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Similar challenges face Bengals as another COVID-19 draft cycle nears

The Bengals and the rest of the NFL are preparing for another draft during the coronavirus pandemic.

NFL: Cincinnati Welcomes Joe Burrow Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals are preparing for a second straight NFL draft during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though they were in lockdown for last years’ draft, this offseason will bring its own unique challenges.

“It’s completely different at this point,” said Bengals director of college scouting Mike Potts, via the Bengals’ website. “There are a lot of unanswered questions that need to be answered over the next three months.”

In 2020, the NFL shut down on March 13, only a month and a half before the draft. Potts says the Bengals had 90 percent of their draft work done. By that time, the NFL combine had wrapped up, many schools had their pro days, and head coach Zac Taylor had already met three future Bengals (Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Hakeem Adeniji) at the Senior Bowl.

This year, most of that will be done virtually, if it is done at all.

“We’ve gotten comfortable with the things we’re going to have to do,” Potts says. “Interviewing guys virtually. Focusing on the tape. Working the phones.”

The process will also get a bit difficult without a formal NFL combine this year. The league recently announced pro days will replace the athletic testing portion of the combine.

Cincinnati’s staff showed last year they could handle an altered pre-draft process. They selected Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins without much help from the combine or pro days. Game film and interviews helped them decide to take their first two picks in the 2020 draft.

The Bengals have a better idea of how scouting works during a pandemic. The problem is, they will have to lay a lot of the groundwork via Zoom this year.

To help sort out who they will be drafting, the Bengals are going to take a threefold approach.

First of all, they will be taking advantage of the Senior Bowl. The Bengals will not be coaching it this year, but they will be represented by the standard amount of personnel members that every other club can have down in Mobile, Alabama. This includes all three coordinators and most of their scouts.

Cincinnati’s reps will undergo testing every day that they are in Mobile for the Senior Bowl. This will enable them to meet with whoever they want, albeit behind a shield of plexiglass.

The second approach they will take to adapting to the circumstances of 2021 is by grinding the game film.

“The (game) tape is always the most important thing,” Potts says. “This year’s tape is going to be pored over more than the typical year. Who knows how many pro days, if any, there will be? How many players can you bring in for visits, if any? There is a lot up in the air. This year, the tape is even more important, if that’s possible.”

The Bengals’ director of pro scouting, Steven Radicevic, also serves as the west coast area scout. The PAC-12 and Mountain West conferences got a late start, so some teams played as few as four games this year.

“You can get a feel for a guy after three games,” Radicevic says. “If it’s three games and it’s new film, you feel pretty good about it. The hard part is some guys have played two games or one game due to COVID restrictions, so you have to go one year back to ’19 film and in some cases I’ve had to look at ’18 film on some guys. It’s going to be harder to rank those guys. You obviously feel more comfortable watching guys that played last year.”

Thankfully, Radicevic has been on the west coast for years, and knows a lot of the coaches in that area. He’s going to have to lean on his contacts to help him sort through the slush pile.

Even though this is the second pandemic draft, there are a litany of new issues that are popping up this year. The Bengals are hoping to adapt to this strange situation better than the rest of the teams in the NFL.