One of the sneaky-good signings Buono made was bringing over former Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ weak-side linebacker Tony Burnett, who’ll help fill the void left by Adam Bighill, a new member of the New Orleans Saints. Burnett spent two seasons in Winnipeg, showing dominance on special-teams and some very enticing potential on defense in five starts last season. This earned him a pile of NFL try-outs as a strong safety earlier in the off-season.
From a salary cap perspective, this is a terrific deal for the Lions. Burnett, a soon-to-be third-year player, reportedly signed for between $85,000 to $90,000. It’s also good from a schematic stand-point, as Burnett was the only realistic option available this off-season that allows defensive coordinator Mark Washington to deploy his weak-side linebacker in the same, unprecedented way.
Bighill did a little bit of everything for the Lions last year. He rushed the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he covered running backs, he blitzed and he spot-dropped from WILL. He occasionally lined up at strong safety and he occasionally lined up at free safety. So, yes, he really did do everything.
Below is a GIF of Bighill rotating pre-snap to strong safety in 2-man under defense, a coverage that has two deep defenders splitting the field in half while the underneath defenders play man-coverage. You do not see inside linebackers in the CFL asked to do this. Period. They all lack the speed, quickness and fluidity, among many other reasons, to cover in space like this.
But here’s Burnett doing the same thing. The 6’1″, 205-pounder rotates to SS pre-snap and splits the deep part of the field in half with FS Taylor Loffler (not pictured) in 2-man under defense.
Burnett is an incredible athlete. He played cornerback in college for the University of Southern California Trojans, where he also a track star. Along with playing inside linebacker for the Bombers at WILL, Burnett played both gunner, tackle and guard on the punt team, and even returned some kicks in his first season. If he had to play nickel linebacker, he’s one of very, very few – if not the only – WILL linebackers that could make the transition. This is not at all to say Burnett is/will be as a good as Adam Bighill, but the fact that he’s a capable inside linebacker who’s versatility allows Washington to maintain a large part of his pass-defense concepts in his play-book is invaluable.
Despite being small in bulk, Burnett packs a punch when he hits. He has a great first-step, unprecedented closing speed and great twitch. He also shines as a traditional spot-dropping linebacker in coverage, reading eyes and breaking on routes, flashing his aforementioned impressive traits.
He’s still inexperienced as a linebacker, and must certainly work on his eyes as a run defender. At times, misdirection would put him out of sorts. He’s not very physical in the trenches and in the shedding of blocks, but he’s still very young and new to the position – remember, he was a corner in college.
Burnett has a bright future ahead of him in BC, and one can only imagine how much of a help Soloman Elimimian will be as a teammate.
There were dozens of signings announced on day one of free agency, and while Buono wasn’t a participant in all the lofty salaries being tossed around, he may have inked one of the best valued contracts in the signing of Burnett.
Bass has agreed to terms with the Ottawa REDBLACKS, who’ve subsequently released weak-side LB Damaso Munoz to make room for Bass. BC and Montreal were seen as possible destinations for the Bombers’ 2015 Most Outstanding Rookie, but Ottawa clearly saw Bass as a perfect scheme fit and went out of their way to grab him.
(Funny note: Ottawa could have signed Bass years ago. He attended two of their mini-camps and was never awarded an invitation to training camp).
The Bombers will likely have an open competition in training camp to fill Bass’ now-open middle linebacker spot. Kyle Knox, who was primarily a designated import playing on special-teams after missing all of camp with an injury, is the favorite at this point.
Burnett, who, seeing as the Bombers seem intent on keeping Ian Wild, wasn’t viewed as an option to replace Bass, as he’s not a MIKE, is going out west to Vancouver. The Lions are expected to give him every opportunity to replace Adam Bighill, and for approximately $90,000 per season, inking Burnett to a deal is one of the best signings of the day. Burnett, a tremendous athlete that played corner in college for the USC Trojans, is great in coverage and showed a really quick first-step at weak-side linebacker for the Bombers. From a schematic stand-point, Burnett was easily BC’s best available option on the market to replace Bighill.
The 26-year-old made five starts at weak-side linebacker in 2016 for the injured Ian Wild, and finished 6th in the CFL in special-teams tackles.
More to come on the departures of both these players soon.
In other news, the Bombers are bringing back Canadian linebacker Sam Hurl. Don’t be fooled, though – Hurl won’t be making six figures again on his second contract with the blue and gold. The ship has sailed already in terms of Hurl’s prospects of competing for a job as a starter at MIKE. Hurl, however, is a fairly effective special-teamer and, along with Jesse Briggs, is a welcome re-signing.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have filled two holes in their roster, putting to pen to paper on contracts with NT Drake Nevis and Canadian WR Matt Coates.
Nevis, who TSN’s Gary Lawless will earn $125,000/year, is a terrific pickup for the Bombers, taking salary cap casualty Keith Shologan’s nose tackle position, but Euclid Cummings’ roster spot. He played largely 3-tech and 2i-tech in Hamilton’s 4-3 Over defense, but is, of course, a natural nose tackle.
Nevis, who’s in his physical prime at 27, is a special player, and his week three game against the Bombers was one of the best games from a nose tackle in 2017. Before signing Nevis, the blue and gold had no international nose tackle on their roster – rather two Canadians in Rupert Butcher and Brandon Tennant – and just one defensive tackle in Padric Scott.
