If the CFL didn’t have a player draft, would anyone care?

May 2, 2018 - 8:45am

Well, we are a couple of days away from the annual CFL draft, which lags behind the Downtown Optimist TV Bingo or some old time dance music special for viewer interest.

CFL teams have held their mini-camps, or reasonable fascimiles to see if the guys they have scouted from all around the United States can make the next step towards an invite to training camp.

A change in the CFL rules now states all players taking part in the mini-camp must be signed and with many CFL teams at their off-season limits and now being forced to reduce from 84 to 75 players for training camp, the rubber is now hitting the road for many teams in getting their training camp roster set.

The elephant in the room is the NFL draft held last weekend, followed by the signing of undrafted free agents, then the release of players for medical or other reasons.  So roster moves may be dictated by the availability or potential availability of players who are either down south or want to try their luck with the NFL.

For example the Philadelphia Eagles just waived/injured defensive back Elie Bouka, a Rider draft choice a couple of years ago who tried out with Arizona Cardinals, got injured, then released, came up to Riderville, saw mostly special teams duty, then went and signed with Philadelphia. It is entirely possible that Bouka gets stashed on an inactive list for the Eagles, but it is also very possible he makes his way back to Canada and perhaps with the Riders again.

Another potential player who was drafted by the Riders and made it to the NFL is tight end Anthony Auclair who made it onto Tampa Bay’s roster as their fourth tight end, but with Tampa signing three tight ends on Tuesday, Auclair may be in tough to stay on Tampa’s roster and might come back north in the fall.

Let’s not forget a couple of releases by the San Francisco 49ers including LB Bo Lokombo and DB Dexter McCoil. McCoil would be an interesting addition and has a history with Chris Jones, although that history didn’t help in the case of Adarous Bowman who signed with Winnipeg after being released by Edmonton. The Riders have already signed John Ojo and bringing McCoil back might be an effort to recreate some of that Eskimo mojo of Jones’ last year.

McCoil could return to Edmonton, but they have turned his position into a Canadian position so if they resign him, they will need to turn another position into a Canadian one. Another possibility for McCoil is BC where Ed Hervey is now the GM and McCoil could easily fit in there. And on top of all of this is how each team’s salary cap situation stands at this point. All nine CFL teams came under the cap this past season and it is really how things stand with the cap at the end of the year that is important, not on May 1.

So now teams are gearing up for the draft and the contrast between the NFL draft, which had four potential all star quarterbacks vying for top spot , and the CFL, which has to balance whether to pick a player you might not see for years if they try the NFL or pick the one most likely to start, could not be starker.

The top pick may be Trey Rutherford, an offensive lineman who turned some heads by stating he was not interested in signing a tryout contract with an NFL team, and receiver Mark Chapman. In what was likely an attempt to stir up some interest in the draft, Montreal GM Kavis Reed indicated he would open to trading the first overall pick in exchange for some magic beans and a golden thimble. Oh wait, make that some starters on a team that desperately needs something to stay relevent in that market.

Montreal could go for Chapman since they traded away some of their Canadian linemen in previous years. As a receiver, Chapman would be more visible and a sexier pick for Montreal but then again, Montreal has a fleet of overpaid American receivers, so where would Chapman fit in? The smart move would be Rutherford, but no one has accused of Montreal of doing that since Marc Trestman left. So probably Chapman would be how Montreal goes.

The Riders will have an interesting draft with the middle rounds bereft of picks due to trades and giving up picks in Supplemental Draft rounds.  Chris Jones has built some some goodwill thanks to the team making the playoffs last year, but his first draft saw Josiah St. John, who played sparingly at Oklahoma, get picked first overall and has been surpassed by Dariusz Bladek who appears to have moved into the spot made empty by the release of Peter Dyakowski.

Jones’ draft last year saw him pick up Cameron Judge, a linebacker from UCLA who delayed reporting so he could graduate from class, then made a very public meltdown on Twitter that has people thinking that Judge is another St. John, a roll of the dice that doesn’t pan out.

The release of Dyakowski seems to indicate the Riders are willing to have their younger Canadian players take the next step and become starters, something that would probably help St. John avoid the label of being a number one bust. If Bouka comes back, the Riders might have a spot for him in their backfield and on defense the Canadian spots seem to be defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety.

