Scouting The Scouts At Combine

INDIANAPOLIS - There are two Starbucks within an A.J. Green go route of the Bengals' NFL scouting combine headquarters and because he is a veteran NFL scout Steven Radicevic already has scoped out the strengths and weaknesses.

Even though it is 6:45 a.m., it is still dead of the winter night in central Indiana and Radicevic is leading us to the light so he can get the Spinach Feta wrap to go with his Cold Brew coffee.

"I chew the ice," Radicevic says. "It's probably a bad habit, but it's better than chewing tobacco."

Spend a day at the combine with the Bengals' scouts and the only thing getting chewed more than Radicevic's ice is information. From coffee to cut-backs, Radicevic, the club's director of pro scouting, and college scouting director Mike Potts, are sprinkling bits of facts into their laptops, phones and printed master sheets.

The combine is still a fast-food element of the NFL Draft process. A drive-thru interview here. A hot 40-yard dash time there. A sweet bench press over there. Hits the spot, but nothing filling. The five-star meal for the scouts remains the game tape, but the combine shows that even though their coaching staff is in transition the Bengals personnel department is in two-minute mode with the pro days starting Tuesday and the 11th pick less than two months away.

They talk about chemistry between scouts and a coaching staff that is now being re-tooled after 16 years with former head coach Marvin Lewis. But that comes now. The coaching change has had no impact on the scouting process leading into the combine because the personnel people don't grade and evaluate prospects based on scheme, but on league-wide value. Now is the time the coaches get involved.

"Most of this stuff we should already have on film," Radicevic says of the game tape. "It should confirm what you've already seen. But the combine is still important. You work all year on these guys and it gives you a chance to compare them in the same building at the same time. You get to watch them across the stage together."

That's where we're walking now. The stage at Lucas Oil Stadium where the defensive linemen and linebackers are to be measured. Radicevic and Potts, both 34 and bright up-and-comers, can smile a bit on the way. They've paid enough dues that they no longer have to be involved in making sure their teams get good seats for the 7:30 a.m. weigh in.

"That's a story in itself," says Potts, shaking his head, eight years after he did it for the Falcons breaking into the league.

So Christian Sarkisian is the guy that has to get up at 4 a.m. for the Bengals. Sarkisian, 26, is in his first year scouting the Central, starting up at the Dakotas and Minnesota and down through Arkansas and Oklahoma. But he puts on some veteran moves of his own to team with 83-year-old Bengals president Mike Brown and get the team front and center in the first two rows.

If there is anyone more prepared to adapt to how National Football Scouting changed the weigh-in seating process, it is Sarkisian. He worked for the outfit that runs the combine last year and he spent two months in Indy during the run-up to the 2018 combine. So his deep well of NFS contacts includes the red jacket security personnel.

Before this year, the rush to get the best seats for the weigh-in resembled an old-fashioned Gold Rush, circa, 1848, complete with team reps scrambling, sprinting, diving and delving for the chosen few. When a team rep leaped and broke an escalator last year, NFS apparently changed some things.

This year the word is about 30 security members were deployed to make sure there was no running until the final hallway. But given his contacts among the red jackets, Sarkisian didn't have to go to such histrionics as others have. Scouts have been known to come straight from last call at Kilroy's or Claddagh and sober up in the cold in front of the gate to get a spot.

Not Sarkisian. He was in the rack at midnight, an hour after the final prospect interviews of the night.

"You've got to start getting there around 3:30 a.m. If you're there after 4:15, you've got no shot getting the seat you want," Sarkisian says. "It's usually cyclical around the league. From what I can see, there were about four teams competing this morning. It wasn't too competitive for us. We've got pretty much the same seats ever year. That's the benefit of having your owner come in because the other coaches and GMs respect that."

No NFL owner is more involved in the draft than Brown, who chairs the club's draft meetings when they begin in early April. During the combine he hosts the daily 5:45 a.m. breakfasts for all staffers and he gets to today's weigh-in about 6:20 with his newspaper, probably The Wall Street Journal. He chats with Sarkisian about breakfast, where he had dinner the night before, and the upcoming prospects as other members of the draft team trickle into their chairs.

