Former Bengal crashes combine

Posted Feb 20, 2013

A good 17 years before Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu got pranked in the first round of last year's draft, Paul Alexander pulled off a pretty good one during his first draft as the Bengals offensive line coach.

Paul Alexander

A good 17 years before Rutgers wide receiver Mohamed Sanu got pranked in the first round of last year's draft, Paul Alexander pulled off a pretty good one during his first draft as the Bengals offensive line coach.

He called Purdue tackle Ryan Grigson before the third round and said, "We're thinking about taking you right now."

That silence was Grigson whirring through his inner draft board that he has kept since high school, like the stack of Joel Buchsbaum's Pro Football Weekly draft manuals he has saved since 1991. He memorized those cherished scrolls so well that Alexander would soon nickname him "Rain Main" for his unblinking recall of anything NFL Draft. 

"I wanted to get drafted so I didn't say it. But I wanted to say, 'I think you're going to be reaching on that one,' " Grigson reminisced this week. "But then he said, 'Just messing with you.' "

Just like Sanu, the real Bengals called later. Grigson went in the sixth round of that 1995 draft, a pick he says he never would have made in his current job as one of the hottest young general managers in the NFL in his second year with the Colts.

"He might have over-graded me," said a laughing Grigson, who has been trading shots and commiserating with Alexander ever since. "I was a ham-and-egger. Size, strength, pretty solid technique. But an average athlete. I don't think I'd have been on my draft board. Maybe as a free agent. With my injury history I don't know if I'd taken that chance."

Grigson, the Indiana native who turns 41 this week at the NFL Scouting Combine and hometown affair of the Colts that he didn't get invited to back in 1995, is fond of those Bengals roots as only a football card junkie can be.

Alexander is a mentor and friend. Bengals president Mike Brown is a supporter. Bengals senior vice president of player personnel Pete Brown is an accessible colleague. If Mike Brown was everyone's executive of the year in 2011, then his old sixth-round draft pick got the nod in 2012 when Grigson guided the Peyton Manning-less and salary-cap strapped Colts to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.

"He's passionate about football. It comes very easy to him. There are a number of guys that work really hard, but it doesn't come easy to them," Alexander said. "There are those guys that it comes easy to, but they don't work very hard. Both those personalities have limits. But when you love it and it becomes easy for you, then the ceiling is higher."

Grigson hit the roof with a mega draft in his first year since coming over from running the Eagles personnel department. Forget the Andrew Luck pick. The Colts produced a rookie class record of 3,108 rushing and receiving yards.

Grigson broke a few hearts when he traded up in the third round to take tiny T.Y. Hilton from tinier Florida International and he proved to be the NFL's most productive rookie receiver. The Bengals were one of those teams leering at the 5-10, 183-pound Hilton, but all they could do was leer when the Colts jumped a spot in front of them at No. 92 in a trade with the 49ers.

Throw in more than 800 rushing yards from fifth-round running back Vick Ballard of Mississippi State, the trade for Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis for a second-round pick, the 68 players that rolled through, and it was a draftnick's dream.

"If you can do something you love, you won't work a day in your life," Grigson said. "A scout's dream is to be able to build a team."


Grigson found out just how much he loved it after the 2001 season when Alexander approached him about an opening on the Bengals staff for an offensive assistant. Believing that Grigson would be an outstanding offensive line coach, Alexander also thought his personnel skills would be a huge asset.

"There was a time when I never thought I would turn down a chance to be a coach," Grigson said. "It was hard. I was thinking, 'Am I crazy?' I had just been named the southeast scout for the Rams. I just loved what I did so much. (Alexander) was great about it. He knew where my heart was at.

"I easily could be an offensive line coach right now, but I just had this thirst for scouting all positions. And being a scout and eventually being a general manager and being involved in this part of it."

Grigson stayed in St. Louis. But everyone knew where his heart was long before that because he wore it on his sleeve. When he showed up for Bengals camp at Wilmington College, they would turn to him instead of rosters in the meetings to identify opponents in the fourth quarter of preseason games.

"He knew their height, weight, what school they went to, positives, negatives," Alexander said. "It was unbelievable. Some guys' hobby might be reading history. This guy's hobby was reading player bios."

Grigson got hooked early in high school growing up in Highland, Ind., on the outskirts of Chicago. He was mesmerized by the bigness of Warren Moon's arm and the fields of Canada and he fell in love with the draft. ESPN's wall-to-wall coverage, a sort of 1980s Sesame Street. He became a disciple of Buchsbaum, the late pioneer of draft analysis.

