The NFL Draft had been over for three hours Saturday night and Paul Brown Stadium was stone cold silent waiting for LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase to lead in the class of 2021 as the valedictorian wearing the first No. 1 in Bengals history.
Then a text popped in out of the ether.
"Big Man's Game," says Steven Radicevic, the Bengals director of pro scouting, still riding the adrenaline of a weekend that literally brought a ton of changes to the roster.
Radicevic, point man of the last two Bengals' free-agent classes that have been the richest in club history, says the effort to beef up the trenches just didn't begin in a draft in which seven of the 10 draft picks were offensive and defensive linemen.
Last year there was the deal that made the Texans' D.J. Reader the richest nose tackle in the league. Then six weeks ago Saints edge rusher Trey Hendrickson replaced him as the richest Bengals free agent, a few days before they signed estimable veteran Vikings tackle Riley Reiff.
Then this past weekend and The Trench Draft with picks ranging from the overall No. 1 pick's blind-side blocker to a 350-pound national champion run stuffer to an edge that can rush the passer from three different positions.
And as Saturday turned into Sunday, there was a euphoric sense of, well, a big accomplishment.
"We addressed the trenches on both sides of the ball after a year we saw what happens when the trenches get thin," says area scout Christian Sarkisian.
The drive to super-size the Bengals roster came from all corners as scouts and coaches had to team up to defeat the perils of the smallest and most mysterious pool of players in recent memory spawned by the restrictions of the pandemic.
A few behind-the-scenes vignettes from the weekend on how the Bengals attacked this most unusual of drafts:
Clemson LT Jackson Carman, second round, pick 46
Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel, made this draft what it was with a clutch, bold trade on the clock in Friday night's second round. And Carman, a Cincinnati kid, no less, is the reason he was able to do it.
Chase may be the valedictorian of this class, but Carman is the worthy salutatorian that represents it as offensive line coach Frank Pollack turns him into an Opening Day guard.
"He's an AFC North physical, powerful offensive lineman who is very athletic," says Mike Potts, the director of college scouting. "The way this division is set up, this is a physical line of scrimmage division. He's got a lot of things going for him. He's a tackle with guard flexibility. He's extremely intelligent. People say, 'You've never seen him play guard.' But with all the research we did on him, we know he's smart enough to do it."
As they spent all day Friday mulling what was left in the wake of the first round, it kept coming up Carman. At 6-5, 321 pounds, his dimensions and athleticism just weren't that far off from the guy they passed in the first round to take Chase, Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell.
But there was also the sense the meat of this draft was in the fourth round, particularly in the trenches. When Tobin traded down eight spots with the Patriots and got two fourths, they didn't really think they were gambling with Carman. Tobin sensed he would still be there and if he wasn't, there would be other O-line options at 46.
The key was getting the extra picks in that fourth round on a board that was thinning out faster than ever because of all the would-be prospects that went back to school.
"In that range we thought there was depth at a number of positions," Potts says. "We wanted to get big guys, but you can't go into a draft saying we're going to draft just linemen. You have to let the board play out. If you don't talk about a cornerback or whatever that you've got rated a round ahead, that's negligence. It worked out that the two guys we got later in the fourth fit our needs and grades and were guys maybe we would have taken a round or more before."
The bonus was the guy they wanted all the way back at No. 38 was there at No. 46. Potts figures by the time they had settled on Carman, they had talked to about 30 people, ranging from medical people to Clemson coaches to Clemson support members to trainers that had worked with him to people that knew him growing up in Fairfield, Ohio.
Most famously, Tobin talked to Willie Anderson, the Bengals all-time right tackle and one of those that had worked with Carman. Tobin made the call about four hours before the pick, when Anderson assured him that Carman's talent and ability to break down pass rushers after studying them would allow him to contribute immediately.
Yet it was Carman himself that ended up selling it.
"It was very easy for kids to opt out this year," Potts says. "There were a lot of legit reasons for it, but it would have been a lot easier for Jackson to shut it down. The last five games or so, he really fought through his back injury (herniated disk). That showed something about his toughness, his drive and his love of the game. That gave me a strong comfort level about that. I think he's even better and more talented than what he put on tape at certain times in the back end of the year."
Tulane edge Cam Sample, fourth round, pick No. 111, and Kansas State edge Wyatt Hubert, seventh round, pick No. 235
The idea with any selection is to pick players with the least amount of question marks. With this year's restrictions, that made it harder than ever to find the no-brainers in each round. But Sarkisian had two of those circled on his board in his area.
It just worked out they also fit a dire need with not only pass rush ability for a defense that had the fewest sacks in the league, but set the edge for team that has been shredded on the perimeter while giving up the most rushing yards the last three years.
At 280 pounds, Sample has played it all. Linebacker. Tackle. Edge. All with production. At 270 pounds, Hubert has also worked up and down the line.
