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 three-week 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 his 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 player-personnel 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-year-old 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.