Jones is a big believer in measurables, and who knows, if he has learned from his experience in the last two years, perhaps rolling the dice on the next big thing may be over in favor of something this Rider team has lacked the last few years – character.

By that I am thinking of the team mindset not to let a winning streak get them thinking all they have to do is show up, or when they face adversity, either lash out or roll over. There were fewer instances of that last season as opposed to 2016, but in Jones’ first season he was building a team culture from scratch.

The Riders signed Johnny Augustin, a running back who had an impressive combine performance in 2017 before going back to university for what was called seasoning, then released him. The Riders have four running backs in Jerome Messam, Trent Richardson, Marcus Thigpen and Cameron Marshall, with Thigpen out the first two games for a doping suspension and Richardson making noises about getting an NFL tryout even though he has one more year under contract in Saskatchewan.

Marshall has injury issues and Messam is a great back, but his age and the toll his physical play has had leaves it an open question of how long he can last in a regular roll. So if the Riders go to a rotation system, and they will need Messam to fulfill the Canadian quota, then they will need a back up who can provide meaningful reps when Messam needs to be spelled off.

So running  back is one possibility, and so is receiver, with the departure of Nic Demski to Winnipeg and Rob Bagg not getting any younger. There should be a great competition to see which Canadian receiver stands out and receiver is definitely one possibiilty.

The Riders could also look at getting a defensive lineman in order to spell off ZZach Evans aand provide another option to fulfill their Canadian content. One interesting scenario that could play into this is the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement in 2019.

One of the issues that arose last year was why a Canadian quarterback does not count toward the Canadian content regulation? The play of Brandon Bridge showed Canadians can play quarterback and if you can start a Canadian at quarterback you should be able to have him count and that provides flexability throughout the roster.

That also raises an interesting thought about having a Canadian back up so if Bridge manages to become a starter and goes down, then a Canadian quarterback can step in and maintain that roster flexability. I can see the Riders taking a Canadian quarterback in the latter stages of the draft and have them learn the pro game so if Bridge can win the starting position next season with the Riders, assuming he re-signs, the Riders can have some options at back up.

Apparently the first hour of the draft will be televisied and perhaps the rest will be on line. That radio silence can be explained by TSN not wanting to interfere with hockey coverage, especially with the Jets taking a series lead, but it points out that except for a few hard core draft junkies like myself, they don’t think there is any interest in the general public.

Last year I attended the CFL week and watched the combine events. Talking with parents of potential players from across Canada, and watching the various competitions, was an eye-openng education.

Last week the NFL has basically a party with fans of different teams in attendance, former stars announcing picks, and great human inteest stories being aired about various potential pros. The NFL has done a lot to educate fans about the draft and the CFL needs to do that as well, opening up the draft to the public, making it an event, and getting the word out about potential players beforehand.

The NHL draft is widely covered because people have an awareness of which potential pro players have a shot to play in the big leagues. So If you start with dedicated coverage of the draft, making it more a production and having players show up and stars of the past introducing the stars of the future, you can extend that by working with networks to get better coverage of U Sports football and junior football.

Making those games available will help build awareness and this is likely not a year or perhaps a three year campaign, but between five to 10 years to build brand awareness of the CFL draft and of Canadian amateur football. In that sense its kind of like rebuilding interest in the Toronto Argonauts. It is not going to be easy, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.

For the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the trick is trying to get their Canadian scouting on par with the extent they have their American scouting. The Riders have scouts at seemingly every Pro Day in American universities, building a presence and awareness. They may have a similar presence in Canada, but the results so far do not indicate it is an effective presence.

There are so many intangibles to making a good draft choice, from the physical tools, to the football awareness, to the maturity to handle being a professional and probably making more money than before. With the CFL working towards a balance between on field and off field lives, the player have more responsibility for taking care of their bodies and if they aren’t aware of the work involved, they will either get injured quick or get cut quick.

I see the Riders taking a defensive lineman, receiver, running back and quarterback.  If Zach Collaros does not pan out and Brandon Bridge has to step in and more importantly, if he steps in and does a good job and lands a starting position, having another competent Canadian quarter back to back up Bridge woul d help the team with tweaking  their roster.

While speculation is Montreal may be open to trading for the first overall pick and the Riders might be interested, the Riders have done enough over-reaching to perhaps tweak their approach and get players like Bladek who can actually contribute on the field, and not just look good in some algorhythm.

It will be interesting to see what Chris Jones has learned from the last two years.

 

 

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