MOBILE, Ala. — The Bengals are telling anyone who’ll listen at the Senior Bowl this week that they have a long way to go in determining which player’s name will be called first at the 2020 NFL draft in Las Vegas. But what you may not have heard—Cincinnati has already covered a lot of ground in trying to figure it out.
Since his season ended, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan has watched the coaches’ film of every 2019 snap that LSU quarterback Joe Burrow took. Quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt has done the same, and head coach Zac Taylor is almost there—“I can’t say I’ve watched every throw on tape,” he told me over lunch Wednesday. “I’ve watched a good portion.”
Cincinnati still needs to learn who Burrow is as a person, and there’s plenty of time to do that. But with three months left until draft day, the staff has a pretty good picture of who he is as a player.
“He’s a winner,” Taylor said, during a break in a hectic Senior Bowl schedule for his staff. “You can tell that he leads the guys around him, you can tell the effect he’s had on the whole state—the team, the state, even the state of Ohio to some extent. Those are intangibles that you can’t coach. He set all the accuracy records, all the great things he did in the SEC this year. This didn’t happen by accident.
“He’s always in great body position to throw the ball, and he can extend plays when necessary. There are certainly a lot of traits that translate well to the NFL.”
This illustrates why the Bengals—and so many others—like Burrow, and why he’s been installed as the early favorite to be the first player off the board in April. But nothing is 100% yet. Through the team’s own process, Cincinnati is going to make Burrow compete for being drafted first, and let a small number of (likely three) players do the same. The team hopes that through this process, there will be a moment when it actually does become 100% for them.
Part of that process, and an important part of it, isn’t far from completion. Another part of it is just revving up here in rural Alabama, even if Burrow himself didn’t make the trip.
It’s the bye week before Super Bowl LIV, and we’re not taking any days off here. Instead, we’ll split time in this week’s GamePlan, with part of the focus on what’s left of the 2019 season, and part of it on looking forward to the ’20 offseason. You’ll get …
• A different kind of Watch List this week.
• Two Senior Bowl players to keep an eye on.
• Power rankings!
But we’re starting with the team who is coaching in Mobile, and who will be drafting first on April 23.
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin remembers when it all came together for him on TCU prospect Andy Dalton back in 2011. Cincinnati had arranged for on-campus workouts with all the top quarterback prospects and asked that the prospects take care of the logistics—everything from finding receivers eligible to run routes, booking time at a suitable facility and making sure everything could go off without a hitch. Really, the players had to do everything but bring the balls to the field—the Bengals would bring their own—which created an interesting test for each of them.
“We show up to TCU and, honest to God, everybody from the entire organization at TCU is there, the place is packed,” Tobin said. “That’s how much [Dalton] meant to them. It was an amazing feeling—like holy cow. And he was in charge of everything. Everybody’s pulling for him. And this guy, we want him to mean to us what he means to them. That was a great feeling. And didn’t happen with every one of them. ... That was the great thing about working Andy out. You could feel how much he meant to the community and the team there at TCU.”
Eight years earlier, the Bengals’ decision to draft Carson Palmer first was a little easier, because they did plan to take him with the first pick, rather than looking to take another guy first (in the 2011 case, A.J. Green) and then circle back for the quarterback. But the idea in both cases was the same, because it was such a massive decision.
”With Carson, when we got to that pick, it was an easy pick for us,” Tobin said. “We all felt really good about it.”
Bottom line, if Tobin, Marvin Lewis and the rest of the Bengals brass were going to take a quarterback that high, they had to be sure, and every little thing would count—even the logistical details of planning a workout in March. And for the same reasons, this time around, every little thing will count just the same for Tobin, Taylor and Co.
The initial plan. Two important things: First, I was told that at this point it’s unlikely the Bengals trade the first pick. Also, the Bengals are considering four players for that pick: Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Burrow’s former Ohio State teammate Chase Young. And as great a prospect as Young is, Tobin conceded this will start with the quarterbacks.
“We know what Joe is on tape, we know what Tua is on tape, we know what Justin is on tape,” Tobin said. “Our role right now is to try to find out what we don’t know —how his leadership works, how his football mind works, how quickly he adapts to different situations, what his overall personality is, what it’s like being around him on a regular Tuesday. How much passion do they have for the game? … We’re trying to get at those types of things, with every player we do, but particularly the quarterbacks.”
As such, to say all four will compete on a level playing field to go first isn’t quite right. Rather, the Bengals will look at the three quarterbacks—and, again, it’s fair to say Burrow’s the leader now—and if one’s deemed to be as easy a pick as Palmer was, then the Bengals will take him and not look back. If doubt creeps in, Young will become a viable option.
“We have to come to a conclusion on our team what we want to do,” Tobin said. “When you draft a quarterback that high, you have to believe that is the direction of your team. And over the next couple months, we’ll have to determine that. We’ll look at the quarterbacks and say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ that’s the direction of our team. And if it’s ‘no,’ then all of the sudden we go to something different. Then all of the sudden we transition to something different.”
