INDIANAPOLIS — Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said it’s unlikely a player’s performance at the NFL Combine changes the work the scouting department has put in for the past several months to identify talent ahead of the April draft.
The Bengals already had their evaluations of players on their board, but the Combine is still “100 percent necessary” to help confirm what they thought about prospects and to start really diving into the personalities of who these guys are.
Representatives from all 32 teams have spent the past five days in Indianapolis watching players run through drills and other measurement tests and meeting with some of them for their allowed interviews. For Tobin and the Bengals, the latter of those two activities is the most valuable part of the draft preparation process at the Combine.
“You want the right fits for your football team, and the players want the team that drafts them to be the right fit for them, because they’re dependent on finding a good fit early in their career,” Tobin said in a session with media this week. “This is a chance for all 32 teams to come together and start to really get to know these guys. If we start drafting without thorough knowledge of these guys, you’re gonna find it hurts the players as much as it does the team. This is a vital part of what we do in the offseason. Again, it’s something we all look forward to.”
The Bengals used last year’s draft in large part to start grooming players to fill future holes. They selected safety Dax Hill in the first round, as insurance in case Jessie Bates sat out the season but also in preparation for the possibility of losing both Bates and Vonn Bell this offseason.
They also drafted cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt in the second round, and he ended up a starter when Chidobe Awuzie tore his ACL, but he already was on the verge of replacing Eli Apple before that injury. Now Apple is likely to depart in free agency, and Taylor-Britt is expected to be a full-time starter.
This year, the Bengals still have some immediate depth needs to fill in the draft, but they also might need to start preparing for future departures with starters like Trey Hendrickson, D.J. Reader, Tyler Boyd, Awuzie, Logan Wilson and Tee Higgins heading into the last year of their contracts.
“I don’t think that plan ever really changes,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “We’re always looking to maximize our draft picks, but I think that’s where we’ve got such an advantage with Duke and our scouting department with the experience that he’s got just being in Cincinnati and understanding the draft classes coming in. He does a great job giving our coaches a head start on what they need to know and how they can help in the process and drafted some really good character players that have high upside and we’ve got to continue to do that as we move forward.”
Cincinnati will have to be flexible going into the draft again this year because at No. 28, it’s hard to predict who will still be on the board and where the value is at that spot.
Free agency will determine whether the Bengals have more immediate needs at a certain position or if they can go for best player available when it comes time for them to make their picks. Last year, the Bengals returned almost every starter on defense and addressed almost all the needs on offense in free agency, so they were able to draft for future replacement needs.
“There’s obviously an unknown of who is going to be there, because it is so late in the first round, but I think we’ve done a great job of finding value there these last couple of years and we’ve got to continue to do that in order to be a good team,” Taylor said.
The tight end group is especially deep in this year’s draft class, for example, and the Bengals could have needs there with three of their tight ends heading into free agency this offseason. Tobin said it’s possible none of the best ones are available at No. 28, but there still could be some good options at their spot.
Taylor said he and his coaches are just now getting into the draft preparation phase, so the Combine is an important step for them to get involved.
“Everyone is a little bit different,” Taylor said. “You go into those interviews maybe trying to gain a little bit different information on each guy because Duke and that staff have met on all of those guys. We’re catching up to the information they have. Some guys you’re trying to learn different things about them. How they fit into your schemes, how they fit in your locker room. And I think the guys do a good job of navigating that room and making sure we get the right information.”
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