‘We won the virtual war’: How Bengals zoomed to a franchise transforming 2020 draft class. Charlie Goldsmith Cincinnati Enquirer
On the day before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NFL pre-draft circuit and turned the entire scouting process virtual, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan was at Clemson, and linebackers coach Al Golden was at Wyoming.
In March 2020, Callahan was watching wide receiver Tee Higgins’ Pro Day. Golden was watching linebacker Logan Wilson. On that day, the NFL coaches on the road were openly wondering what would happen if the scouting process came to a halt due to the pandemic.
One day later, the country shut down and Callahan, Golden and the rest of the Bengals coaches and scouts were called off the road. It could have been a major obstacle for Cincinnati’s draft prep. Instead, the Bengals changed course and built one of the most important NFL draft classes in franchise history.
You had to try to find a way to win the virtual war," Golden said. "The world changed, and our evaluation game changed. If you didn’t adapt, you were going to die. It’s as simple as that. We found different ways to evaluate the guys, and we were fortunate enough to hit on all of them.
" When the Bengals face the Titans on Saturday, Cincinnati will start four players from its 2020 draft class. For the first time in the last 50 years, the Bengals have a playoff team with four second-year players in the starting lineup.
There haven't been many Bengals draft classes that have been so transformative so quickly. In the 2020 NFL draft, the Bengals got their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow. They got a 1,000-yard receiver in Higgins. With Wilson, the Bengals got their leading tackler and their leader in interceptions.
Hakeem Adeniji is the Bengals starting right guard. Defensive end Khalid Kareem is one of the first players off the bench, and he made one of the most important defensive plays of the season with a forced fumble in Denver.
Linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither was a third-down staple before a season-ending foot injury. Seventh-round pick Markus Bailey stepped up at linebacker when injuries hit the room in December and recorded 12 total tackles in wins over the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Even though the Bengals assembled this draft class in the middle of a pandemic, they went 7-for-7 with their selections.
"I think it's just a tribute to the whole organization, Duke (Tobin) and his crew upstairs," Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. "It felt like we were able to be as productive as anybody, just because of the way we were able to problem solve and get stuff done.
" The Bengals have a few unique aspects to their scouting process. In 2020, the Bengals coached the Senior Bowl. Also, the Bengals coaching staff plays a much greater role in scouting compared to most other franchises.
Due to those two factors, the Bengals coaches had a significant head start. Callahan and Golden had been tracking Higgins and Wilson extensively before March, which gave the Bengals an edge when the scouting world shut down.
"In Cincinnati, it’s a collaborative approach," Golden said. "The position coach truly has a real, real voice in terms of what you’re looking for in your room. That all translated here."
When the Bengals hired head coach Zac Taylor in 2019, he set the expectation that football intelligence and leadership ability would be priorities in the scouting process. Even after the pandemic began in 2020, the Bengals coaching staff kept up with prospects to better evaluate those two areas.
Former Bengals defensive line coach Nick Eason said he had a Zoom meeting with 30 defensive line prospects before the draft and interviewed them with questions focused to evaluate character and football IQ. Golden said he gave Davis-Gaither a "test of 500-level questions," and Golden held onto the results because Davis-Gaither’s score was so high.
"Football intelligence in the NFL is such a vital component here, and it can’t be overlooked," Golden said. "This is Week 21 for these men, and it’s 21 different game plans. Not only do they have to be smart, but they have to be able to think on their feet, especially at linebacker. If you have all those elements, we’re mitigating risk."
In addition to their film study, the Bengals coaches sought out new video wherever possible. Whether it was on Youtube, Instagram or sent via a personal text message, the coaching staff tracked how prospects were physically progressing during the pandemic.
Golden said this information was a crucial piece of the Bengals' decision to draft Bailey, who was coming off a knee injury. With every video, Golden gained more confidence in Bailey's progress and his health.
Eason said he tried to put each defensive lineman through a "virtual visit" where he watched prospects do sled drills, get out of a three-point stance and practice changing direction quickly.
It was more data that made Eason a believer in Kareem’s potential.
"That’s all we had to go on, so most kids had to use their phone to market themselves," Eason said. "There was no video guy available to shoot these prospects’ Pro Days, so they did it themselves.
"The decision to draft Burrow in the first round was the obvious choice. Even though the Bengals met with him in person for only 18 minutes and Taylor didn’t get to see Burrow in a Pro Day environment, Burrow was still the clear No. 1 pick.
Heading into the second round, the Bengals had the No. 33 pick in one of the deepest wide receiver classes in recent memory with Higgins, Denzel Mims, Laviska Shenault and Michael Pittman all on the board.
Callahan said the Bengals were looking at a second-round receiver. A.J. Green was about to play his final season with the franchise, and former first-round pick John Ross III was also in a contract year.
Based on the previous five months of scouting work, Higgins was a clear enough pick for the Bengals to hold onto their selection at No. 33.
"We felt really good about what he looked like, how he ran in person and his personality," Callahan said. "Rave reviews down there from everybody at Clemson on what kind of person he was. And his tape obviously showed all the skills that we would need to see from him."
"With Higgins, you look at it like how was he still on the board?" said Eason, who played at Clemson and now coaches for the Tigers. "He was a dynamic receiver with the tools to be a Pro Bowler, and he’s having a great career. We knew he had the chance to change the dynamic of the team."
The Bengals had a strong middle of the second round grade on Wilson. Golden said the entire second round was one of the most stressful experiences he has had in the NFL as he waited to see if he'd stay on the board.
While Golden didn’t directly coach Wilson in the Senior Bowl, he went to the other team’s practice to watch Wilson and a few others. And Golden thought highly enough of Wilson to travel to Wyoming in March.
"Clearly, we were hoping he would be there at the start of the third," Golden said. "We had a feeling we would go defense. We were just hoping when we got to round three that there was a chance he’d be there. It’s so hard to find a linebacker with size who can play all three downs.
" Heading into the fourth round, Golden had Davis-Gaither’s famous pre-draft test on his mind. Golden saw a standout athlete for a linebacker position, a potentially great special teams player.
Davis-Gaither filled that exact role when he was healthy this season.
Heading into the fifth round, Eason also had experience with Kareem that he could draw from. Eason met with Kareem at the NFL combine and they kept up conversations via Zoom. Kareem was also one of the players who had been sending Eason videos before the draft, keeping the Bengals up-to-date with his progress.
"I was just nervous," Eason said. "We knew Khalid fit what we were trying to do, and you’re hoping he’s still going to be there. We weren’t the only team looking at him, and we knew he had so many tools to become a really good player."
In the sixth round, the Bengals tapped into their Senior Bowl advantage and picked Adeniji. His standout traits were his athleticism and his versatility, which gave Adeniji the potential to play four positions on the offensive line.
Then in the seventh round, Golden felt the Bengals had a better update on Bailey’s health than some other teams because of the constant communication they had before the NFL draft. Following that selection, the Bengals had seven key contributors for a future playoff team.
Since it was all virtual, the Bengals had one of their most stressful draft war rooms. But the coaching staff, the front office and the scouting department had the right tools to build one of their strongest drafts in recent memory.
"You’d get a text, you’ve got to be ready to rank these guys, and we’ve got to talk about these guys in case this scenario happens," Golden said. "We were doing Mock Drafts, and we were doing it all by Zoom. It was cumbersome, but we found a way to be effective and communicate."
"The checks and balances between Zac, our defensive staff and in the front office, that obviously has led to all the draftees who will be out there on Saturday night," Golden added. "It’s a very collaborative approach here, and you actually got to present your position."