How it will work. When Tobin and Taylor say they plan to exhaust the process, they mean it. The good news is that process was underway a while ago, and a good amount of the background work is done, as is the aforementioned film work. Tobin saw Burrow play live against Utah State, saw Herbert live against Arizona and has seen Young live on multiple occasions. He planned to see Tagovailoa live, but the Alabama quarterback’s injury prevented that; he did get to see him throw in practice. He also did school calls in Baton Rouge, La.; Eugene, Ore.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and Columbus, Ohio. And Tobin’s watched every throw of Burrow’s going back to the signal-caller's time as an Ohio State backup.
What isn’t done? Until now, the Bengals haven’t been able to talk to any of the players.
“We gotta get a feel for the personality, and that’s all face-to-face interaction, extended interviews, going to their college town and spending the day with them when that time comes,” said Taylor. “We’ll make sure that we’re very thorough and get as much as we need and we have a good feel for somebody. … I feel like I’ve got a long way to go, because I’m just now starting the process of asking people close to them what they think of them.”
To that end, the Bengals’ plan is to do on-campus visits and private workouts with each guy, and bring each guy to Cincinnati for a pre-draft visit.
Cincinnati’s advantages. There’s a ton of good experience in this regard already in the Bengals building, as to what to look for in a quarterback. As Tobin was around Palmer and Dalton as they came up, Taylor worked with Ryan Tannehill in Miami and Jared Goff in L.A. as their careers got off the ground. Meanwhile, Callahan has coached Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford, and Van Pelt coached Aaron Rodgers.
All four of those guys—Tobin, Taylor, Callahan and Van Pelt—are among a large group of Bengals staffers who played the position at least through college (college scouting director Mike Potts and assistant quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher are two others).
“We feel like we all see it the same way,” Taylor said. “It is helpful to have played the position, to have so many guys that have played the position because you do feel like you’re getting a great evaluation on tape of all these guys. It’s certainly a big benefit.”
I did ask, since he said the staff is in lockstep on their vision for the position, whether or not Taylor has non-negotiables. He does.
“He’s gotta be able to elevate his teammates around him,” Taylor said. “Everybody’s gotta have a great confidence level that this guy knows exactly what to do, he’s gonna help me get better, he’s gonna raise my level of play. That’s what championship teams have. That’s what we’ll always look for in our quarterback position.”
The personal connections. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy let the cat out of the bag this week in saying that he had Taylor call Burrow’s dad Jimmy, the former Ohio University defensive coordinator, to try to entice him to come to the all-star game here. Burrow decided not to, and Taylor didn’t want to comment on the conversation, but he did mention that there already is the foundation for a relationship there.
“Jimmy Burrow played at Nebraska, coached at Nebraska,” said Taylor, a former Nebraska quarterback. “His two older sons played at Nebraska before I did. So I’ve always been familiar with that family. And when I was at [the University of Cincinnati], Jimmy was the defensive coordinator at Ohio, so we’d cross paths at high schools. Again, I did not know that he had a younger son that was potentially a high pick in the draft—I did not know that part of it. But certainly, we were familiar with each other.”
Taylor and his coaches are getting the chance to get familiar with Herbert this week—a big reason why the head coach had his staff jump right into the college tape was so they could come here with an idea of what they wanted to see from the guys they’d coach among them, with the Oregon quarterback obviously being a prominent one.
Managing another relationship. Dalton is still a Bengal and under contract for 2020. His immediate future is uncertain, and he’s given a lot to the franchise—and Taylor is sensitive to all of that. As such, he said that he and the nine-year vet have had multiple conversations about Dalton’s future with the team, though they haven’t talked since the season ended. The plan from here is for both sides to be transparent with one another.
“You gotta visit with everybody that could be worthy of the pick, players in this league understand that, there’s always gonna be competition,” Taylor said. “The benefit that we have, we have a really good starting quarterback in Andy Dalton that we believe in, that’s done a great job, who’s proven it over a lot of years. We’ll be up front with him. We have a great relationship with him, I do, Duke does, Brian does, Alex does.
“We’ll be very up front with him throughout the offseason with what the next steps are. But, again, we feel like we’ve got a really good quarterback. It gives you a lot of flexibility.”
These logistical details are relevant to Taylor's pushing the process with the first pick forward fast. But there’s also a more human element that’s fueled his aggression towards the draft—he really couldn’t wait to dive in.
“It’s not fun how we got here,” Taylor said. “But now that you’re here, it’s great to know whatever decision we make on that player, he’s ours, as opposed to last year, where we had the 11 pick, and picks seven and eight, it’s ‘Man, I want Jonah Williams,’ I’m sweating it out, hoping nobody grabs him before us. This year it’s, ‘Hey, at some point over the next three months, we’ll make a decision and we know that guy’s gonna be ours.’
“And there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”
Will it be Burrow? Probably.
But the Bengals have time to make up their mind. And fast as they’ve come out of the gate, they plan to use it.
BYE WEEK WATCH LIST
Here are five storylines that will receive plenty of attention ahead of the Super Bowl next week.
Patrick Mahomes, the new face of the NFL. There’s very little not to like about Mahomes, who’s as marketable a star quarterback as the league has welcomed to its ranks in years. So be prepared to hear about that.
