INDIANAPOLIS --- If the football wing of 7001 West 56th Street was the White House, he would be Chief of Staff. You can't help but picture the NFL version of President Jed Bartlet and Leo McGarry from The West Wing, after learning of the dynamic between them. Colts Vice President of Football Operations Jimmy Raye III is a most trusted confidant of General Manager Ryan Grigson.
They both describe the relationship as being attached at the hip, making it all the more appropriate that their offices are adjoining. That comes in handy this time of year, in the midst of free agency and with the NFL Draft approaching.
"There are times a general manager has a lot of things on his plate, and there's a lot of times he's busy doing other things," Raye told Colts.com of Grigson. "He always says to me, 'Jimmy, I don't care what's going on. If I'm in here, and you need to get to me, just knock on my door. Come in. I don't care what I'm doing.'"
"I think anyone will tell you that Jimmy Raye is the furthest thing from a 'Yes Man' there is in this league, and that is critical for someone in my position," said Grigson. "Quite frankly I don't like to hear some of his opinions sometimes, because I may be leaning very hard in a certain way and express a passionate position in an animated way, but Jimmy is someone who can hit you right back between the eyes with a well thought-out alternative perspective in a very matter of fact way."
Oh, to be a fly on that wall…
"I think it helps him make better decisions. I take a lot of pride in that," said Raye. "Being that person for him that's a voice of reason that can give him the tough conversation when he needs it and tell him exactly what he needs to hear. Sometimes he doesn't want to hear it, but at the end of the day, I think he appreciates my honesty and candor with him.
"After it all marinates," Grigson continued, "I forget that he initially ticked me off and I say to myself, 'Dang, I'm glad I have him.'"
That mutual respect between Raye and Grigson comes from a long climb through the less than glamorous ranks of pro football scouting. It was a climb both experienced.
Grind and Rise
Raye's ascension to his critical role with the Colts is a culmination of a brief playing career (two games, one reception as a wide receiver with the Los Angeles Rams) and initial aspiration of following in his father as a coach.
Jimmy Raye II spent 37 years coaching in the NFL. His son learned he'd rather forge a different NFL path as a scout, after going back to coach at his high school and spending one season as an offensive quality control coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I was hired by Marty Schottenheimer, and I thought that whole time I wanted to be a coach," said Raye. "Once I started going through the process of being a coach, and the hours and the things that I had to go through as a kid, I thought maybe I'm going to try something else. Maybe scouting could be for me."
Raye decided to work for the San Diego Chargers, starting out as a college scout in 1996, spending the next four seasons on the road.
"He and I came up at roughly the same time in this league," said Grigson, who broke into the NFL in 1999 as a national scout for the Rams, one year before Raye was promoted to Director of College Scouting for the Chargers. "It was a time when very few young guys were on the road. We talk about those times often and how fortunate we were to learn from all those old, knowledgeable, tough, and gruff scouts from that era."
"I was lucky enough to be groomed by some scouts on the road when I was coming up who kind of taught me to evaluate players, kind of things to look for," Raye remembered. "Critical factors from each position group."
Those hours on the road piled up, but soon, so did the primetime players for Raye in San Diego. Going into his second season as Director of College Scouting, Raye went against the grain of the hyped college phenomenon, instead helping draft two future Hall of Famers.
The 2001 NFL Draft
The Chargers had the first overall pick. A once in a generation athletic talent from Virginia Tech was staring the city of San Diego in the face as a potential future franchise quarterback. Jimmy Raye would visit two quarterbacks though before the draft on their college campuses, the other in the state of Indiana at the alma mater of his future general manager.
"The guys we went to visit during that draft process were Drew Brees and Michael Vick," said Raye. "We actually made an on-campus visit, spent time with them, had a meal with them. Norv Turner was our offensive coordinator at the time. He went through the whole chalk talk and an installation, putting those guys through the mental paces. We kind of went through the process that way and tried to really distinguish between the two guys."
Raye left Purdue impressed. His recommendation was clear. Chargers brass listened. It eventually resulted in San Diego trading the #1 pick to Atlanta for the 5th overall pick, a third round pick, a second round pick the following year, and kick returner Tim Dwight.
"As the process went along, we started to believe that we could get better by picking two guys instead of, really, one. We thought LaDainian Tomlinson was the best running back in the draft that year, and with Drew, after visiting with him and seeing his mental aptitude and how sharp he was...We just thought he had an 'it' factor about him."
Come draft day, the Chargers took LaDainian Tomlinson with the 5th overall pick (5th all-time total yards, 3rd all-time touchdowns). San Diego soon thereafter began to make nervous phone calls at the end of the first round, hoping to snag Brees too. They weren't necessary. The Chargers' coveted quarterback fell to their first pick in the 2nd round.
"(Brees) might have only been six-feet tall and all those other things. People kind of downgraded him on his physical ability from a height standpoint, but it's almost like a Russell Wilson and guys you see now," said Raye. "When all the boxes can be checked and add up for a guy to be a really good player, and he's going to be the first guy in the building and the last guy to leave, it pretty much made it easy for us."
Easy to say now. Not so easy to conclude then, when the most hyped draft quarterback before Andrew Luck was there for the taking. Choosing Tomlinson and Brees instead of just Vick? Not too shabby...
Thinking Outside the Box
Raye was just getting started. Two draft seasons later in 2003, he had his sights set on...a basketball player?
"I've always been told throughout my career to scout the player and not the school," said Raye. "It doesn't matter where he came from, and that usually translates into those guys becoming good players."
