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One-on-One Coverage: Terrance Gray’s football dream led him to Bills' scouting role

Terrance Gray’s childhood ambition was to play football on television. Not on Sundays so much as Saturdays. Although he was a major fan of the NFL draft, charting each pick in front of the television from the age of 10, he was focused on becoming a big-time college quarterback.

Such destinations aren’t easily reached from anywhere, let alone Bayside High School in Queens.

“With New York City primarily being a baseball-basketball city, I didn’t get heavily recruited,” said Gray, in his second year as the Buffalo Bills’ director of college scouting. “My options were to play small school in the northeast, but my dream was to play Division I ball.”

Wanting to get away from hectic pace of New York and, while working within his mother’s financial limitations, Gray enrolled at Palomar Junior College in San Marcos, Calif., near San Diego. He was moved to cornerback, and has a lasting souvenir of that experience: his left ring finger bends to the left at a 45-degree angle.

“We were playing El Camino College, and my finger got caught in the receiver’s facemask,” Gray said. “I’m playing press coverage and we were in the middle of a play, so I could not pull it out. I like to say it’s the tightest coverage I ever had, not due to my skill set but because I couldn’t get my finger out of that facemask and it just twisted with his movement. It looks a lot worse than it feels.”

He received a scholarship to play at Oregon State, where he was a reserve defensive back and special teams contributor. Gray played in two bowl games. The second, the Fiesta, followed a senior season in which Oregon State went from being unranked to No. 4 in the nation.

After graduating with a degree in general studies, Gray set his sights on a career in a sports-related field. In 2003, he landed his first full-time job in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, who started him in player development before making him their scout for National Football Scouting, which determines the players who are invited to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Gray went on to hone his evaluative skills for 11 seasons (2005-2016) with the Minnesota Vikings.

During his many years of scouting travels, he caught the attention of Brandon Beane – while the Bills’ general manager was working in the front office of the Carolina Panthers – as well as other future members of Buffalo’s future player-personnel hierarchy.

“He’s a guy that I thought could be a young riser and had a lot of qualities that just needed experience,” Beane said.

For Bills' director of college scouting, heading to work means hitting the road

In the latest edition of “One-on-One Coverage,” Gray, 39, spent some time talking with The Buffalo News about his scouting career and work leading up to and during the 2019 NFL draft April 25-27.

Buffalo News: When was your first exposure to scouting?

Terrance Gray: It was during my senior year at Oregon State. I had no idea what scouts did, but I remember meeting the ones who were on our campus. And I was kind of fascinated. I remember one guy, in particular, a Packer scout, was looking for the video room. I showed him to the room and when I opened the door, there were four other scouts in there. I walked by that door 10-12 times a day, and just to know that that was their work space and they had been around our campus for the last two-three years, I thought that was interesting.

BN: How soon did it occur to you that you wanted to get into scouting?

TG: It set in pretty early after the Chiefs hired me. I really enjoyed what I was doing in player development, but my appetite for football grew and I wanted to do more football and less of the player development work. And so, whenever I had a football assignment, I just wanted to make sure I did the best job I could, make a good impression.

BN: What was involved with representing your team within National Football Scouting, which serves multiple clubs, as opposed to just scouting for the Chiefs?

TG: The combine scout, I always say, is one of the hardest jobs in scouting, because you're always working a year ahead. And you have to go in and identify players (worthy of an invitation to the combine). You evaluate them, but you actually have to go through the entire roster and answer the question, “Who do we think has a remote chance of playing in the league?” and get those guys above a line so they can be evaluated by everyone else in the league.

In the fall, you focus on the players who will be in the current year's draft, but in the spring, you're focusing on players who will be in the following year’s draft. The Chiefs asked me if I wanted to become their National Football Scouting scout, and it was a no-brainer. I covered the Southwest. As a combine scout, you get templates and position specifics. It's one of the best entry-level jobs in scouting that you can get, because they teach you from the ground up.

BN: Was there a particular football assignment that you felt was a turning point in your advancement in scouting?

TG: With the Chiefs, I was given defensive backs to cross-check and evaluate, a list of 20-25 guys. You’re grading players, and I remember sitting in draft meetings and we’re maybe into about the fifth round or so and a player’s name comes up: Alphonso Hodge, a defensive back from Miami of Ohio. And scouts are speaking and they’re kind of going around the room. And I remember (vice president of player personnel) Lynn (Stiles) saying, “Well, Terrance liked this guy, too.”

We ended up drafting him in the fifth round. Through film analysis, I cross-checked several defensive backs that year. Your area scouts have a primary area and then you have a cross-check, which is an independent look by a scout in another region. He doesn’t know anything about the player other than what he sees on tape.

BN: In 2006, you made a lateral move to the Vikings to represent them with another service, BLESTO, but that really led you on the path to where you are now.

