For Bills’ scouts, road is al­ways call­ing

Thou­sands of miles of travel and talk­ing to prospec­tive pros comes to fruition later this month at the 2019 NFL Draft, and Ter­rance Gray is in the thick of it

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Vic Carucci

When train­ing camp ends, road life be­gins for NFL scouts. Weeks are spent trav­el­ing from col­lege cam­pus to col­lege cam­pus, gath­er­ing every ounce of knowl­edge pos­si­ble on every foot­ball prospect in the land.

“I’m pretty much trav­el­ing the en­tire col­lege sea­son,” Ter­rance Gray said. “All the way up un­til Thanks­giv­ing.”

Gray is in his sec­ond year as the Buf­falo

Bills’ direc­tor of col­lege scout­ing. He pro­vides an ex­tra set of eyes on play­ers whom area scouts have fil­tered up to what the Bills call “Tier One” sta­tus, the high­est rung on the eval­u­a­tion lad­der. The same goes for Gen­eral Man­ager Bran­don Beane, as­sis­tant GM Joe Schoen and direc­tor of player per­son­nel Dan Mor­gan.

But it doesn’t end when the turkey is served. More trips fol­low af­ter the col­lege sea­son. There are bowl games, all-star games, pro days and in­di­vid­ual work­outs.

With each flight, each mile driven in a rental car, each night in a ho­tel bed, each bite of a fast-food sand­wich, the mis­sion is the same: Get the clear­est and most thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of the play­ers be­ing picked dur­ing the April 25-27 NFL draft.

Beane had just re­turned from a three­week stretch on the road – which in­cluded a few days at the NFL own­ers meet­ings in Ari­zona – when he was asked to quan­tify the value of he and the other tal­ent eval­u­a­tors log­ging all of those miles.

“It’s just get­ting out there,” Beane said. “This gives us a chance to meet th­ese kids,

get in front of them, see them live, see them move around, talk to peo­ple around them. If you’ve been in this busi­ness long enough and you know peo­ple, from coaches to train­ers to the video guy, they’ll give you their view­point of the kid. I ran into a broad­caster who was a for­mer player who trav­els with a team, and I asked him, ‘What do you know about the kid? What do you see from your lens?’

“You like it when ev­ery­body you talk to says the same thing, whether it’s good or bad. If it’s bad, you just take him off your board. If it’s good, it’s just more con­fir­ma­tion that what you’re hear­ing from scouts is ac­cu­rate. And where there’s gray ar­eas, those are the guys that we con­tinue to press on from the fall to the spring and answer some of those unan­swered ques­tions.”

Area scouts work within a de­fined re­gion, so they can book their fall trips from Au­gust through Novem­ber. Beane, Schoen, Mor­gan and Gray have a good idea of where they’re go­ing in Au­gust and Septem­ber, be­cause they’re tar­get­ing who the Bills have as their higher-rated play­ers at the start of the sea­son.

Prospects fall into the fol­low­ing cat­e­gories: Tier One, Tier Two and Tier Three. Ac­cord­ing to the Bills’ scout­ing pro­to­col, Tier One play­ers must re­ceive two looks per area scout, one look per na­tional scout, and Beane, Schoen, Mor­gan and Gray also check them out. A Tier Two player, some­one the team feels might have hit his peak at the col­le­giate level, will be seen by an area scout and a na­tional scout to de­ter­mine if he should be el­e­vated to Tier One.

Beane, Schoen, Mor­gan and Gray make ad­just­ments to their col­lege desti­na­tions through October and Novem­ber, based on the as­sess­ments of the area scouts and how the Bills’ po­si­tional needs crys­tal­ize.

They also try to be ef­fi­cient with travel plans. For in­stance, when­ever pos­si­ble, Gray looks for “clus­ters” of schools with prospects of in­ter­est.

“Like Hous­ton,” he said. “You’ve got Uni­ver­sity Hous­ton, you have Rice, you have Texas South­ern, Prairie View A&M.” The Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton is home to de­fen­sive tackle Ed Oliver, widely seen by prog­nos­ti­ca­tors as a log­i­cal choice for the Bills with the ninth over­all pick.

“Usu­ally, a light bulb goes off in my head: how can I kill two birds with one stone?” Gray said.

Wher­ever he is, he has to eat. And eat­ing on the road presents a va­ri­ety of op­tions, based on geo­graph­i­cal in­flu­ences. Some­times, scouts can feel like they’re do­ing seg­ments on the Food Net­work.

“We joke about it a lot be­cause you travel so much,” Gray said. “I try and watch my eat­ing habits. Where I’m weak is if I’m down in Louisiana … Kansas City’s bar­be­cue. That’s what gets me. Out­side of spe­cific places that have sta­ples – New Or­leans, Texas, Kansas City – I eat the same thing. If you looked at my trans­ac­tions on the debit card, you’re go­ing to see Jimmy John’s and Pan­era. At one point I was a heavy Star­bucks guy, but I’ve kind of slowed that down. Mostly Pan­era and Jimmy John’s.”