"That's how I learned how to write reports. By reading him. Until I got a job or got an internship, I didn't know how a scout did it," Grigson said. "His glossary of terms, that's how I learned the language. The positives, the negatives."

Buchsbaum also may have helped draft Grigson's future wife. Heading into his senior year at Purdue, Grigson was trying to trade up and convince his girlfriend and fellow Purdue student Cynthia to go steady.    

When they were in Borders one day, Grigson saw that Buchsbaum's 1995 draft guide had come out and he thought it would impress her if he were in there. Indeed, he was the 17th-rated tackle, high enough that the Grigsons now have five children.

"The one thing about Ryan Grigson is that he's never going to change," Alexander said. "He never has."

Alexander saw the commitment to devotion when he waited until the last possible day to work out Grigson before the draft, since he broke his leg in his last game at Purdue. Alexander was driving to his in-laws in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Good Friday and Alexander tried to meet him on the way for a session.

"But I can't. I'm Catholic," Grigson told him.

"So am I," Alexander said. "We just can't do it between 1 and 3."

So they worked out Good Friday morning once he got his grandmother's permission, but Grigson never played a snap in the NFL. Yet it was actually somebody else's injury history that prevented him from making the '95 Bengals. He hurt his knee in training camp and was shelved for a few weeks. But he played well enough that Alexander thought he would have made it if rookie quarterback John Walsh hadn't hurt his knee.

From what Alexander remembers, the Bengals had to go heavy at quarterback and light on the offensive line at the final cut and since Grigson hadn't been invited to the combine, he wasn't all that well known. So they tried to get him through waivers and re-sign him to the practice squad, but Detroit plucked him.

"They saw that he had played well in the preseason," Alexander said. "He was a smart player. Tough. Could have been both a guard and tackle. Not a great athlete, but a very good one."


Grigson hurt his back in Detroit and he was off on a multi-league journey back to the NFL that sounds like a semi-pro movie. He began in the CFL as a pro scout in Saskatchewan and then became an assistant line coach/player personnel coordinator for the Buffalo Destroyers of the Arena League.

"This was before Kurt Warner and some other guys helped establish the league and I remember (Alexander) thinking it was a gamble," Grigson said. "But I really liked the idea of personnel."

Grigson coached former Steelers guard Carlton Haselrig in that league and to this day he can tell you Haselrig played his college ball at Pittsburgh-Johnstown, that he won six overall collegiate national wrestling titles, and that he had a great first step as a defensive end playing both ways in that league. He also had a bird's-eye view of one of the greatest indoor quarterbacks of all time, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

"He was a great competitor and Orlando had a great franchise," Grigson said. "And he later did a good job coaching and running teams there and in the UFL. When the Bengals hired him I dropped Pete (Brown) a note and told him I thought he would do a very well for them. I thought it was an innovative hire."

Which is what people are saying about Colts owner Jim Irsay tapping Grigson. Grigson figures the Colts roster is dotted with players from more than five different pro leagues, a reflection of his long, Gruden-esque climb.

"Jim gave me a chance and maybe if it was a couple of years later it would have made more sense," Grigson said. "But the situation forced me to grow at a faster pace. I had so much on my plate, it was put up or shut up."

The old principles from the coffee-stained Buchsbaum reports held up. He admitted trading up for a small player from a small college like Hilton "raised eyebrows," but the gamebreaking speed was too much to pass up. The small school is another Grigson trait.

"We both like finding guys," Alexander said. "If we ever get a guy that isn't that well known, he gets mad. Me too if it's the other way around. We go back and forth on texts."

The 5-10, 219-pound Ballard hit Grigson just right, too.

"Those speed backs are sometimes one-trick ponies. They can't create. They don't fall forward," Grigson said. "I grew up watching Walter Payton. After contact guys. Guys that don't go in reverse.

"Very early on I had an old boss that said pay strong attention to production. Vick averaged 6.3 yards per carry in the SEC, didn't say boo, and played his butt off. I liked that he only played one year. It cut down on his number of hits. He had one year of production and it transferred to the big stage. He played like he ran a 4.55 (40-yard dash) on film and that's plenty fast for a back."

Grigson didn't get invited to his combine, but that's not why he's leery about what's about to take place this week.

"It gets overblown when you take away from a player's  body of work and you put the emphasis on the 40 and the measurables," Grigson said. "That's valuable to a point, but the body of work is to me where it is at. You've got to look over his whole career. Not just one all-star game or just one 40-yard dash."

At some point this week, Grigson and Alexander are going to put their heads together and talk about the linemen because they always have.

"It always gets back to the offensive line," said Grigson, pranked no more.

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