TG: I like to say Kansas City gave me my start, but I kind of grew up in personnel in Minnesota. Rick Spielman, who was the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel when I first started and later promoted to GM, was all about growth and development. He'd say, “I'm always going to get you out of your comfort zone. You have this primary responsibility, but this year you're going to Ohio or going to Tennessee.” Rick helped me drill down on the fine details of what you're looking for, what that translates to, and also what plays in the league.

One of the things I was missing, as a young guy, was understanding what the evaluation means. I can like a guy as a player: he runs fast, he’s aggressive, he’s tough. Well, in three years, if he’s out of the league because of other parameters, I need to file that away and figure out why. Rick helped kind of give me a bigger-picture perspective of what goes beyond the evaluation. There’s more to it than just liking the player. Do his traits transfer to production in the NFL? Is there a track record of guys succeeding in the NFL like him? So Rick helped me tie together what actually played in the league to what I liked as an evaluator.

BN: What does your job as director of college scouting entail?

TG: Basically, I’m in charge of overseeing our draft process, from a college scouting perspective. I’m in charge of our college scouts, identifying where we need to go, all of our looks, how many times we need to get into a school, just everything associated with our draft. We have five area guys, three national or over-the-top guys, and then obviously myself, (director of player personnel) Dan Morgan, and (assistant GM) Joe Schoen.

BN: What's a typical day like for you?

TG: First and foremost, I have to always make sure that our scouts have their resources, their direction, the protocol, making sure what they're asked to do is running smoothly. After the combine, we want to make sure we understand where we need to go and why, and our scouts have specific instructions and direction as to what we need to get out of the spring. From an administrative standpoint, we want to make sure that our coverage is tight and where it needs to be, and make sure we go out in the spring and get all the answers we need to finalize our draft prep.

On the evaluation side, obviously, I’m responsible to see all the top guys. Really, you want to try to cover the entire board, so I’m constantly looking at guys that maybe I saw earlier, have not seen. I just want to make sure I get eyes or get some tape on and make sure I have grades on the guys that we're looking at. No matter what I’m doing, there’s a tape assignment waiting for me. There's always something queued up. Whenever you see me, there’s somebody on my mind that I need to watch.

BN: What's your note-taking method?

TG: Obviously, with the advancements in technology, I'm kind of transitioning to being all computer. But I was trained old school; I still like paper and pen. Even now, when I go to school calls in the fall, I get my notebook out, I section it out – offense, defense – and I go through play history, I get everything set up. I always treat going to schools like I did as a combine guy. I’m big on sticking to your roots as an evaluator, because that's what I can always hang my hat on.

When I’m in the office, it’s a little different. It’s not always my first exposure to a guy, so I may want to look at late-season tape or a conference championship game or an all-star game. With our computers, I can write notes as I watch film. Everything’s digitized, so it’s pretty convenient that way.

BN: What are the Bills’ draft meetings like?

TG: In my role, it’s to hear out the area guys and see what they saw. You want to listen to their conviction on a player, you want to learn about the player. We want to see what our guys think about the players and, obviously, we all do tape. We want to make sure we listen and also see how that shakes out with how we feel about the player. We have roles and role clarity, but in terms of opinions on players, we work collectively to set our board.

BN: Do those meetings ever get heated?

TG: Yeah, and if they didn't, it wouldn't be good. We like when it gets heated. You want to hear guys’ conviction on a player, because they do the legwork as well and you want to hear the whys behind why they feel strongly about a player. Ultimately, we watch tape as a group as well, so that kind of usually settles it one way or the other in terms of what we're all seeing. And we'll do an exercise where we'll ask someone who did not go into the school, based off what we've watched the last 30 minutes, “What do you think?” It's healthy discourse, it's nothing personal. It's OK to disagree with one another, as long as we get the player right. That's the most important thing.

BN: What’s your role during the draft?

TG: I get the pick in our draft room, make the call to our video director, Jeff Mueller, at the draft site and he turns the card in. We confirm that the name is spelled correctly, just little details, but we make sure it's the right player, right name, right school, the position and then we turn the card in. Prior to that, usually when we have it narrowed down to two prospects – because you never know what's going to happen on the pick before, you never know if you're going to trade back – we do try and get players on the phone or at least call because you want a live body on the other end of the line. We’ll have someone designated during the draft to call the players, and we'll have a backup in case the first person designated to make the call is out of the room. They both have a list of phone numbers of the players.

BN: What are these final days leading up to the draft like for you?

TG: There’s anticipation, obviously, a lot of excitement, enthusiasm. But also, for me, it’s a culmination of the year's work for our scouts, Brandon, Joe and Dan, just everything that we do leading up to it. I enjoy it, I look forward to it. Draft day's calm for me. All of the work’s put in. With our staff and the commitment that we have to building our roster and making the Buffalo Bills better, I'm comfortable with that. I know we've done our due diligence. I know, regardless of the scenario, we're prepared to handle it.

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