MOBILE, Ala. — There is a pretty good shot the Bengals are going to draft one of the players they'll see during Monday's first day of practice for this Saturday's Senior Bowl. After all, every team drafted at least one player out of here last year.
But trying to pick which one at this point, well … . With 98 juniors granted eligibility for the May 8-10 draft this past weekend, the Bengals have yet to blend their draft board with the younger players and the senior class the personnel department has been dissecting since the summer.
The scouts have already done a lot of work on the juniors since they had a pretty good idea from their campus trips which of the younger players were declaring, but after this final all-star game they'll focus on the juniors in order to put together some semblance of a draft board heading into the Feb. 22-25 scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Still, the Senior Bowl has been a valuable tool for the Bengals in their highly-acclaimed drafts of recent years. The best recent example may be wide receiver Marvin Jones, a 2012 fifth-rounder coming off a breakout sophomore season with 10 touchdown catches.
"The all-star games are just another step in the draft process," says Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel. "The Senior Bowl is an important step because it's the first exposure our coaches have to the players. It's a lot of people's first exposure to these guys and you have only one chance to make a first impression. Our scouts have already done a lot of work on the guys in this game, so the early work with campus visits in the fall by the scouts, along with the exposure of the coaches to the guys in this game are a big part of our effort to reach a consensus when it comes time to draft."
The consensus ranges from Tobin, Bengals president Mike Brown, vice president of player personnel Pete Brown, head coach Marvin Lewis, the area scouts, and position coaches. It's another big week for the scouts. Unlike some teams, the Bengals don't assign them to watch specific positions during all-star game practices. Tobin wants his guys to be on the lookout for anything and "don't have blinders on."
The scouting of quarterback Andy Dalton shows how players get on The List before they arrive at the Senior Bowl.
Even before the coaches were involved, Dalton was on the Bengals radar gun. After area scout Bill Tobin completed his senior season evaluation of Dalton that included a visit to Texas Christian, he gave Dalton a higher grade than the one given by the league's scouts, pushing him into a potential pick in the first three rounds heading into the 2011 Senior Bowl. Because of mediocre numbers and limited chances at the University of California, Jones wasn't viewed as highly yet, but his speed and campus scouting separated him from the undraftables and put him on a list to watch at this gathering here two years ago.
"The thing that was impressive about both of those guys was how people on their campuses talked about them," Duke Tobin says of the hidden sources cultivated in the nooks and crannies of each college program. "When you've got people that you trust, people who it does no good for them to lie to you, saying positive things like that is very impressive and both guys were highly thought of on their campuses."
It turned out the Bengals coached against Dalton's South team three years ago, but they did it without offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, not hired until a week after the game. Still, it gave everyone in the organization the chance to stack Dalton up against the three North quarterbacks the Bengals worked with every day, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, Washington's Jake Locker and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi. Isn't that the way it always works? The Bengals now not only have Dalton, but another South quarterback from that game, Alabama's Greg McElroy.
(There may be much angst about Dalton's 0-3 record in playoff games and the fact that Kaepernick, drafted a slot behind Dalton at No. 36, has already been to two NFC title games. But rewind to this time and place on Jan. 20, 2011 and how many would have passed on Dalton if they knew he'd be one of four quarterbacks in NFL history making the postseason in his first three years in the NFL while joining Dan Marino and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to throw at least 80 touchdown passes in those first three seasons? He wouldn't have gone No. 35.)
"When you're looking at a quarterback, it's different than other positions because you're looking for so many things like body language, interacting with teammates and coaches, how does he communicate," Tobin says. "It was the first chance all our people had to see him and that was a big year because we obviously had a need for a guy who had to be more ready than other guys."
Just the fact Dalton played was a big feather in his cap for Tobin.
"It bothers me when a quarterback says, 'I don't want to do that because I'm not going to be at my best,' " Tobin days. "Nobody is at their best. It's sort of an insult to the people that are watching it because everyone knows they're in different systems and throwing to different receivers. You have to give the evaluators some credit. But there are guys willing to go into that environment. They're competitors. I don't imagine Andy had to think twice about playing. 'Yeah, I'll throw whenever you want me to throw. Whatever you want me to do, I'll do.' That's how he was through the process and that's the kind of guy we're looking for. It's more of a negative than playing in the game and being off. Choosing not to play in the game will hurt your draft status."
Jones was a more curious case going into the 2012 Senior Bowl. He had been overshadowed statistically by a younger receiver, Keenan Allen, but it was more complicated than that. Cal's quarterback was Allen's brother and he wasn't exactly going to the pros. In fact, he wasn't going to start at the University of Buffalo when he transferred. So what kind of shot did Jones have to shine? Which is why the Senior Bowl is huge for players like him. The belief is that the best pass he ever caught in his life came in the first practice of the Senior Bowl.
(The Senior Bowl is also huge for the players from the smaller colleges that haven't gone against big-time competition. For example, on this year's South team it's pretty clear what Auburn cornerback Chris Davis can do in crunch time against the best each week, but what about Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo?)
"You could see on tape that Marv didn't get many opportunities, but he made the most of what he got," Tobin says. "And the way people talked about him at Cal, it really made you appreciate him and it gave him a higher profile than his production. But you needed to see more and (the Senior Bowl) is a great place to see a guy who plays a position that relies on another position. Seeing a receiver with a higher cut of quarterback is very important. The biggest things are looking at how he runs a different set of routes, running a broader route tree, and getting opportunities from a different quarterback."
Dalton and Jones obviously passed their Mobile screenings, but their place on the Bengals draft board didn't get sealed until weeks later. A defining moment in the scouting of Dalton came in his private workout at TCU, where Gruden was convinced of his arm strength and where Tobin was convinced of his intangibles as the Bengals inched to consensus.
"When Andy threw, everything stopped," Tobin says. "There were people there who just showed up to pull for him and root for him. Just by that scene, you could tell how much he meant to that team."
Jones also had more work to do after his impressive Senior Bowl, which consisted of primarily proving he was a legit speed guy and he did that the next month at the combine with his brisk 40-yard dash. Although he went in the fifth round, that didn't mean the Bengals didn't have him rated higher. That often happens in the later rounds, Tobin says.
The Bengals already took a wide receiver with their first third-round pick, Mohamed Sanu from Rutgers, and then went tight end in the fourth (Orson Charles) and cornerback (Shaun Prater) with the first of three fifth-round picks before selecting Jones.
"You never really know why a guy like Marvin filters down," Tobin says. "It can be team needs; it can be that teams were looking for a different kind of receiver with a different body type. Whatever it was, we had regard for him. When you get into the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds, you're normally talking about guys with third-, fourth-, fifth-round assessments. Rarely, if ever, do we get to guys with a sixth- and seventh-round assessment because we have guys with higher grades left to us."
As for the scouts, this week means some tried and true evaluations. Can defensive backs play the ball in the air? Are they fluid in the backpedal? How instinctive are the linebackers? Are they robotic and have to know the scheme and the players around them and have to have everything just right so they can make a play? Or can they flat out get off blocks and get to the ball while everything is still new? Can this running back catch? Is that lineman strong enough to hold up down after down with the real big men?
All the while, Tobin is urging his guys to watch every position this week. Matchups. Tackles vs. D-ends. Corners vs. receivers. Part of the entire process is assigning each personnel man a position, along with that particular position coach. But Tobin hopes everybody is looking for everything.
"You've got to see the big picture first," he says. "You have to be able to compare them to everybody else."
The little things start to become a little sharper this week.