Andrew Johnson, the Bengals East Coast scout, knows exactly where he was when the NFL shut down last year just one week into pro days. Long Branch, N.J., home of Monmouth University after driving an hour south on Jersey 18 from Princeton.
"The texts started coming. All the scouts were looking at our phones," Johnson recalled this week. "The bosses were telling us to come back home. The schools were sending cancellations of their workouts. All I got to was three."
With pro days beginning in earnest this week, this year's version of campus workouts signal the Bengals are entering the next phase of the biggest unknown draft in the 50 years of the NFL merger and Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin is vowing to find the age-old answers despite the limits of a pandemic-laced process.
From players who opted out last season to their team's shrunken schedules to the lack of exhaustive physicals, Tobin this week ran through the challenges facing the Bengals as they eye picking fifth in every round of the April 29-May 1 NFL Draft.
"I would say it's the most unique year," said Tobin, who has been involved in half of those drafts. "It's a year like no other, and you could call it less information. It's just different information at this point, and by the time we get to drafting in late April we'll have everything we need to feel comfortable with."
Tobin met the press for the first time this offseason Monday in a Zoom session with the Cincinnati media. Quite fitting since the bulk of the 2021 draft process is on a screen. Without the campus visits of last fall, the elimination of last month's annual NFL scouting combine and no sprawling staging for physicals, teams are even more reliant on virtual interviews and tape of games and workouts than last year. Not to mention the hunt for medical info since the in-person exams from the combine were wiped out.
And with access to the pro days limited to three people per NFL team, the Bengals have a different looking spring schedule with the position coaches not on the road nearly as much. For instance, the Bengals always love to show the flag for the Ohio State pro day and drive up to Columbus in a fleet with eight or so reps.
But this year it's going to be Tobin, head coach Zac Taylor and somebody else.
"Going to the pro days at big schools was always important, but not as crucial because most the players worked at the combine," Johnson said. "The most important thing of that pro day would be which non-combine guys jumped out at you. Those guys that you would bring in and get a physical on. That's totally taken a back seat now. You have to look at the guys that were invited to the combine."
Despite the challenges, Tobin indicated the Bengals aren't going to stray from their draft room principles. Yes, they'll review trading down from No. 5 in the first round, but it won't be far. Yes, they're going to balance needs against talent and go off their board instead of the depth chart.
And that means they'll take a long look at the offensive line, where they have taken a player in the first round in two of the last three drafts.
"In terms of the guard position, it is something we'll look at," Tobin said of the draft and free agency. "We had a lot of guys playing and with the O-line in general with injuries, we had a lot of different combinations in there. When you're switching your combinations in there, it's normally not a recipe for success. We'll have new faces in there. We'll have guys that have another year of development under their hat. Hopefully a healthier group that stays healthy. And when we get five guys playing together, hopefully they can play together a long time."
Tobin believes one of those first-rounders, 2019's Jonah Williams, can be an answer at left tackle despite a career that has been limited to 10 games because of injury.
"We've had injuries at the position that have stunted the growth of some of our guys over time," Tobin said. "I think where we are right now, we feel good that we might (have) one. He's got to stay healthy. But he's shown real flashes of being a very good player. So we'll see how it goes and whether we add to the group or not, that'll be something to be determined as we go forward."
But one key Bengals tenant not in abundance this year is the proven college player. They love those three- and four-year guys and seemed to have backed off the one-year wonders ever since they banked on Akili Smith's meteoric rise in the last draft of the last century.
Just look at last year. Second-rounder Tee Higgins played in 43 games at Clemson, third-rounder Logan Wilson started 52 games at Wyoming, fourth-rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither played 55 games at Appalachian State, fifth-rounder Khalid Kareem played 43 at Notre Dame and sixth-rounder Hakeem Adeniji started 48 games at Kansas.
Now, with opt-outs and truncated schedules, those are going to be rare guys this trip. Take Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, a great player with a great story who is in everyone's top 10. He hasn't played since 2019 and he's got a two-year resume with just 23 games.
"In terms of players who haven't played in a year, that is somewhat concerning," Tobin said. "You don't know how their developments have been. There are players in this draft who have really only played one year of college football, and then they didn't play this year. You're projecting, it's probably a bigger projection than when you studied a guy that's played three years of college football. That's our job, to project them into our league into our system and scheme and into our division and what we do."
Even though they can't bring players in for physicals, Tobin believes they'll get the medical feedback they need. But he admits it won't be easy.
"There's a real heavy lift in getting all the medical information we need to make informed decisions on guys that we are going to be drafting," Tobin said. "That's a big piece of what's going on. The NFL trainers association is doing a great job of trying to put that together."
What worries some scouts so much isn't the lack of games or physicals, but the lack of access to practice the week before the games.
"You get to body-type guys," Johnson said. "You might be able to talk to a coach during stretch. If you're at a small school, they might bring a player over to talk to you. That's the stuff you miss."
But they also know they live in the information age. It's not like there's any lack of information. They just have to pick through it. And in this day and age, you get help.
"People that are doing things, they don't want to keep it silent. They want to broadcast what they're doing," Tobin said. "We see video that's being sent and posted from different workout facilities. But hopefully we'll be able to get in front of these players on Zoom meetings. Then we'll also be able to see them in person at their schools.
"When you look at a guy you can tell what they've been doing. You can tell if they've been doing nothing, you can tell if they've been working hard. If they're not playing, there's nothing to evaluate and that's just the way it is and everybody is in the same boat with those guys."
And yet, there is going to be a trail to go on. Johnson heads to Marshall this week. Pitt the next. A few spots in between. With about 15-16 visits scheduled, Johnson figures that's his usual complement of a normal spring.
"At least we're getting them in," Johnson said of the pro days. "It's great for the teams and the players."