Brown, the man who made sure more than anyone else that the Bengals landed in Cincinnati, is in his 55th year building them if you go back to those first talks with Ohio governor John Rhodes and in his eighth decade of being up close to NFL drafts. And he's in the middle of perhaps his most significant offseason ever, showing he's at it more than ever.

Next to the tornadic expansion season of 1968, Brown has overseen the Bengals' biggest staff overhaul, not only sitting in on all the head coaching interviews, but putting his blessing on Duke Tobin driving them and then the consensus decision to put the franchise in the hands of an energetic, charismatic and young (35), but not unknown NFL assistant (he was interviewed for three head jobs) named Zac Taylor.

Taylor is one of the league's new, hot offensive minds and the move is clearly a bow to the Bengals' glory days of offensive creativity on coaching staffs with Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Lindy Infante, Sam Wyche and Bruce Coslet. They are passing the torch to a new generation of coaches, many born after the Bengals made their first Super Bowl. Sarkisian is symbolic of it all, born the first full year Mike Brown ran the team after Paul Brown's death.

"He's very down-to-earth," Sarkisian says. "You see your owner working like that and it makes everybody else work a little harder."

On this day the always understated Brown, wearing his signature battered non-logo ball cap and windbreaker (director of operations Jeff Brickner drives him door-to-door), is in the front row next to director of player personnel Duke Tobin and Tobin is sitting next to his father, Midwest scout Bill Tobin.

Brown has made sure his team remains a family venture and never isn't more apparent than at a combine weigh-in. Behind them in the next row are club vice presidents Paul Brown, and Troy and Katie Blackburn, his son, son-in-law and daughter. Next to them is Radicevic and the seat on the end is suddenly taken by their hustling new defensive line coach a few days after signing his contract.

Before the first prospect takes the stage, Radicevic introduces himself to Nick Eason, a former 3-4 end in the NFL for nine seasons and an NFL D-Line coach for five, and they promptly discuss what Eason is looking for in players.

"He doesn't buy into a guy being a 3-4 guy or a 4-3 guy," Radicevic reports. "If he the guy's good enough, he'll find a role for him."

When the prospect takes the stage, one man backs him against the wall to take his height and barks out feet, inches and quarter inches, such as "Six Oh Two Six Six." Also shared is arm length and wing span. Then another man motions the prospect to a scale, backs him off and bellows, "308. Three. Oh. Eight."

And even though the numbers are flashing into every team's data base, where a photo soon follows, the figures are jotted down and if they're like the notes of long-time Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, they take note of that build.

Simmons, who says the most impressive weigh-ins he's seen are tight end Vernon Davis (2006) and defensive end Myles Garrett (2017), is trying to explain why he doesn't sleep in and let the photo do the rest. Has to be here, he says.

He stops when he sees a very large man with little fat hanging off his belt glide across the stage and alight on the scale.

"That's why," Simmons says as he makes a note. "You can't see that on a picture. He's not only big. He can get bigger. You can see that."

Radicevic explains as he takes stock of the numbers he has already seen for months.

"Some guys were sloppier than I thought," he says. "And some were heavier than I thought, but that was a good thing."

Now most of the Bengals' contingent is walking out of the weigh-in to head to the field to watch the first workouts of the week. Potts, Simmons and linebackers coach Tem Lukabu stick around for the backers' weigh-in while Radicevic, Bill Tobin, and East Coast scout Andrew Johnson take their stopwatches to the 40-yard dashes for the offensive linemen, kicker and punters.

On the way, Radicevic sees Chris Horton, the Ravens' new assistant special teams coach and fires out a, "Hey, Hort," in a brief meeting of two former UCLA teammates that broke into the game as G.As. on head coach Rick Neuheisel's staff. Radicevic, a defensive lineman who transferred from Cal-Davis, opted for the administrative side after an injury in his first spring ball and found himself in a sea of talented guys that now keep running into each other during combine week.

When Radicevic was on the defensive side as a G.A., former Bruins quarterback Brian Callahan was on offense. Now Callahan is the Bengals offensive coordinator and the two steal a moment in the Bengals suite at Lucas Oil later today to go through the list of some of their UCLA coaching brethren that populate the NFL, led by Bengals cornerbacks coach Daronte Jones.