Andy Reid’s legacy. When Reid became a head coach, his counterpart, Kyle Shanahan, was a redshirt freshman receiver at Duke. He’s been to seven conference title games, served as a catalyst for offensive innovation, has developed a number of high-level quarterbacks, and is now taking his second team to the Super Bowl. There’s just on thing missing.
Kyle Shanahan’s return. It’s been three years since the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead on this stage and Shanahan took a lot of the blame (probably more than he should’ve, in my opinion). Feb. 2 gives him a shot at redemption, and what most football people believe will be a launching pad toward a limitless coaching future.
Can a great defense carry a champion in 2019? It happened last year with the Patriots' stymying the Rams, and a star-studded Niners defense (with five first-round picks spread across its d-line room) has a shot to make it two years in a row.
Tyreek Hill and Frank Clark are here. And it’s fair to say the pasts of those two will be closely reexamined over the next 10 days.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
St. John’s OL Ben Bartch (Senior Bowl, NFL Network, 2:30 p.m. ET): Five years ago, a Division III tackle named Ali Marpet showed up in Mobile, and showed the NFL that he belonged despite lacking the playing pedigree of pretty much every other player on that field—which catapulted him into the second round of that April’s draft. He’s since become a Bucs captain, signed a five-year, $55 million extension, and rounded into one of the NFL’s best interior linemen. That’s the path that the 6' 5", 308-pound Bartch is trying to follow. He’s had a good week thus far, and while he may not go as high as Marpet did, scouts says he hasn’t looked out of place. And his tape is really good.
“The biggest thing to me is when I turn on film of a small-school guy, he better dominate on tape,” said one AFC scout. “And he did this year.”
One question will be where the converted tight end, a college tackle, plays as a pro. What seems certain is there’ll be a home for him somewhere.
Michigan DE Josh Uche (Senior Bowl, NFL Network, 2:30 p.m. ET): Uche has lived up to expectations this week, and one of his main competitors for draft position in the second tier of pass-rushers (likely to go somewhere on Day 2 of draft weekend) just so happens to be a guy he played against in college. Both are undersized (Uche is 6' 1" and 241 pounds, Baun is 6' 2", 240 pounds) as pro edge rusher prospects but can bring juice to a defensive front.
“Baun, really as a first-year starter, and an undersized guy playing at 235, wound up being a really good player,” said one AFC college scouting director. “He’s really atypical for an outside linebacker, he’s not 6' 3", 260, and he hasn’t played as a traditional linebacker. So each team will look at him differently. And there’s only one year of production, and he’s been banged up. He’s a good kid with small sample size. … Uche’s a little bigger, and the difference is that they moved him all over, he played a ton of different spots, and he doesn’t play every snap. Fifty percent of the time, he’s not out there. You wanna know why he’s not out there, what position he’ll play, and how he’ll fit, because he’s built more like an outside linebacker.”
Because of the similarities here, it’ll be good for scouts to see the two side-by-side in the game, giving them as close to an apples-to-apples on-field comp as you’re going to get.
POWER RANKINGS BALLOT
1. San Francisco 49ers (15-3): The 49ers’ dominance in jumping to a 27-0 lead over the Packers, and needing to throw only eight times in a conference title game, should be properly appreciated. So too should how close San Francisco came to going undefeated (losses to Baltimore, Seattle and Atlanta easily could’ve gone the other way). The Niners will arrive in Miami as the NFL’s best team.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (14-4): The Chiefs are tougher, more resourceful and more well-rounded than they were a year before, and really have built to this all year, with a steadily improving defense and an offense that just needed to get healthier. Still, it does seem like they need their quarterback to be great to win the next one, while the Niners might not need quite as much from theirs.
3. Tennessee Titans (11-8): The team closed out the season against New England, Baltimore and Kansas City, and won the first two games on their terms. They have big decisions to make (Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Jack Conklin, Logan Ryan), but the program Mike Vrabel’s building is strong.
4. Baltimore Ravens (14-3): I’ll move them up, as another nod to how impressive their regular season was.
5. Green Bay Packers (14-4): And I have to move them down, for what happened on Sunday, and because it wasn’t the first time.
ONE THING NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
The Bengals may benefit for not having Burrow do much over the next few months.
Now, I do think it would’ve been good for Cincinnati to have its likely next quarterback in practices and meetings in Mobile to show him what’s ahead (and maybe slip him, oh, I don’f know, the playbook?) for him as a rookie. But there is a flip side to this I hadn’t considered before talking to more people on the ground about it.
Burrow’s absence from Senior Bowl week actually prevented Bengals’ rivals from bringing him in for an interview and starting to gather information on him. It also saved him the hassle of being poked and prodded with the psychological testing done here and kept whatever information would come from that away from other teams.
There will eventually be information that the Bengals and Burrow can’t keep under wraps. The combine, primarily, will create exposure to his medicals and who he is as a person and a player. So it’s not like the Browns and Steelers and Ravens won't be unable to do any recon work at all on the Heisman winner.
But keeping that to a minimum? It might help Burrow even more than most people would think.
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