The Bengals' scaled-down scouting party converged on the Senior Bowl early this week looking for the next Logan Wilson, the prospect that jumps off the tape and smack into your off-season depth chart before landing at the top of the rookie rankings.
"Got to have him," thought senior defensive assistant coach Mark Duffner after he snapped his notebook shut at the close of a 30-minute interview and shook hands with Wilson a few hours before last year's Senior Bowl.
Since the Bengals had been coaching the South team during the week, they had been able to watch Wyoming's Wilson practice up close with the North. The Bengals had also visited with members of the North earlier in the week, so by the time Duffner set up an extra session with Wilson after the pre-game chapel service he already thought he could help answer their prayers at linebacker.
"I watched some of his tape before I got down there," Duffner said, "and he was one of the guys I really wanted to see."
What the Bengals are looking for this week, the scouts say, is the ability of the prospect to translate his individual style of play into different and top competition. With 52 college games on tape, Wilson came in with enough skins on the wall that the Bengals scouts already had him rated highly before the coaches took a look.
Duffner and most of the coaches can't go this year. Because of COVID restrictions, only ten representatives from each team are allowed to attend this week's practices in Mobile, Ala., and player interviews are restricted to a few minutes behind Plexiglas.
But, just like last season when the last stages of the draft were shut down in the pandemic, age-old principles still apply to scouting the second oldest college all-star game in the country with a new venue in South Alabama's Hancock Whitney Stadium.
"Guys can't make or break themselves down here. You can just confirm what you already know," says Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel already in place Monday. "It's a positive experience for guys to come down and get in front of people and confirm what they see on tape. With Logan, that was good to see down here. He was a guy we had a high opinion of and he's the guy we thought he was."
For years Tobin has preached the Senior Bowl is the perfect stage for the small school players to make their marks against better competition and so it was last year for Bengals' fourth-round pick Akeem Davis-Gaither, another linebacker, out of Appalachian State and the guy the Bengals coaches appointed captain of the defense.
There's no substitution for coaching the game and, indeed, ADG's selection may have been sealed late in the Senior Bowl when he listened to linebackers coach Al Golden and filled a gap to make a tackle that he had missed earlier.
But they also could have seen ADG positively adjusting to the level of play on tape.
"We like to see the energy a guy brings. How motivated he is and how he competes against elevated competition," Tobin says. "Sometimes you never get to see a guy against top level competition until this week. When you see how they translate it, that's certainly a positive thing."
The Bengals are also holding to their principles and keeping the coaching staff heavily involved in the process. Head coach Zac Taylor is taking his three coordinators to supplement Tobin's scouts and they'll be watching practices as well as getting as close to the players as Plexiglas possible after studying them on tape the last couple of weeks.
Also unchanged, Tobin believes, is the Mobile talent pool.
"It's a good roster based on our research," Tobin says. "There are guys that will be considered all throughout the draft on the list. It's always been a game where there are guys to be considered all throughout the draft."
Wilson ended up going at the top of the third round and despite missing the last three games with an ankle injury, emerged as advertised in his regular role on passing downs.
Pro Football Focus rated him one of the league's top cover rookie linebackers and while becoming the first Bengals rookie linebacker with stats in both sacks and interceptions since Odell Thurman 15 years before Wilson proved to them he's a future three-down backer.
The Bengals were able to splice the tape with interviews like the one Duffner conducted in Mobile, where he asked him about his family background, his likes and dislikes, his strengths and weaknesses, and what he needed to improve. There were also questions about who were the most important people in his life. Duffner also asked Wilson to describe himself.
Now a year later Duffner can remember Wilson telling him how his dog played fetch and that seemed to represent his down-home humility.
"Very humble. Very focused. Very genuine," Duffner said. "Impressive. Just who he is. Very grounded in what he was all about."
Duffner and Golden, not to mention every other coach in the NFL, probably aren't going to have those kinds of extended one-on-one meetings before this year's draft. But Duffner believes they can extract the truth with the Zoom calls that dominated the final six weeks of last year's draft prep.
"That's all we did last spring with this class," Duffner said. "We've got a pretty good base of experience."
Tobin says the Bengals are set up to operate "completely virtually, which we had to do for a large period of time last year. We feel comfortable in our ability to get to know the guys."
Even before the pandemic, teams had been cutting back on sending coaches to the Senior Bowl. Some teams don't send any. All the practices are on tape and Duffner believes the interviews are going to be taped, too. Doesn't matter. Last year, the NFL allowed teams to Zoom with prospects three times a week.
"The Senior Bowl can be whatever you want it to be," Duffner said. "It can be extremely valuable or you can sleep on it. We feel it's extremely valuable. It's better in person, of course. But you can't cry over spilt milk. You'll get out of it what you put into it. If you just scratch the surface, you'll get that. If you delve into it, you'll get that."
After this week in Mobile, it's unclear what lies ahead. Next month's NFL scouting combine has been virtually eliminated and the only in-person workouts are going to come in the pro days on campus. But it's not certain which schools are going to hold them.
"If they're going to have them and we're able to go, we'll go," Tobin says. "If not, we'll do it some other way."
A different Senior Bowl. But not really when you use the Logan Logarithm of tape and tells.
"I had high expectations," Duffner said, "and he met that."