Vontaze Burfict's poor Combine showing allowed the Bengals to grab the rookie for a song in free agency.
The NFL Scouting Combine begins this week, with all 32 teams getting the opportunity to take closer looks at the players that have been sliding up and down their draft boards for the past few months. Though the combine is just part of a long, ongoing process, it's a major event, and it will help shape the careers of many NFL hopefuls.
So what will the Cincinnati Bengals be looking for at this year's combine, who will get paid their close attention and what can and cannot be learned about their potential draft strategy over the course of the seven-day event?
Here's your guide to all things Bengals at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The combine is about information-gathering.
If the combine is about anything, it's information. All it seems to be is an endless information-gathering session. From the physical and psychological exams to the interviews, vertical leaps and drills, the combine is about learning everything there is possible about all of the invitees and hopefully gaining new, well-rounded knowledge of particular prospects as a result.
Just a one-second change in a 40-yard dash time or an unexpectedly strong or poor showing in the three-cone drill can dramatically shift teams' perceptions of a prospect, vaulting him into the first round of the draft or plummeting him into the third day.
The Bengals already have an idea of whom they are interested in—the combine simply helps cement these impressions or alter them slightly. There are some things their scouts have been able to pick up by watching games and studying film and others that cannot be determined until the stopwatches and measuring tapes are thrown in.
Then there are the small-school prospects at this year's combine, guys that the Bengals scouts likely haven't had a chance to look at in person who could make enough of an impression to at least warrant a pre-draft visit.
Though there are always surprises to be had at the combine, a good scouting department means they'll be kept to a minimum. It's about setting certain expectations for prospects and knowing beforehand how close they'll get to meeting them once the drills begin. Someone will unexpectedly raise his draft stock while someone else will harm his—that's par for the course—but the Bengals aren't going into this event blindly.
Free agency makes the combine full of unknowns.
The information to be had at the NFL Scouting Combine is limited by those who provide it. There are 334 invitees to the combine this year, though not all of them will be drafted and not all of those who do land with a team in April will be at the event.
Those present may not even participate in all the drills, whether because of injury or because they'd prefer to do them at their own pro days, which means the Bengals won't be able to find out everything they need to know about every prospect on their big board.
Take Alabama running back Eddie Lacy, for example. Considered the best running back prospect in this year's draft and someone whom the Bengals may seriously consider taking with their first-round draft pick, Lacy won't be running at the combine as he's recovering from a hamstring injury. So any running will have to wait until Lacy's pro day, if he's healthy enough.
Though at this point we know what the Bengals' biggest positional needs are for 2013, we don't know how they'll fill them. The draft, of course, is a major source of young talent, but Cincinnati's strategy won't begin to take real shape until free agency begins.
Michael Johnson is about to be an unrestricted free agent, but how badly they need a defensive end will be based on their ability to keep him. Draft needs will shift drastically after the combine is over.
While we might know what positions the Bengals need to address, and while we might see certain players at those positions do well at the combine, that doesn't automatically mean the Bengals will draft them. There are factors—some in the Bengals control, others not at all—that inform draft-day decision-making, and a defensive back's 40-yard dash time is but one of them.
It's no secret that the Bengals need to upgrade their safety position. Reggie Nelson's great, sure, but rotating guys like Taylor Mays and Chris Crocker to play alongside Nelson isn't much of a smart long-term strategy. 2013's draft class appears to be chock-full of excellent safety talent, and none has drawn more attention than Texas' Kenny Vaccaro.
In a Monday conference call, NFL draft expert Mike Mayock said that the Bengals would be a great fit for Vaccaro's talents, adding that the safety is well-suited for Mike Zimmer's defense. ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr., also has the Bengals selecting Vaccaro with the 21st overall pick.
Of course, the Bengals won't be the only eyes on Vaccaro at the combine. Based on his current buzz and how he performs during the combine, Vaccaro could draw interest from a great many teams heading into the draft, including ones with higher picks than Cincinnati.
What happens over the course of Vaccaro's big, league-wide evaluation could put him out of the Bengals reach or make them more willing to find a way to trade up to get him, should they be as convinced that he'd fit as Kiper and Mayock are.
Red flags are flying around the name of Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was arrested for DUI earlier in February. This comes on the heels of him missing the first four games of the 2012 season after failing a drug test. Though Ogletree has displayed top-10 talent, his off-the-field issues may result in him taking a significant slide in the draft.
Ogletree will have ample opportunity to repair his image at the combine, both in interviews with teams as well as in drills. If no one comes away convinced that his risks are outweighed by his potential reward, the Bengals could greatly benefit.
This isn't a Vontaze Burfict situation—at least, not yet; if Ogletree thoroughly screws up his combine appearance, then he'll be in big draft trouble. Barring that, he won't be an undrafted free agent. But if he drops enough, the Bengals could be there to catch him in the second round of the draft.
The Bengals have two second-round picks, one of them being the fifth pick in the round thanks to trading Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders. If Ogletree's combine showing does not help his stock, or if teams are simply scared off by his two recent incidents, the Bengals should snap him up if he's there.
Though everyone likes to make jokes about the Bengals and their history of having players with legal issues, they've also been able to rehabilitate the careers and lives of many of these players. And it's not as though the Bengals couldn't use another linebacker, especially one with Ogletree's skill set.
While Ogletree may not be available to the Bengals in the early second round, that doesn't mean they shouldn't give him a close look and some sincere consideration at the combine.
Though Eddie Lacy won't be running at the combine, the Bengals don't necessarily need him—not if, say, they're in love with Kenny Vaccaro. However, they do need to add a running back this year and nearly every single prospect at the position at the combine is in play for them.
There are gems to be had at the position in nearly every round save the first and perhaps the second, which is a great value for the Bengals. They just need to do some homework, and the first prospect I suggest they study is Clemson's Andre Ellington.
The key to Ellington's draft stock is his speed. He's marketed as a fast, change-of-pace back, and he could go as high as the third round if he can run the 40-yard dash at or below 4.5 seconds. Ellington is C.J. Spiller-esque (not coincidentally, they attended the same college), is a good receiver and is a willing and effective blocker, which makes him the perfect complement to the bruising BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Ellington had 212 carries this past season, running for 1,081 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, but even more impressively, he racked up 232 yards on just 14 receptions. Though Ellington won't be the only back the Bengals scrutinize at the combine, he seems at this point to be one of their best options when it comes to their third-round draft pick.