Draft notebook is a weekly series where I share my thoughts from the past week of watching film, hearing what CFL Draft sources are reported to be saying, and general CFL Draft tid-bits. An idea from Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, ‘Draft Notebook’ will hopefully be a good way for those interested in the draft to follow closely along as I comb through the tape of dozens and dozens of Canadian prospects in this year’s class.
Canadian football players have been well represented in college football All-Star games this year.
Montreal-native Justin Senior (RT, Mississippi State) and Winnipeg-born LB Jordan Herdman (Simon Fraser) are currently in the midst of auditioning down in Mobile, Alabama at the Senior Bowl, while two other highly-touted Canuck prospects – Antony Auclair (TE, Laval) and Geoff Gray (RG, Manitoba) – just wrapped up their one-week job interviews at the East-West Shrine Game.
Auclair, the second-ranked prospect in September’s CFL scouting bureau, got the “start” at TE over Drake’s Eric Saubert – a small-school prospect who’s name’s been buzzing in NFL scouting circles – and made the most out of it. Hauling in a pair of catches for 21 yards, I was thoroughly impressed with just how comfortably the Laval product ran and caught the ball. His pass blocking was stout – which, if you watched him while at Laval, was expected – and I was taken away by his raw take-off speed out of a 3-point stance and as a wide-out.
Auclair will, inevitably, receive comparisons to Toronto Argonauts’ fourth-overall pick Brian Jones sooner or later – its an easy match: they’re both large, physical pass-catchers – but to get it out of the way early, that’s not a good comparison. Despite being 23 pounds heavier at 6’5″, 256-lbs, Auclair is a smoother athlete all around – and it’s not really close. He made money down in St. Petersburg, and I’m expecting the 23-year-old to ink an undrafted free agent contract following the conclusion of the draft.
Gray did not have as good of a week – and that’s fine. Little was expected of the Bison product down south, and scouts likely never planned on altering their grades on Gray whether he had a good week or a bad week. Without a one-yard neutral zone, it’s a huge adjustment for Canadian offensive linemen coming down south to play the 4-down game, and Gray seemed to struggle with hand speed. He tried to compensate by often using a one-arm technique during the game, as it’s easier to get good hand placement punching with one arm, and it somewhat helped him. The strength and power that he’s notorious was still there, and despite his inconsistent pad level, Gray was able to anchor on his first or second attempt against most bull-rushes. He looked slow on pulls – which could be due to the fact that he was being coached to use a slide step by the Shrine Game coaches after using predominantly a cross-over step with the Bisons. Gray surrendered a tackle for loss, but fortunately did not allow a pressure or hit as a pass protector.
1. Eli Ankou, the 3rd-ranked prospect on the CFL scouting bureau, could still very well be the first-overall pick in May. He’s received little NFL interest despite starting two seasons at UCLA, and may only go as far as attending an NFL rookie mini-camp or two. Landing Ankou would be a great pick for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at first overall. Ankou gives the Bombers a future replacement for Keith Shologan at nose tackle, while Kyle Walters would still be able to land a terrific receiver prospect with the sixth-overall pick. For more information on the Ottawa native, I recently published a scouting report of Ankou here.
2. Montreal Carabins’ DT Junior Luke, who’s currently ranked seventh on the scouting bureau, is one of the most interesting prospects I’ve studied this year. He’s an absolute physical specimen – I can say without watching half of the draft-eligible defensive tackles that he has the fastest get-off – but severely lacks technique. I don’t know what he was coached to do down at the National Bowl, but it seemed like he was looking to penetrate into the backfield on every play, having no regard for his gap assignments. With excellent coaching and develop, though, Luke could become a monster in the CFL. It would take time, and he’ll have to be able to apply all the teaching points to his game, but the physical traits are certainly there.
3. Last week I touched on how receivers are back in a big way this season after a dull crop of pass-catchers last year, but after watching more tape over the week, I’m beginning to get the idea that this draft class is better than that of 2015, a draft-year that was said to be remarkably talented considering the new eligibility rules. The 2017 class is loaded with receivers, defensive lineman, defensive backs and linebackers. Ironically, though, it appears to be a down year for offensive linemen.
RG Geoff Gray, University of Manitoba
The first thing that stands out with Gray is his natural power. He’s an Olympic weight-lifter, and his weight-room strength is visibly translated to the football field. Gray could move players in the Canada West regardless of his technique, but he’s displayed a very strong upper-body, too. Gray is likely the functionally strongest offensive linemen in the class.
Gray’s power also shows up in his lateral quickness off the ball. He shoots out of his stance with tremendous power, possessing the ability to make any sudden lateral movement he must to complete his assignment. This’ll help the five-year Bison pick up blitzing defenders and sudden changes to defensive line alignments in the pro-game.
What also stands out is Gray’s tenacity. He’s a bully on the football field, and consistently plays to the whistle. He exhausts every opportunity to take a legal shot at an opponent – and coaches love that. Gray also has quick feet, although they need some technical work.
The natural tools are there for Gray but his technique needs some refinement. He struggles with pad level, and while he got away with it at the college level, his raw power won’t consistently compensate for his lack of knee bend in the CFL. He’s quite tall for a guard at 6’5″, which makes it harder to play with good pad level, but his coaches will immediately begin harping on him as a reminder to bend his knees on every practice rep once rookie-camp comes around.
Gray’s work with his hands needs professional coaching, too. He lacks hand speed, as there’s instances on tape of the big-man getting beat with rip moves before he can engage. This correlates to his struggle with hand placement. His hands get too wide on many blocks, which allows defensive lineman to get inside hand positioning and therefore the ability displace Gray when playing the run. If Gray can work on keeping his hands high like a boxer in his pass-set, he can minimize the effect of his aforementioned flawed hand-skill.
Gray doesn’t have the quickest of feet, and while he gets in his pass-set fast enough, he’s surprisingly slow on pulls as well as getting to the second level. When he gets his hands engaged on defenders, though, he can be counted on to complete his assignment.
Projected round: Mid-to-late first round
Grade: 4.45 (out of possible 6.5)
Two Names to Note
1. RG Dariusz Bladek, Bethune-Cookman
I’m reminded a bit of Dillon Guy when I watch Bladek. Despite being in the starting rotation for four years with Buffalo, I ranked Guy as a mid-rounder. Although I need to watch a couple more games, Bladek seems to possess many of the same issues as Guy in terms of technique and overall athleticism. Like the former BC Lions’ draft pick, we must not simply rely on the fact that he played Division I as a reason to draft Bladek early.
2. HB Robert Woodson, Calgary
Woodson is one of the purest cover-defenders I’ve ever watched. He’s incredibly technically-refined, and has the hips, quickness and change-of-direction skills to thrive in the professional ranks. I still have questions about his ability to play the run, which will need to be answered with more film review, but it should be mentioned that the 2016 Canada West Defensive Player of the Year was an excellent contributor for Calgary’s punt return team. Cover-defensive backs are great, but CFL scouts value their traits, such as angles, physicality and tackling, that relate to special-teams the most.