Special-Teams Abilities More Valuable Than Ever for 2016 Draft-Eligible Receivers

In a league where only a fraction of the receivers drafted go on to become full-time starters, the ability to contribute on special-teams is what earns many of these players their paycheck.

Even many of the most highly-touted receiver prospects fail to cement themselves as starters in their career, and in a draft-class that already lacks star-power at the receiver position, how a player projects as a special-teamer in the 2016 class, where little separates each receiver from another, could be the difference between a second-round pick and a sixth-round pick.

Aside from Iowa’s Tevaun Smith, who’s likely NFL-bound as an undrafted free agent after a spectacular pro day, there are no blue-chip receiver prospects in this class quite like 2015 draftees Lemar Durant and Nic Demski, both of whom project as future starters in the league. Even Durant, who’s one of the best receiver prospects in a long time, fell all the way to the bottom of the second round as a result of teams possibly worried about his ability to contribute in the ever-important phase of the game, special-teams.

Evidently, special-teams are extremely important when evaluating Canadians at the receiver position, and in a draft class that likely won’t boast a first-round receiver – or one that’s as promising on offense as Durant or Demski – special-teams are more valuable than ever.

Perhaps no other pass-catchers are expected to move up on draft-boards strictly due to how they project on special-teams quite like Acadia’s Brian Jones and Laval’s Felix Faubert-Lussier. Both Jones (6’4″, 230-lbs) and Faubert-Lussier (6’0″, 216-lbs) are big, filled-out bodies, and could become situational H-Backs on offense in the future if they add some weight. Unlike most receivers, these two can play on all four units as punt protectors, kickoff return front-line blockers and on kick coverage teams.

Many other receivers are limited to being kick returners and, sometimes, gunners on punt coverage, but Jones and Faubert-Lussier offer much more versatility – and they could probably be gunners on certain punt sets, too.

Although Jones and Faubert-Lussier both tested very well at the combine, it’s still perhaps far-fetched that they’ll ever become full-time starters on offense. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that they’ll each fall below all the better route-runners and pass-catchers in the draft, though; several players project as better receivers than Jones and Faubert-Lussier – that doesn’t say much – but very few, if any, have quite the same odds as, say, Durant or Demski at becoming starters in the future. In this case, they’d have to make it on their special-teams abilities, and perhaps only one other receiver is expected to excel in this area like Jones and Faubert-Lussier.

Will Jones and Faubert-Lussier be the first two receivers off the board because they’re versatile on special-teams? Of course not, since there are some receivers that have a chance at becoming future starters. (And one receiver that could develop into a starter and serviceable special-teams player). But should they be taken ahead of some receivers that, despite having better skills as a route-runner than Jones and Faubert-Lucier, still likely don’t have what it takes to develop into a future starter? Absolutely.

Receivers do not need to be 6-foot-4, 230-pounds to excel and be versatile special-teams players, of course, and Toronto/Windsor AKO’s Llevi Noel is walking proof. The 6-foot-1, 202-pounder was a dominate special-teams player in the amateur ranks, contributing in the 2015 season as a returner – he had a punt return TD, kickoff return TD and missed field goal return TD in 5 games – and as a gunner on the punt team, demonstrating great open-field tackling skills for an offensive player.

Not only does Noel have equally as promising of a future on special-teams as Jones and Faubert-Lussier, but he also has some of the best chances of any receiver at developing into a future starter, as well.

Noel’s potential as both a receiver and special-teams player could make him the first receiver off the board in the draft. It’s a close competition between three players – Noel, Southern’s Mike Jones and Northern Illinois’ Juwan Brescacin – but neither of the last two have nearly the same potential as Noel on special-teams. And since none are sure-things when it comes to their chances of becoming starters, it might be in the best interest for teams to draft Noel, as he could remain on a roster as special-teams player and rotational receiver if he doesn’t develop into a starter – unless they’re fully sold on a riskier pick, Mike Jones.

And although Mike Jones is a guy who I’m most confident can develop into a starting receiver down the road, he’ll still need to maintain a roster spot in the meantime – and even when he does secure a starting job in the future – on the ‘teams. And Jones, who’s undersized and lacks physicality at 5’11”, 187-pounds, may struggle to find a role even as a returner, though it’d be worth a shot.

Even if CFL teams project Jones to be the best straight-up receiver in the future, they may elect to draft another pass-catcher who can be an effective special-teamer ahead of the diminutive speedster from Texas. If worries about special-teams can drop a prospect such as Lemar Durant, who strongly projected as a future starter, into the second round, it will surely affect the stock of Jones, who is a solid receiver prospect, himself, but not quite like the now-Calgary Stampeder.

There’s no telling how much this will affect the draft stock of other draft-eligible receivers such as Queens University’s Doug Corby, Calgary’s Brett Blaszko or Western’s Shaquille Johnson. Similarly to Mike Jones, Brescacin and Noel, all three are better route-runners than Brian Jones and Felix Faubert-Lussier, but none have the same potential on special-teams. They each have the speed to be returners and, maybe, gunners – particularly Blaszko – but none bring as much to the table on special-teams as Brian Jones or Faubert-Lussier, or as a receiver like Noel, Brescacin or Mike Jones.

Sure, Corby, Blaszko and Johnson all have better chances of becoming starting receivers than the big guys, Jones and Faubert-Lussier, but since the chances for all five of these players are minimal, teams will be wise to form their draft boards based on special-teams.

Special-teams are an extremely crucial element to the game, and the key to a paycheck for many Canadian players in the league. Although most of these receivers seem all bunched together in mediocrity, we can use special-teams to differentiate the players and uncover the top prospects in the 2016 CFL draft class – it’s where they’ll make their money.

Pascal Ratthe/Le soleil (I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO)

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