With the NFL spring meeting scheduled in-person this coming week in Palm Beach, Fla., for the first time since 2019, head coach Zac Taylor sat down with Bengals.com senior writer Geoff Hobson to discuss the clean sweep in free agency, the impact on the draft, Joe Burrow The Recruiter and if his team is better than it was walking off the field 40 days ago after Super Bowl LVI.
GH: How much better are you guys than you were on Feb. 13?
ZT: It's hard to say, 'OK, because we did that last year we're going to do it again.' There was a lot of work that went in behind the scenes. Our guys had a great offseason program when they showed up and developed the chemistry and kind of the foundation of what our season was going to be. They worked their tails off in training camp and did a great job keeping their bodies healthy. And then we caught momentum at the right times of the season. I don't want to take last year and say, we're just going to replicate exactly what we did last year.
There has to be that hunger with some of the guys we added. Which I think they will. That's why we added them. That chemistry has to come back coming off the break. Guys have to play it off each other like they did last year. That was a big part of why we had success. Guys played well together. Forget about, this guy is a Pro Bowl player, this player is this and that. They just responded so well to each other and each year is different when you try to replicate that.
GH: How do you replicate it?
ZT: It's a daily process. You don't just give it a big picture of, 'This is what our plan is.' It starts with when they walk in the door this offseason and start to build off that.
GH: Free agency turned out pretty much like the grease board of two weeks ago, didn't it?
ZT: I think it worked out well. We wanted to continue to make some changes up front and identified some guys we wanted to do it with. Fortunately they reciprocated that interest and wanted to jump in the boat.
GH: You went 3-for-3 on the O-line, right? Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, La'el Collins all seemed to be at the top of your radar.
ZT: I think everybody upstairs did a great job with Cappa and Karras because those are two guys we don't get to talk to as coaches during that part of the process. All we're able to do is research that they're about the right stuff as best we can, watch the tape and Duke (director of player personnel Tobin) and ownership and (director of pro personnel) Steve Radicevic and all those guys got involved and got it done.
GH: I'm not counting 2019 because you got the job late. But the three free agency periods since, the Bengals have been more aggressive than they've ever been when it comes to the number of starters you've signed. Is that something you pushed?
ZT: No. I feel we were all on board when it came to improving the team however we could do it. A lot of work is asked of a lot of people. Duke's department, ownership, the coaching staff. Everyone gets on the same page with the types of players we want and who specifically we want and everyone gets on board with it and we're able to add those guys.
I think every year is just different. You're looking to fill some spots on your roster you think you've got to fill and then maybe add some quality depth on top of that as well. Duke and Steve and the rest of the scouting department do a great job identifying those spots and getting on the same page with the coaches.
GH: Once you could get on the phone, and you were popping in and out of offices, what is your pitch to these guys?
ZT: This is going to be a place you enjoy walking into work every single day. We're going to continue to build off the year we just had and we want guys that want to be a part of that and want to work and enjoy the process as well. We've got a lot of talent on this team and we want you to be a part of it. Most of those guys like hearing that.
GH: La'el Collins, the other lineman, was a free agent in time to talk to the coaches during the process and he calls one of them, Frank Pollack, the best O-line coach he's had in the NFL. Plus, I guess Joe Burrow helped, too.
ZT: I think the starting point probably was the relationship he had with Frank. He knew what he was going to be walking into from that standpoint, which is big for those linemen. From there, he got a chance to meet some of our older players, some of our newer players and see how he gets to fit in. It's hard to speak for him, but just the feedback I got from him, this is a place he'd feel like he'll be comfortable and win a lot of games.
GH: You really went deep trying to get a read on tight end Hayden Hurst and talked to a teammate he had in Atlanta last season, Lee Smith. Smith played with your brother Press in college at Marshall about a dozen years ago. How did that come about?
ZT: You're just trying to find connections to every player so you can learn what they're about. The connection we could find on Hayden was Lee Smith. And Lee is a guy we have a tremendous amount of respect for with his years in the league. The connection we have with him is my brother. Lee was great. We got to know Hayden over the course of the week and really like what he's about. He and (tight ends coach) James Casey have a very similar background.
That connection has been really good. We're really excited to have him. He's a high-end talent who I think is really going to thrive on this opportunity. On paper right now, it looks pretty good. Now it's just a matter of how they fit in our system. We've got a lot of work to do there, but we're excited about him.
GH: It looks like the draft just opened up at No. 31. Anything and everything beyond the offensive line?
ZT: I think that helps, yeah. To not feel like you're lacking at a position where you have no starters. That's the biggest thing. From there you just continue to add to the depth and then find the right draft pieces that can come in and really help us take the next step as a team.
GH: That's kind of rare, I think, for any NFL team to go into a draft like that.
ZT: I think every year has been different for us. I know that it's a process our scouting department has been heavily involved in for a number of months. As a coaching staff we're just now getting caught up into it. April is always a big month for us as guys come off the road and we start to have those face-to-face meetings with the scouts and finalize the plan of attack.
