with boots on the ground from the area scouts and such it was with the 6-4, 240-pound Franks.

Mike Potts, the Bengals college scouting director who covers the southeast, couldn't make it into sections of Florida last season because of a hurricane. So Radicevic ducked into Orlando's Central Florida on his way to a December all-star game in Daytona Beach while the Knights were preparing for their bowl game.

There was a lot to look at on an undefeated roster. Four players would get drafted in the first 141 picks and their tight end, Jordan Akins, would go No. 98 to the Texans in the third round. But when Radicevic met with UCF offensive coordinator Troy Walters, he suddenly had another tight end on the radar.

Duke Tobin's draft room puts a heavy premium on computer programs.
Duke Tobin's draft room puts a heavy premium on computer programs.

The other Jordan.

"He told me he thought (Franks) would have a brighter career in the NFL than he did in college because they underused him," says Radicevic, scrolling through his notes on Franks' player card. "They only threw to him 15 times. Twelve catches, 120 yards."

Not much to view. Franks wasn't playing in all-star games. He wasn't invited to the combine. Not with 15 targets. But thanks to Walters, they had their eye on him at the UCF March pro day. Tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, who was already there to look at Akins, reinforced Radicevic's enthusiasm about Franks' workout and tagged-team with him to recruit Franks from the projected ranks of the undrafted.

"Ran a 4.61 40," says Radicevic, using his notes on the cyberspace cards to refresh his memory. "Really good athlete. Played defense early in his career … Fourth rotational tight end … Showed really good speed at the pro day. Caught the ball well. Short area quickness … I don't know if he'll be able to hold any more weight, but he's a good player to bring in as a receiving tight end and he'll compete for a roster spot."

The scouting process also involves engagement with agents and the recruitment of Franks got a boost from the relationship with his agent Elton Patterson, the last player picked in Lewis' first draft and a former UCF defensive end. Then when the Bengals invited Franks to PBS as one of their non-combine prospects he bonded with Hayes. The grizzled coach, who played tight end for a dozen NFL seasons, got a glimpse of what he saw when the Bengals signed Franks to the practice squad after training camp with his first-in-the-building-last-to-leave work ethic.

"Good kid. No off-field issues. Great work ethic in the weight room," says Radicevic from the player's card that proved true.

Whether Franks' card morphs into a healthy chunk of lines on remains to be seen. What we do know is his draft is going to be the last of its kind in the current setup, both in the draft room and on the computer.

The coaching influence wielded by Hayes in the scouting of Franks figures to remain the same since that is embedded in a Paul Brown franchise. But for one of the few times the Bengals handed out titles in the personnel department back in the spring when Tobin made Radicevic and Potts directors while continuing to scout the areas they know best. They'll also be using a revamped software system for the college prospects after the IT department puts the finishing touches on the pro side of it in a few weeks.

"We're trying to expand areas of the organization with our most experienced guys," Tobin says.

They've got the help of a triple threat in the IT department with senior director of technology Jake Kiser deploying application developer Tyler Gross and consultant Geoff Smith. With Kiser as the designer, Gross coming up with the codes and Smith supplying the data bases, about all the scouts have to do is, well, scout. It puts into action Tobin's favorite word.

"Efficiency," Tobin says. "The technology does the organizing and that allows us more time for evaluation."

Kiser attacked the pro scouting system like any designer. Even though the draft room is right down the hall, Kiser refers to the personnel department as "the client."

"We're pulling data from a variety of sources to allow us to view the pro universe," Kiser says. "It's building the system that automates what a scout would do (for organization). It's always an evolving system with the future in mind on the latest platforms."

Linebacker Vincent Rey: undrafted free agent who has played 120 games.
Linebacker Vincent Rey: undrafted free agent who has played 120 games.

It's custom-made so Radicevic can quickly access on his phone and laptop data available on pro players displayed on one-page cyber cards similar to the cards for college prospects. Kiser has designed four pods for the system: ready list, waiver wire, rosters, unrestricted and restricted free agents.

Before Radicevic leaves on the scouting trip, he makes one final sweep of the ready list for players to be called this week for a workout if needed. On his screen quickly pops the players throughout the league released in the last 72 hours and where they've worked out the last three months.

Efficiency, Tobin style.

Among the other data Smith captures and Gross, a former Georgetown College center, codes, are the Bengals' scouting report and medical grades from when the player came out of college and their most recent scouting report on the player since he's been in the league. During the preseason the scouts divided up the eight divisions focusing on bubble players that could get cut and wrote reports.

"The idea is you're not scrambling for a day or two if something happens on a Sunday," Radicevic says. "You may have to watch an hour or two of film, but everyone knows quickly the guys we're looking at."

Radicevic could elaborate on one of those tight ends in the system the Bengals have been perusing and how he slid him to the ready list. How he watched 40 snaps from the preseason. How he updated his notes to read, "Not super quick, he's got pretty good hands, he's not a blocker …"

He could. But he's headed to the tarmac again looking for another guy like Franks, a prospect hiding in all that technology.