INDIANAPOLIS — Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin stepped up to the podium Wednesday for the team’s media availability session at the NFL Combine and joked that he would save the hard questions for head coach Zac Taylor.
Tobin laughed as he said he would take any “softball” questions.
The tone of the press conference-style interview quickly shifted with the first question, though, as Tobin was asked to address rumors the Bengals were seeking to trade wide receiver John Ross. Reports that surfaced Tuesday indicated the team would be listening to offers at the Combine this week in Indianapolis; however, Tobin said the 2017 first-round draft pick is not on the trading block.
"We have had no discussions internally or externally on John Ross, so I don't know where that came from,” Tobin said. He later hinted during a smaller group interview with local media that perhaps Ross’ agent might have floated the trade rumors. “That's out of the ready, fire, aim school of journalism, I guess. But it's fake news maybe is the best way to put that. But we have had no discussions, and that's not in our plans.”
With a new coaching staff in place, the Bengals have plenty of personnel decisions to make and not everyone will fit into the new system.
Ross’ role has been in limbo since he’s struggled to transition into the league, but he is one of many players in flux right now that were discussed Wednesday. Pending free agency for tight end Tyler Eifert and cornerback Darqueze Dennard was a hot topic as well, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s future with the organization also was brought into question because of a lack of production last year and health concerns following back-to-back concussions that ended his 2018 season prematurely.
However, all three Bengals representatives that spoke to media Wednesday at the Indiana Convention Center insisted there is still a place for Ross. Taylor fielded questions at the microphone shortly after Tobin, and later in the day, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan sat down with local media inside the adjoining Marriott Hotel.
"There are a lot of flashes almost on a daily basis in practice,” Tobin said. “He's got to stay healthy and he's got to keep building on his good plays. Confidence will be a huge part, and we'll have a new offensive scheme and we'll see how he transitions, but every receiver is going to have a transition. Every receiver is going to have a learning curve, but no, there's nobody giving up on him yet.”
With the trade rumors squashed, the attention regarding Ross now turns to how Callahan and the offensive-minded Taylor can utilize his abilities.
The former University of Washington standout played just 17 snaps over three games as a rookie in 2017 after struggling to adjust and eventually getting shut down with an injury he had tried to hide from the team. Last season, he missed three games because of a groin injury and had just 21 catches on 58 targets for 210 yards, but seven of those receptions were for touchdowns.
"I think he's got some ability that is rare,” Callahan said. “His speed is rare. Usually you see one of two things: either the straight-line guys that are really fast or they're really quick and not very fast, and he kind of has the ability to do both. His quickness was what jumped out on tape to me more than anything. His change of direction is really good. I'm excited about finding a role for him. I think he'll have one in our offense.”
Both Callahan and Taylor said Ross ultimately will determine his role through how he performs on the field.
The Bengals are still developing their system, and the playbook is on the back burner for now as the staff continues to evaluate current personnel and the college talent that will be coming up in the draft. The latter part of that is the focus this week while draft-eligible players are going through drills for scouting purposes and are available for face-to-face interviews.
Ultimately the draft decisions will be impacted by what Cincinnati thinks will happen in free agency. Offensive tackles, linebackers and a backup quarterback appear to be top priorities, but three tight ends are up for free agency, including Eifert, and the team’s feelings on them and Dennard could shape draft needs in those spots.
Tobin said there is interest in talking to both Eifert and Dennard.
Durability has always been a question with Eifert, but the Bengals signed him to an incentive-laden one-year deal in 2018, and he played a big part in the Bengals’ 4-1 start before breaking his ankle in a win at Atlanta in Week 4. The type of injury was different than his previous more concerning ailments relating to his back and neck, and the Bengals can’t deny his impact when healthy.
"I felt really bad for him because he was really starting to emerge as he did early in his career," Tobin said. “But we'll be talking to Tyler in the offseason and see if there is a fit for us going forward. He's obviously a talented a guy. He's obviously a guy that can make a difference on your football team if he's on the field. I know he's as frustrated — probably more so than I could be or anybody else associated with it — but he's a prideful guy and I know he's going to work to get back on the field.”
Taylor said there is no need to look for different types of tight ends to fit his system, but the staff will continue to evaluate that position, like any other.
As for Dennard, the rest of the defensive staff needs to be in place before those types of decisions are made. The Bengals hope to announce the full staff Thursday, according to Taylor. Tobin predicts there will be interest in bringing Dennard back, but noted he doesn’t know how much competition there will be.
"It's hard to predict free agency, but he will be a guy that's in our talking plans, and we'll be visiting with him and see what we can get done,” Tobin said.
Tobin said without hesitation the linebackers group will see some changes but when asked specifically about Burfict, he didn’t want to discuss specific plans for individual players.
"We'll have ongoing discussions as we go on the fit there," Tobin said. "Again, our defensive staff just walked in the building, a large part of it. We'll have a new linebackers coach probably announced tomorrow. We'll have a new D-line coach probably announced tomorrow. The coordinator, Lou, is new to the building, so those are all questions we will answer as we go, but for me to sit here and answer for them right now and proclaim something I don't think is the way to go."