Does it matter if he came from a basketball court at Kent State, even if that final court was in the Elite 8? He didn't care. In an era now of basketball player tight end projects, the Chargers, led by Raye as Director of College Scouting, were one of the first teams to think outside the box...with future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates.
"We did a lot of background information. We did a lot of research on Antonio," said Raye. "We found out that he was a really good high school football player. He could have gone to Michigan State on a football scholarship."
"Had I not had my daughter, I can't say I would have made the same decision to come play football," said Gates about his decision to try tight end after college basketball. "That's how I knew I couldn't go back. I had no choice but to go be an NFL player."
"Once we figured out that the kid wanted to be great, the talent was obvious," said Raye. "We were going to invest in this kid and try to get him in our program."
It looked like a lock that the future franchise leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches would become a Charger after going undrafted...minus one small hurdle.
"You see a guy that's turned into a Hall of Fame player, but we were haggling over $7500 as a signing bonus to get him as a free agent," Raye laughed. "When the talent is there in these players, it doesn't matter where they come from."
A Master of His Craft
In January 2013, Grigson hired Raye. As his fourth draft in Indianapolis approaches, Raye's grind continues, even as a Vice President.
"Along with a myriad of other critical responsibilities he has within the department, Jimmy watches endless amounts of college and pro film," said Grigson. "He is tireless in that respect, which really helps me narrow the process, because of my trust in him as an evaluator."
If you think draft preparations are mostly an offseason project in the Colts complex, think again. Raye watches a minimum of three game tapes per draft eligible player and sometimes as many as six, depending on the nature of his position or his feel for a prospect.
"From our first meetings in May with national football scouting when they give us their list of the upcoming draft eligible prospects for the upcoming season, that's when our process starts," said Raye. "Not only through the offseason, but through the summer, obviously through the fall when the college scouts go out and evaluate players and talent, through the all-star games into the Combine. Then the coaches start to get involved, and you start to get into the draft process, when you really start tightening things down. It's really an 11-month process."
"He is unique in that he has a great blend of football pedigree along with a deep scouting acumen," said Grigson in his praise for Raye, "but his unwavering honesty and integrity is what I feel sets him apart."
Those honest evaluations come with the credibility of more than two decades now of finding NFL talent. Raye admits the first step in working towards becoming a good scout was telling himself he would be wrong more than right. It's just the nature of scouting.
As the years of experience add up though, football deja vu develops. What Raye has seen before, eventually is seen again.
"I think the best way to describe it is you have a catalog of players in your mind, and you can always relate those players to other players you've seen," said Raye. "A lot of times you think, 'This guy reminds me of somebody. I just can't put my finger on it, but I know he reminds me of somebody.' Eventually it clicks, and it clicks in your mind. You think, 'Okay, I've seen that before, and this was a talent that this guy had. This is what he ascended to in this league. This is what he became.' That really helps you become a true scout and somebody that can help you evaluate talent at a high level."
Some of the players Raye is most proud of in his time with the Colts may not be household names to some fans, but they are the deep dives only expert scouts would find and important blocks to any NFL team. Players that come to mind are undrafted free agent defensive tackle Zach Kerr, undrafted free agent center Jonotthan Harrison, who started 19 games his first two seasons, or a 7th round offensive tackle with a bright future from Division II school Mars Hill University in Denzelle Good.
"I've taken a lot of pride in the college free agency process throughout my career," Raye continued. "It's an area where you can mine for overlooked players that can fortify your roster. In San Diego, we established an NFL record for the most consecutive years that a college free agent made the 53-man roster, which is still on-going today. That's one of the things I'm most proud of in my career. We've continued the same tradition here in Indianapolis."
For all Raye has accomplished though, he's also quick to share the credit.
"It's funny, because being in my position now, it's hard for me to take a lot of credit for the guys that we get in the later rounds or college free agents that we get, because our scouts do such great work in laying the groundwork to find these guys," said Raye, sounding like a guy that remembers his roots. "I think our scouts deserve a lot of credit in this process. They probably don't get enough, because they're not in the building all the time. From T.J. McCreight, our Director of College Scouting, to Todd Vasvari, our Assistant Director of College Scouting, and Matt Terpening, our National Scout, and our area scouts, those guys do such a great job setting the table for us."
"Chief of Staff"
It's Raye's office though that attaches to the General Manager's (as does Chuck Pagano's office). It's Raye who decides what to bring to Ryan Grigson from the world of player personnel.
"He knows exactly how I think on pretty much all fronts. So, 9 ½ times out of 10 he can give people an answer for me without them having to even come to me," said Grigson. "As a GM, you need people around you that you, not only trust, but also respect. The type of people that believe in their work so wholeheartedly that they have no problem looking you dead in the eye and telling you that they think you're wrong. That is a strength for Jimmy, and that strength isn't easy to come by out there. Trust me."
"We're both scouts at heart," said Raye. "We believe in the process of scouting and evaluating players from the grassroots level. Going to the school, listening to the people talk about the player at the school, just the same way an area scout would."
They've also evaluated each other, after all these years of first being on the road and now being right next door.
"We were so fortunate to land Jimmy when we did," said Grigson. "Our relationship is pretty much founded on respect for one another that I feel we had long before he was a Colt."
"When you're an area scout travelling the country, it's hard to see yourself in this position, at that time as a younger guy," Raye thought. "I couldn't see this far into the future."
More than two decades later, the state of this union is strong.