The Bengals were the butt of jokes, snickers and sneers for years in and around the NFL for the way they scouted and drafted players. Assistant coaches handled the brunt of the evaluation duties, starting immediately after the end of the playing season with some advance scouting having been done but not to the degree other teams performed.
This was one of the areas of culture that Marvin Lewis wanted to change when he took over as head coach and became the voice of the organization in 2003. He had worked in Pittsburgh and Baltimore previously and seen how things can work well with a focused plan. He spent one season in Washington where, well, the plan wasn’t as focused.
Old perceptions don’t change overnight. You’ll still hear the occasional scoff when it comes to the Bengals’ scouting department, mainly from people within the media or fans who take a glance at the media guide and see just three names listed as scouts.
They would be wrong.
How the Bengals go about evaluating players, both college and pro, has been a subtle yet significant change to the franchise over the past decade.
While the coaching staff still handles its share of evaluating, the scouting staff headed by director of player personnel Duke Tobin has grown in its responsibility and effectiveness the past decade.
“I think Duke has done an outstanding job with the organization of things,” said Lewis during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. “He’s done a very good job of putting the information together, the cross-checking of things, (and) the organization of things. He’s really streamlined it, I think both personnel and coaching-wise, we have a pretty good blueprint for what we’re looking for what we do on offense, defense and special teams.”
The Bengals enter this year’s NFL Draft, which begins with the first round in primetime on Thursday, without major holes to fill. That doesn’t mean they don’t have upgrades to make at different positions or depth to add to across the board, but their options are open as they pick 21st in the opening round and have three picks in the first 53 selections. That has a lot to do with how well they have drafted in the past few years.
It’s not just about keeping draft picks and some of those undrafted free agents around the team. Once they’ve made the team, they need to play and produce.
In the past four years, the Bengals have drafted Pro Bowl players Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham and Geno Atkins as well as defensive end Michael Johnson who is the team’s franchise tag player. They’ve also gotten significant playing time and starts from 11 other draftees and five undrafted free agents who are still on the roster.
Tobin, the son of former Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis general manager Bill Tobin, has been with the Bengals since 1999. Bill Tobin has been a consultant with the Bengals since 2003. Former college coaches Robert Livingston and Steven Radicevic were hired as full-time scouts last year. The coaching staff includes five who were part of Lewis’ original staff.
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed but it’s grown. What happens when you have continuity is you have a better feel for what Marvin is looking for in the players,” said Greg Seamon, a scout who joined the Bengals in 2004. “That certainly helps on the personnel side when you’re going out and evaluating these guys. As a personnel side, we’ve been around our team as a group long enough now to know our own guys and the skill sets that the different positions demand. When you’re going out and looking at a college player it’s easier to plug him in.
“I think we’ve all gotten to know and trust one another more, which makes for really good discussion because you know that everyone that comes to the discussion is prepared and has a respected opinion.”
The Bengals have made 90 draft selections in the first 10 years of Lewis’ tenure, including 11 in each the first and second rounds. Those draft picks have averaged spending 12.2 games on the 53-man roster in their rookie seasons, playing an average of 7.6 games and starting 2.8 times.
Last year’s draft class had a total of 30 starts, led by first-round choice Kevin Zeitler starting all 16 games at right guard. Undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict started 14 games at linebacker and was the team’s leading tackler, while Trevor Robinson started seven of the 13 games he played at center.
“I think we’ve developed a solid, young roster and we’ve become a team with better depth than maybe we had a few years ago but we’re still a step or two away from where we want to be,” said Seamon. “We have 10 picks in this draft. We don’t have to reach for anybody – and that’s a good position for anybody to be in – but we need to do well in this draft. We’re close. We’re close to having the kind of roster that can do really well in the playoffs and that’s the next step.”
The Bengals will be targeting offensive tackle, safety, linebacker and running back (in no particular order) this year.
“We’re not going to reach and take a player who we don’t think is worthy of the value of the pick we’re at,” said Lewis. “We’ve been consistent with that and I don’t see that changing.”