MOBILE, Ala. — The Cincinnati Bengals are coaching at the Senior Bowl, and everyone is asking them about an NFL draft prospect who isn’t here.
That would be LSU QB Joe Burrow, of course, who turned down an invitation to attend. No one is upset about this, of course.
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy admitted that with Burrow finishing his championship season with the Tigers only one week before the event started meant that he was trying to lure the Heisman Trophy winner to town only to be around the event and meet with the team most projected to be picking him with the top selection in the 2020 NFL draft.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor added Tuesday that there’s “plenty of time” to meet with Burrow and get to know him.
But the Bengals have some in their building who have firsthand knowledge of Burrow and have worked alongside him. In fact, any questions they have about him during the run-up to the April 23 draft should be run through one low-level assistant.
Who is this mystery assistant?
Brad Kragthorpe appeared surprised when Yahoo Sports approached him this week at the Senior Bowl. The Bengals coach just finished his first season on an NFL staff under the title of offensive assistant. To be fair, that puts him low in the hierarchy in Cincinnati.
The primary call on whether Burrow will be the top pick in the draft likely will come down to three key figureheads — team owner Mike Brown, personnel director Duke Tobin and Taylor. Plenty of others will have input, of course, from the upper reaches of the front office (executive vice president Katie Blackburn, vice president of player personnel Paul Brown and vice president Troy Blackburn) to the other vines of the Bengals’ scouting department (namely college scouting director Mike Potts, personnel executive Bill Tobin, scouts Andrew Johnson and Christian Sarkisian, plus personnel assistant Debbie LaRocco).
The Bengals have the smallest scout masthead in the NFL. Some have suggested it’s because Mike Brown doesn’t like to spend. Others have said the Bengals like having fewer voices in the process, avoiding the “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem many teams encounter. Whatever the case is, the Bengals have to maximize their resources in scouting players. And with Burrow, they can lean on the 27-year-old Kragthorpe as a crucial sounding board in finding out exactly what makes the possible No. 1 pick in the draft tick.
Kragthorpe played quarterback at LSU, a former walk-on who played for the Tigers from 2012-2015. Although he didn’t play much there as a backup, completing his only official pass attempt (for 2 yards), Kragthorpe had an important role as the team’s extra-point and field-goal holder in 2014 and 2015 and was involved in a famous play in recent LSU history that last season.
Kragthorpe’s flip on a fake field goal — it went backward, hence not an official pass — to kicker Trent Domingue on fourth-and-14 against Florida was the game-winning score in a wild LSU victory. Kragthorpe also famously was called down short of the end zone (even though replays appeared to show him scoring) on a fake he kept himself just before halftime in LSU’s 31-28 loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl.
“Brad is one of the smarter guys I know,” LSU long snapper Blake Ferguson told Yahoo Sports. “He was my holder that year, and he and I spent a lot of time together. I am so happy he’s gotten an opportunity in coaching because I always thought he would be a natural at it. He’s a great teacher and he has studied the game for so long.”
The son of former NFL assistant Steve Kragthorpe, who still works in the LSU athletic department after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the younger Kragthorpe got into coaching after his playing days and spent two years as an assistant at Utah State before coming back to LSU as an offensive assistant in 2018. And that, of course, was when Burrow arrived at LSU and everyone’s lives there changed forever.
And a little less than one year ago, Kragthorpe joined the Bengals staff. No one could have known then that his former charge, Burrow, could rise so fast or that Kragthorpe might be part of the process to make him the top overall pick by his new NFL team.
What Kragthorpe can tell Bengals about Burrow
Kragthorpe was approached after a Senior Bowl practice this week and asked if he could contribute to a story about his former — and possibly future — quarterback in Burrow. Politely, Kragthorpe declined the interview request, citing orders from Bengals public relations not to speak to media this week.
It’s urban legend now in Bayou country, and is starting to trickle up northward to Ohio, that Burrow didn’t even know the names of all the teammates he was lining up with in LSU’s opening game his first season when the Tigers dominated Miami in Dallas for a 33-17 victory.
Sources close to the program also have added texture to that story by using it as a way of explaining Burrow’s cavernous leap from that 2018 season to his historically great 2019 campaign — hailed as perhaps the greatest quarterbacking season in college football history. Burrow didn’t have spring practice. He didn’t have time to jell with his receivers. He was learning the scheme on the fly.
Certainly, the addition of Joe Brady (now the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator) to the LSU staff in 2019 helped ascend that group to new heights. But you must factor in Burrow’s adjustment after transferring from Ohio State late in his evaluation for those needing to know why he made such a big leap from one season to the next.
There’s also the evidence that Burrow was playing extremely well down the stretch in 2018 prior to the nuclear 2019 campaign. After struggling mightily against Alabama that season, Burrow’s final four games in 2018 — 81-of-121 passing (66.9 percent) for 1,166 yards with a 10-1 TD-INT ratio, plus 156 rushing yards and three TDs — was far closer to the per-game production he put up this past season.
Kragthorpe was part of that LSU staff that helped get Burrow acclimated, and the early work the staff put in on him laid the groundwork for the championship season. And Taylor told Yahoo Sports that he plans to lean on Kragthorpe’s first-hand knowledge of Burrow in the team’s evaluation of the man who could become the franchise savior.
“It’s always good when you have coaches that are familiar with the players, [finding out] what their approach is to preparation and their character,” Taylor said. “We certainly will spend a lot of time calling a lot of college coaches that we trust to gather that information.
“But having Brad Kragthorpe is a great asset for us.”
Added Ferguson: “You know, I didn’t even think about [Kragthorpe] having that advantage of having worked with Joe. But that’s important right there, having seen what Joe went through to become the leader of our team. I am sure he’s going to have plenty of great things to tell the Bengals. He saw Joe right from Ground Zero and knows how much he invested in being our quarterback.”
For that matter, Kragthorpe has first-hand knowledge of Senior Bowl QB Jordan Love (coached by the Detroit Lions on the South Team this week) from his two seasons at Utah State in 2016 and 2017. The Bengals also are spending a lot of time this week working with Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who has been impressive in two practices running Taylor’s system at the Senior Bowl.
So there will be a lot of factors and variables involved in making the top pick in the 2020 draft and deciding which direction the Bengals will take at quarterback. But you can’t overlook the importance of having one of their own assistants who was able to lay close eyes on Burrow before he became such a titanic figure.
Even as one of the new guys on staff, Kragthorpe is likely to provide the Bengals’ decision makers plenty of information that could help make the final call on whether they make him the No. 1 pick.
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