One of the frustrating things about the NFL and how teams operate is how close-to-the-vest everyone plays things. While it's understandable to not want to tip your hand for strategic purposes, fans want to get more than the cliched rhetoric from players in interviews and the tired "coach speak". It's why a rare peek behind the curtain is always welcomed--especially when it comes from someone within an organization.
Recently, Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther spoke to SiriusXM NFL radio about the progress of the team's defensive picks in the 2016 NFL Draft, while also giving a glimpse into the team's processes when scouting players. The Bengals' coaches play a bigger role in their Draft classes than with other teams, and often utilize a best player available strategy, but there is more than meets the eye. After Bruce Murray or SiriusXM noted that most folks expected Cincinnati to go with a wide receiver in the first round instead of cornerback William Jackson III, Guenther opened up about how the Bengals operate throughout the spring leading up to Draft day.
"You know, one of the great things we do here, as far as the Draft, which is different from some of the other teams I've been around, the coaches come in once the season is done and we put our scouting hats on," Guenther said. "We go out and we start watching the tape, we'll go to a lot of Pro Days. In many cases we're running the drills, if we can, to be around the players to get to know them."
While this is somewhat expected news, this has been a staple of the Bengals in the Marvin Lewis tenure. Whether it's coaching teams at The Senior Bowl, running drills at the Pro Days as Guenther mentioned, or being heavily involved at the Combine, Bengals coaches almost double as scouts, which is a bit of a contrast to other NFL teams. The Bengals actually have one of the smallest scouting departments in all of the NFL. The scouting department is comprised of Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin, Personnel Executives Mike Potts, Steven Radicevic and Bill Tobin (Duke's son), Scouting Technology Consultant Geoff Smith, Scouting Consultant John Cooper, Scouting Assistant Andrew Johnson and Personnel Assistant Debbie LaRocco. The size of the group and using the coaches as scouts, too, has its pros and cons, but no one can argue with the Draft hauls the team has grabbed since 2009.
"Right around April 1st, everyone will have a grade on their position--a D-Line coach will grade his guys, the secondary coach, the linebacker coach will all grade their guys--and what I do is, on April 1st, say 'Alright, put all of your first round guys up on the board,'" Guenther continued. "Maybe the cornerback we have a bottom first round grade on is better than the D-Lineman that the D-Line coach graded in the middle of the first round."
"So, the whole defensive staff can see it, where the D-Line coach might never look at William Jackson, or the DBs coach may never look at Andrew Billings," Guenther explained. "So, we all look at those guys, it's about a two-week process and I have my own Draft board in the defensive meetings. When we go and present it to the organization and the scouts, everybody's on the same page. And then, when we start to list the whole Draft--offense and defensive players--we've really done a good job of following our board and taking the best player available, we thought, at that spot."
It's this strategy that builds quality teams and one the Bengals have used in the re-building of the roster over the past half-decade or so. While 2011 and 2012 were more about immediate needs, 2013-2016 exhibited the rich getting richer with quality athletes, so much so that many talented players don't see time on the field beyond special teams work until their second or third seasons.
Guenther also explained why the team waited until the second round to grab a receiver, which is when they Drafted Tyler Boyd.
"Obviously, with the receivers, we lost two good guys and that was going to be a position we were going to address. But, we just didn't feel that, where we were in the Draft and who we had on our board, warranted a pick and William Jackson was sitting there, staring us in the face."
While most fans and pundits would have liked to see the team grab a wideout in the first round, as the position appeared to be a much higher need than cornerback, things transpired in the first round to cause the Bengals to go in another direction. Cincinnati saw four wide receivers fly off the board in the preceding nine picks from theirs at No. 24, so grabbing another would have been a reach. Boyd might have been a guy they targeted all along and he should be a good complement to A.J. Green.
Though the team did actually make some decent picks throughout the dismal stretch of the 1990s, it's apparent that this locked-down process was not in place before Lewis' arrival. And while Lewis should have his share of critics for the lack of playoff success under his watch, part of the team becoming very competitive again has to do with his assembly of how the team operates in the spring months.