There are also guys like Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, Washington assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher and Panthers running backs coach Jake Peetz. And that's only to name a few.

"Small world," Callahan says. "Really small world."

As Sarkisian has already showed today, the NFL is a really small world. It's all about relationships and this week they can be tapped in a stadium hallway with a security guard, over coffee in a hotel lobby chair with an agent or a chat with an old teammate while watching drills in a barren section of seats.

Radicevic, who is also the Bengals' main man on the West Coast (where he made his first bevy of NFL contacts as UCLA's director of football operations), is ready to use all his weapons. It may be his first full official free agency season as the club's director of pro scouting, but he knows how the game is played with the market opening in less than two weeks.

"You talk to other teams, guys you trust," Radicevic says. "You try to get an idea who they're going to re-sign, who they're going to let go. I mean, we've got an idea about these guys because we graded them coming out. But people change physically and mentally. It's not like college where you can go visit a pro facility and scout the guy. But you still have to find out the same things. Is he a team guy? Can he practice every day? The medical changes."

Radicevic settles into his seat next to Tobin and Johnson on the 40-yard-line, 13 rows from the field. Teams draw lots to sit at the finish line and the Bengals are a row behind the Broncos and a row in front of the Steelers. Sarkisian shows up soon after going back to the hotel to shower following his key early morning work. Mike Brown, believed to be the only owner with a stop watch, eases into the same row a section over and gets his own times.

"A.J. takes our times and we end up tossing out the low time and high time," says Radicevic of Johnson. "We take the two middle times, plus you've got two combine guys on the field timing, as well as electronic timing."

The electronics can fool you some of the time because even the sensors can miss a quick start or be a beat early because of a hand movement or bended knee. For instance, when Bengals wide receiver John Ross set the combine's 40-yard dash record two years ago, Sarkisian remembers the times ranging from 4.18 to 4.25 before the official 4.22 was settled.

There are no surprises here. As Radicevic says, the entire combine is simply a confirmation of what has been seen on tape. For the offensive line drills he'll move back a few rows and a section over to be by himself and jot notes on his Master sheet. When he gets back to the office next week he'll watch the film of the same workouts and write a brief addendum to his own report on the player if needed.

Jim Turner broke into NFL scouting with the Dolphins.
Jim Turner broke into NFL scouting with the Dolphins.

Some teams break up the combine by assigning scouts to specific positions. But Radicevic thinks it helps the Bengals that everyone takes a look at everyone on the Lucas Oil turf. They've already split them by regions and offense and defense coming into the combine and as the draft closes in they'll cross check each other.

"This lets us get a grip on the entire draft and see what and where the values are," says Radicevic, nodding to the field. "It's kind of like this drill. If you've got two guys that are rated pretty evenly and they go back-to-back, that's nice to be able to compare that."

Radicevic is speaking and writing in scout shorthand. "Quick feet. Slow to the second level. Doesn't square his shoulders. Look at this guy. He's getting tall. His legs are going. You can tell he's fatigued."

When there's a break and the combine seems to have more breaks than a televised hearing Radicevic checks his phone. Sometimes there's a nice surprise and his wife has sent her daily video of their three-year-old son and year-old daughter, giving new meaning to film study.

His wife also leads the NFL in packing snacks. Her husband may not chew tobacco, but he's addicted to nuts. After vacuuming a bag of trail mix, he hauls out the good stuff, the Blue Diamond bags.

Radicevic uses one of the breaks to head upstairs to the suite, which serves as their combine never center. Potts and Duke Tobin and their lap tops are manning the counter top overlooking the field. Mike Brown has also moved upstairs and is sitting in one of the seats outside the box. Behind Tobin and Potts is a lounge area where there's a buffet available. Coaches and scouts mingle as Taylor holds court with Callahan and assistant line coach Ben Martin while shooting looks at one of the TVs beaming the NFL Network coverage.

They're talking ball. Schemes. Prospects. Trading stories if there's one relevant to this year. It's almost like a junior high mixer. Everyone is asking, "Who do you like?"

With the offensive line getting ready to give up the field to the running backs, Potts huddles with offensive line coach Jim Turner so they can settle on his travel schedule for this month's pro days.