GH: As the dust clears in free agency, are your needs now more on defense?
ZT: I think you have to be open to any option. If there is a player you really like you think can help the team, you don't want to get penciled into we have to have this or have to have that. We have to be open to who can help us. Certainly just from a sheer numbers standpoint we're a little bit lighter on defense than we are on offense.
GH: The thinking is cornerback. Your three starters are the only guys there with any real experience.
ZT: Those are obvious holes just because of the lack of numbers.
GH: Even at 31, if there's a wide receiver and he's the best player on the board, I guess you could take a receiver even though it may be your strongest position, but not for depth.
ZT: I don't think you want to take any options off the table. You want to make sure everything is available to you.
GH: Did you get a lot of congratulations at the NFL scouting combine earlier this month? Was it different being the head coach of the defending AFC champions?
ZT: It doesn't feel any different. It was just nice to get back to the combine. I wouldn't say it's much different than years past. You still feel like you have to get up to speed quickly and figure out who these players are.
GH: There always seems to be more scrutiny and more criticism with winning.
ZT: I think with success comes high expectations. That's what you want. That's why you're in this league. You want a lot to be asked of you. You want the expectations to be high. If they're low it's usually not a good sign of things.
GH: After free agency, the AFC is tougher now than when you won it back on Jan. 30. Can it get any tougher?
It's been tough. To me there is no change. You look down the stretch who the last AFC teams we played. Starting with the Raiders, Pittsburgh, Chargers, then Baltimore. Then Kansas City. Then Cleveland. And the Raiders again. Then Tennessee. Then Kansas City again. To me, that was a very difficult stretch of really quality teams.
Yeah, everybody is going to add some players and subtract some players as well. If you're playing meaningful football, it's going to be against a really good team. Each year it's all relative. Maybe there are just a higher number of quality players that are available and so it appears tougher because each team is just continuing to add high end talent and we're no different. People have to look at us that way as well.
GH: Not much time to decompress from the Super Bowl. Have you watched it much?
ZT: I've seen it. This time there were other things we had to divert our attention to with free agency. There's not a lot of time to dwell on that. You have to start jumping into the personnel side of things and make sure that's right on your team.
GH: After watching the last quarter, what did you walk away with?
ZT: Every playoff game we played came down to one key play in all three phases. You never know what that play is going to be. It could have been something subtle, something that everybody knows. They just made one more of those plays than we did.
GH: Was the last play it?
ZT: There are probably a number of plays it came down to. People are always going to focus on the last play of the game. I don't. I think of a lot of plays in between. A lot of things I could have done to put us in a better position. And when you lose a game it's always going to feel like that.
GH: Third-and-one, fourth-and-one, do you replay those?
ZT: Replay all of them. I think those are the easiest things just for people to nail down, but for me it's everything.
GH: What do you think Burrow walked away with? I know you don't want to speak for him, but what's your sense?
ZT: He's hungry and he wants to win championships. I think for all of us to get that close and walk away number two eats at you.
GH: He certainly shows he's hungry in free agency. For the second year in a row he jumped in to recruit.
ZT: He's a big part of everything that we do. I just think he wants this team to always improve and in all my conversations with him it's, 'What can I do to help you guys?' I think that shows how he was in free agency.
GH: What's the next big thing for you?
ZT: Getting to those draft picks. That's the biggest thing. Just compared a year ago and me personally, I'm six weeks behind. I just have to jump full speed ahead into it. Our guys come off the road in the next two weeks and we get a chance to sit down and comb through all these guys.
GH: I sat in my first NFL scouting combine interview a few weeks ago up in Indy and with apologies to director of college scouting Mike Potts, you probably asked the best question. Pottsie asked the guy what teammate he'd like to have come with him to play and after he answered, you asked, "Forget relationships. You're trying to win a Super Bowl. Who would it be?' Everything aside, you have to get a feel for that.
ZT: Everybody has friends that they want to continue to play with and live with and socialize with. I just want to make sure they are thoughtful. That relationship is great, but is that other guy willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done?
GH: That's probably been your No. 1 strength here. To find those guys and put them together.
ZT: That's the puzzle you work with each year. Every year it's a new puzzle. Different pieces. Different shapes and sizes and you have to find a way to make it fit. Sometimes it happens in September. Sometimes it happens in late December. Which one is more important? Sometimes you can make an argument for a lot of different things.
GH: You can make an argument this team began its run when Vonn Bell hit Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster on Monday night in late December of 2020.
GH: Is it easier now to get (free agents) than in 2020?
ZT: Yeah, I'm sure. There were a lot of unknowns a year ago. Is this team going to be able to take the next step? If you're an outsider and just looking in, you're really looking at just the record. It doesn't look so great. Now you look at this stage we've been able to play on, it certainly helps put it over the top. The money always matters, as it should. But the icing on the cake is they know they're going to be walking into a situation that's competitive and they have a chance to win a lot of games.