Scout­ing travel in the fi­nal weeks be­fore the draft is mainly for pro days and in­di­vid­ual work­outs. The team’s chang­ing player needs fac­tor into th­ese itin­er­ar­ies, as well, be­cause of free-agent moves. For the Bills, mak­ing all but three of their 16 ad­di­tions from the open mar­ket on of­fense would likely put more of the col­lege spotlight on de­fense.

Some­times, when pro days over­lap in a cer­tain area, the area scout will go to one while a mem­ber of the play­er­per­son­nel hi­er­ar­chy goes to another. That hap­pened on March 27, when the Bills’ West Coast scout at­tended the Utah State pro day while Beane, who had been in Phoenix for the NFL meet­ing, went to Ari­zona State.

“There are other times – at schools like Alabama or Ohio State or Michi­gan that have a lot of guys – when we want to have more than one per­son there,” Beane said. “A lot of times, (col­lege) coaches are tight-lipped in the fall, es­pe­cially about un­der­class­men be­cause they don’t want them to come out (for the draft). Now that that kid has al­ready de­clared, and the coach knows he’s gone, he’s more open to telling you a lit­tle bit more about him.”

It takes a cer­tain mindset to han­dle the no­madic na­ture of the job. It also re­quires a cer­tain men­tal­ity to be a spouse or even a child of some­one whose work in­volves nu­mer­ous days of liv­ing out of a suit­case.

You get used to hav­ing one fewer plate at the din­ner ta­ble. You get used to do­ing a whole lot on your own.

“It’s a way of life,” Beane said. “It’s no dif­fer­ent than, I’m sure, doc­tors who are on call, peo­ple in the mil­i­tary. We have to have un­der­stand­ing spouses and kids when it comes to the trade­offs. While there’s a lot of good, it’s not easy.”

It was about 14 years ago when Gray re­ceived some sage ad­vice from Dick Ver­meil. At the time, Gray was a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs. Ver­meil was the Chiefs’ head coach and a 46-year foot­ball-coach­ing lifer at the high school, col­lege and pro­fes­sional lev­els.

“He would al­ways ask, ‘Are you dat­ing?’ ” Gray re­called. “And I was like, ‘No,’ be­cause I was so locked in on work. And he goes, ‘All right, when you get se­ri­ous, make sure you find a foot­ball wife.’ I go, ‘What do you mean?’ ”

Ver­meil ex­plained that his wife, Carol, was the very def­i­ni­tion of a “foot­ball wife.” He pointed out that, al­though she didn’t like that her hus­band’s job kept him away from home more than she pre­ferred, she ac­cepted it as a con­di­tion of their mar­riage.

“She doesn’t com­pete with my work,” Ver­meil told Gray. “She al­ways knows that if I’m away from her and I’m at work, it’s not some­thing that re­flects on my re­la­tion­ship with her. She un­der­stands the de­mands of the job.”

That al­ways stuck with the 39-yearold Gray. He and his wife, Kim, have been mar­ried for 12 years. They have two chil­dren, ages 5 and 3.

Gray was at the height of his busiest stretch of scout­ing when he and Kim be­gan dat­ing. He told her it was a “sneak peek” of what life with him would be like. “She un­der­stood that,” Gray said. “And she’s still here.”

The Bills en­cour­age their scouts to re­turn from the road every 10 days. They con­sider it mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial to scouts and the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“You need to recharge your batteries as an eval­u­a­tor, you need to kind of re­set,” Gray said. “And when you get home, ideally – and I had an older scout share this with me many years ago – try not to bring your work home. Bran­don and Joe have been great with that, telling ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially com­ing off a long road trip, make sure you make time with your fam­ily. Oth­er­wise, the job will con­sume not only you, but also con­sume your fam­ily.”

Said Beane, “When guys are in town, I ex­pect them to make their kids’ games, un­less there’s some­thing we just have crit­i­cally go­ing on at that time – a game or a prac­tice or some­thing they’ve got to be at. But if you’re in Or­chard Park, I don’t want you miss­ing games or your daugh­ter’s dance recital be­cause you miss enough of them. Dan and Joe re­cently went to fa­ther-daugh­ter dances; I saw pic­tures that my wife showed me.”

One of the big­ger perks of the job is the mas­sive ac­cu­mu­la­tion of fre­quent-traveler points. As with his coun­ter­parts, Gray has a stag­ger­ing num­ber of them banked with a va­ri­ety of air­lines, ho­tels and car rental com­pa­nies.

“We could go on a pretty good va­ca­tion and not pay for ho­tels or rentals,” he said with a smile.

Yes, some­times when scouts travel, it ac­tu­ally is for fun.

Robert Kirkham/Buf­falo News

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