The Pro Day is the next phase of the process and fittingly starts Tuesday at Purdue, a short drive the day after the combine ends. For the next five weeks most colleges hold a day they open to the NFL to work out their draft eligible players. Potts, the former William and Mary quarterback, is crafting this game plan matching the coaches' needs with the team needs.

And he has to throw circumstances like this into the mix. Before running backs coach Jemal Singleton left the Raiders earlier this month, he coached with Oakland at the Senior Bowl, where he worked with prospects all through a game week. So Singleton not only has a terrific take on the backs, but also players at other positions.

"The key is to have as little clean-up as possible on the back end. To make sure we get at least one set of eyes on each guy," Potts says.

Potts has the Pro Day calendar in front of him next to his laptop, where the results of the O-Line workouts are already logged. He can punch the name of the prospect and he'll see what the guy has done this week. And, more importantly, what they didn't do.

"If the coach feels like he's seen enough here and has spent enough time with the guy in the interviews, looked him in the eye and feels like he's got a conviction positive or negative, he probably doesn't have to go," Potts says. "But if there's something that hasn't been answered or if something comes up here, like he pulls a hammy or doesn't do all the drills, or there's a character question, then we'll be at the pro day."

Duke Tobin spoke to the media as well as prospects at the combine.
Duke Tobin spoke to the media as well as prospects at the combine.

Here's another example of having relationships. It's a must the area scouts develop trusted sources at each school. For instance as Potts and Turner discuss one prospect that had been called the hardest worker on the team, Tobin has to laugh because he has been told the exact opposite.

Since this is his first season working with Turner, Tobin reminds him he could go to any school any time. He tells Turner the idea is to make sure he's comfortable with anybody they draft or sign.

Turner nods as he looks down at his March calendar. The only thing he knows is that he'd like to get to Texas on some of the weekends to visit his family that won't move to Cincinnati until school is out. Family and football is what fuels Turner, who bought his home in Cincy based on the proximity of ice rinks because his 11-year-old son is hockey-mad. So anywhere he can find a lineman, he's going.

He's got a lot of the calendar filled in because he got started last night after checking in with Potts. Johnson is working with Tobin, reading off which prospects worked out and which ones didn't and what drills they did and didn't do. Potts is confirming it on his laptop and reviewing with Turner which guys he needs to see more to fill out his reports.

"What do you think about this guy, Jim?" Potts asks.

"Got enough. I liked what I heard last night," Turner says of the interviews. Plus, "We've to make sure we're looking at the undrafted guys, too," he says a few times as the calendar fills up with the top guys.

Potts, who could moonlight as a travel agent, has resolved a couple of potential conflicts by reminding Turner he can call the player and set up a private meeting and/or workout around the pro day. That gets Turner out of a jam in at least one state.

"Good idea. Good idea," Turner murmurs as he scratches out the change.

Potts reminds him that the Bengals are allowed 30 visits to their facility.

"Can they work out?" asks Turner, who went through a couple of NFL drafts with the Dolphins a few years ago.

"No, only at the local day," Potts says of the 30 players who played either high school or college in the Cincinnati area.

"Right," Turner says, still mindful of that hour after the draft. "We've got to get some of these undrafted guys on there."

There is one of those guys that has piqued Tobin's interest.

"Jimmy, I think we should visit that guy," Tobin says.

"I agree," says Turner, who adds another date to March.

Turner gets an assist because the guys he can't see, his assistant Martin can go see. This helps them out at Ohio State, where Tobin likes to heavily display the Bengals colors when the Buckeyes work out.

"We'll have a couple of car pools going," Tobin says.

The workouts are wrapping up as mid-afternoon falls. Turner packs his new March for a flight to Texas before getting on the road in a few days.

"You'll print out the schedule, right?" Turner asks Potts.

"I'll finalize it Monday," Potts says. "I'll e-mail it, too."

Turner grabs a plate of food he'll give to the security guard at the elevator on the ground floor on the way out. Radicevic still has plenty of snacks left. He'll need some to get through the interviews that start after dinner and last past ten.

Until then, he'll probably scout the kids on the phone.

"Face Time is a game changer," he says during another day of trying to find one.