This was originally published in The Athletic....
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin manages the roster for a National Football League franchise, which means he is a very important person — or at least he’s an important person in that he has an incredible amount of influence and say-so in how an NFL team is constructed.
It is an enormous job that comes with an incredibly long list of responsibilities that those of us who barely remember to set our fantasy football lineups can only somewhat grasp. The Bengals, as a famously family-run outfit, will likely never have a completely empowered executive who runs the football side of things with autonomy. But even if we acknowledge the veto power held by owner Mike Brown and his progeny, it’s hard to imagine decisions affecting the team’s on-field fortunes not getting heavy deliberation in Tobin’s Paul Brown Stadium office.
Yet even with Tobin’s considerable influence over everything related to Bengals player personnel matters, and despite the team’s efforts in recent years to make him a more public figure, he’s always existed somewhat, well, anonymously. This statement is relative, of course. There’s a decent chance you know exactly who Duke Tobin is and what failures and successes he’s been responsible for. Maybe you’ve spent time this week obsessing over every morsel from his first offseason media availability earlier this week. But I’d also say there’s a decent chance Tobin could walk through a pregame tailgating lot and go mostly unrecognized.
This is not a criticism of Tobin or of fans who don’t do a deep dive into the inner workings of their favorite football team. It is a reflection of a lifetime of fandom and nearly a decade and a half of talking about the team for three hours a day on the radio. There is never any shortage of opinions being offered on how Bengals ownership is performing or how good or inept the coaching is, but unless his name is being brought up as the team’s de facto GM, for someone with such a high-profile gig, Tobin often exists at least a little off the public’s radar.
That should, and likely will, change over the coming weeks. The transactional part of an exceptionally important Bengals offseason is upon us — with free agency launching the franchise into a two-month-long stretch that will go a very long way toward determining whether the savior of the franchise will be equipped to actually, you know, save the franchise. Joe Burrow is, almost without question, our city’s single-most important sports figure. That’s not simply because of his immense potential but also because it’s impossible to know when, or even if, Cincinnati’s NFL franchise will be positioned where it is currently: armed with a quarterback whose possibilities are limitless but whose annual salary is relatively meager, all the while juxtaposed against a league dominated by uncertainty at the game’s most vital position.
Next in line behind Burrow on the list of sports figures who matter the most might be Tobin. He has often been granted cover by being flanked by an unpopular owner and the head coach and perhaps been granted a pass by being tethered to a low-ceiling quarterback or long-established franchise values that seemed to handcuff the guy in charge of building the team’s roster.
But with the urgency of this offseason, Burrow in place and a fan base that long ago exhausted its patience with waiting to win, Tobin enters the public’s crosshairs more than ever. Maybe his exact job description remains unchanged, but after standing mostly pat with a coaching staff that has done very little winning and the team finally having an apparent franchise quarterback, there has never been more of a premium on the acquisition of talent that can transform the team to relevance.
The good news is that few NFL personnel executives are as well equipped this offseason as Tobin, who was given the go-ahead to operate as a modern-day pro football executive last offseason by being freed to spend liberally on outside talent. Tobin has cash to spend this year, owning the fifth-highest amount of available cap space, according to Over the Cap, and no shortage of available players to spend it on. It is fun to peruse a list of free agents and not only see names of players who would make sense to pursue but also quality fallback options at some of the same positions. In what projects to be a buyers’ market at their most glaring positional needs, there should be no shortage of players who represent upgrades. Simply put, for a franchise that spent most of the last half-decade trying to repair its offensive line, it would be a massive failure if quality, proven O-linemen didn’t relocate to Cincinnati.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.