"They weren't my two highest graded guys," says Sarkisian, who works pockets encompassing the Big 12 and Big Ten. "But they were the biggest locks for make-it players. Talking about guys that play with their hair on fire. When you watch them, they affect every series through their talent level and through their pure aggressiveness, violent play, temperament and passion of football that screams at you off the tape."
While Sample had nearly 50 pressures doing it from multiple spots, Kansas State had so much faith in Hubert they let him pick his spot from where to rush. Both are two-time captains.
"I love Sample's versatility, his motor and here's a guy that got his finance degree from Tulane, a top 20 undergraduate business program," Sarkisian says. "Hubert's effort is rare. I was at the Texas Tech game and he had a destructive play on every series. He would do team film study, then do his own film study. He found out who he could win the most against. And he'd go through the early part of the game and then get to pick where to rush from."
The coaches literally Zoomed in on the process after the scouts had filed their reports. Defensive assistant Mark Duffner, who assists defensive line coach Marion Hobby with edge guys and linebacker coach Al Golden, has led the staff in Zoom calls the past two years. Teams were allowed five one-hour Zoom calls and Sample and Hubert were two of Duffner's 46 for this year.
"Coach Duffner's passion for football is a great metric to see if guys can match his passion and love for football," Sarkisian says.
Duffner, a graduate assistant under Woody Hayes at Ohio State, may be the oldest guy on the staff but he gets the most out of the latest technology. This is a guy that has been in enough living rooms as one of the college game's great head coaches (he lost five games in six years at Holy Cross, kids, in the late '80s and early '90s) to be able to talk to all kinds of players on any platform, ranging from train to cellular.
"I think those kinds of experiences help you whether you're dealing with a student-athlete or a prospective pro player," Duffner says. "You could tell with both those guys how they feel about the game. You can get that. They're looking at you, they're focused on the screen or whatever device they're using. They were prepared. They got ready for the interviews."
Hobby went to Sample's pro day at Tulane while Duffner went to Manhattan to see Hubert.
"As well as collecting data, you've got to see how they play and all three are playmakers," Duffner says. "They've got effort and they finish."
When they Zoomed with the media moments after they were picked, both mentioned their calls with Duffner. After head coach Zac Taylor called Hubert to tell him he was a Bengal, Hubert beat Duffner to the punch and called him.
"Duff says that's the first time a player has called him to tell him he's been drafted instead of the other way around," Potts says.
Not a lot of question marks there when you're pulling names off the board.
East Carolina T D'Ante Smith, fourth round, pick No. 139
The week before Andrew Johnson left with the Bengals contingent for the Senior Bowl three months ago, their Northeast scout was already using Smith as an example of the challenges wrought by 2020. Johnson had been charting this guy for a few years. At 6-5, 300 pounds, Smith had the great frame that could be grown into and his 35-inch arms added to an NFL body with starting ability. Huge upside, as they say.
But before the Pirates even opened up the season, the kid went through three different summer quarantines and played the opener at just 283 pounds before opting out of the season.
"His body just wasn't ready," Johnson says. "He had three close contacts, but never got COVID. I can see how he lost weight. Not being able to go to the dining hall or the training table. Not having access to regular workouts. You wish he had 2020 tape. There was 2019 tape, but only that one game from last year and he wasn't ready."
Quite a conundrum. But Johnson kept a pulse on it. Although Smith opted out, he stayed with the team to get in shape for the Senior Bowl invite. When he showed up in Mobile, he was 294. Then six weeks after that at his pro day he was 305.
"He's a good kid. He's got a big, bubbly smile," Johnson says. "He's not immature. He's got so much upside. The Senior Bowl was big for him. That's an example of a guy that didn't get down and made the most of opportunity."
Michigan RB Chris Evans, sixth round, pick 202
It just wasn't the big guys. While Johnson and the coaches had to get down in the weeds on Smith, they had to do the same kind of work on Michigan running back Chris Evans in the sixth round.
The 5-11, 211-pound Evans, a change of pace back, missed the 2019 season when he was accused of plagiarism after three seasons he averaged more than six yards per more 300 carries while catching 40 balls. By the time he got back for 2020, the schedule had been cut in half and his playing time a lot more than that. Under a new offensive coordinator, he had just 16 carries.
"In college football you can be gone for a week and lose your job, never mind a season," Johnson says.
The Bengals had plenty of firepower to check out Evans. Johnson, who grew up in the shadow of The Big House, had been following Evans since he arrived. Bengals defensive assistant Jordan Kovacs went from walk-on to starting safety only a decade ago at Ann Arbor. And you can't beat personnel exec Bill Tobin's relationship with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. He drafted him.
"He won (nearly) every rep at the Senior Bowl and had a great pro day. He ran 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash) at 211 pounds," Johnson says. "He came back after a year away and his work in the community and the people on campus saw him as a changed man."
There are those that are calling Evans the steal of the draft. If he is, he ripped it away from some big guys.