The Coates signing is simply adding another body to an abysmal content of Canadian receivers. He seemed to be on the verge of a breakout in 2015, but Spencer Watt’s return from an injured achilles largely kept the 25-year-old on the sidelines in 2016. The Bombers will still likely select a receiver with the sixth-overall draft pick in the draft.
The CFL wanted free agency to keep fans engaged and intrigued in the off-season, giving fans optimism and encouragement to reserve season seats and purchase merchandise, while the players wanted to control their destiny a little bit more. With one-year contracts introduced in the latest CBA agreement back in 2014, both parties got what they wanted.
As a result, there’s a ridiculous amount of free agents available in 2017, as with an extremely hard-pressed salary cap, teams simply cannot afford the dollars many players are demanding after supposedly increasing their value following a one-year contract. But, as has been the motto for free agents this off-season, the grass ain’t always greener on the other side; the sheer over-saturation of free agents pushes down the dollar value of everyone.
Here’s a quick run-down of my 2017 free agent predictions.
–The Saskatchewan Roughriders land a franchise cornerstone in Derek Dennis… Similarly to Stanley Bryant Jr. a couple off-seasons ago, this stout Calgary left tackle chases the money. Expect an intense bidding war between Saskatchewan, Montreal and Calgary for the services of a top-two offensive tackle, who was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 2016.
-The Montreal Alouettes shock the league and sign Ernest Jackson… There’ll be a bidding war for the best available receiver available, likely consisting of Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. But the Alouettes don’t see newly-acquired QB Darian Durant as a bridge to next guy; Kavis Reed and co. wants to win now while the 34-year-old can still play at a high level.
-The Riders finally get their every-down Canadian nose tackle in Cleyon Laing… One year after missing out on Ted Laurent, Chris Jones makes no mistake signing a versatile interior defender in Laing. Laing’s passport is incredibly valuable in this situation because the Riders, who, along with a defensive lineman, still must find a Canadian free safety to start, will be struggling to field seven quality starting Canadians come June.
–Abdul Kanneh cashes in with the talent-starving Toronto Argonauts… A top-two defensive back in the league, the Redblacks, Tiger-Cats and Eskimos simply cannot afford to offer Kanneh the type of coin the Argos can. The Argos’ secondary has been a huge weakness on the team for years now, and Kanneh offers elite potential at both halfback or cornerback, with the ability to cover the league’s best and stop the run like a nickel linebacker.
–Als figure one former Bomber defensive tackle isn’t enough, sign Euclid Cummings… Cummings’ price-tag will be driven down simply by the sheer overload of interior defensive lineman available on the market. Although he’s coming off a three-sack season, Cummings remains one of best pass-rushing three-techniques in the league.
–Terrell Sinkfield returns to the Hammer… After re-signing Terrence Toliver, the Ti-Cats aren’t in the running to bring in a high-profile star such as Ernest Jackson, and while Sinkfield is not only the second or third best import pass-catcher available, he has familiarity with the Ti-Cats, amassing a 1,000-season in 2015 before spending training camp last season with Minnesota.
–Khalil Bass re-ups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers… As great as Bass is, there simply isn’t a big need for American starting linebackers in free agency. Wally Buono typically shies away from spending egregious amounts of money on top-tier free agents, while the Alouettes are best to continue to invest in a player they’re familiar with in pending free-agent Winston Venable.
–Esks’ re-sign a rising star (John Ojo), add a seasoned veteran (Jovon Johnson) to their secondary… Jovon Johnson has proven in the last two seasons that, while surprising after his final two years in Winnipeg, he can still play at a high level, and would offer a veteran presence at field corner, as Pat Watkins’ tenure in Edmonton is done. Ojo, meanwhile, will come for fairly cheap after missing the 2016 season with a torn achilles.
–Kenny Shaw and Diontae Spencer return to the Double Blue… The Argos can offer Shaw what no other team can: a no. 1 receiver role. Considering the Argos are absolutely starved for talent at receiver – Devon Wylie is seriously their best pass-catcher currently under contract – it’d be an eye-opening move to not retain Diontae Spencer for what will be fairly cheap.
-TiCats pick up AJ Jefferson from Southern Ontario rivals… Kent Austin and Co. dip into the second-tier of defensive backs available and come to terms with Jefferson, an experienced cornerback that brings needed competition to a secondary that really struggled in 2016.
-Wally Buono’s BC Lions make a sneaky-good signing in Tony Burnett… Burnett is ready to compete for a starting job, and can be used in a very similar way as Adam Bighill was. For reference, Bighill and Burnett were the only two weak-side LBs in the league tasked with occasionally rotating back to safety pre-snap to cover a deep half in 2-man under defense (cover-2 man-coverage). Burnett’s an incredibly athlete with tremendous potential.
–Bombers bring Kienan LaFrance to home to establish a mind-blowing All-Winnipeg backfield… Two words: public relations.
–Argos shore up the trenches, re-upping Greg Van Roten and bringing in J’Michael Deane… Although an international, Van Roten can play all three interior offensive line positions and has even shown well at tackle. Deane, meanwhile, has been serviceable for Ottawa, and would immediately replace 37-year-old guard Wayne Smith and former 1st-round pick Corey Watman, both of which would compete to start at right guard if the season started today.
-The Boatmen continue shoring up the trenches, bringing in Alan-Michael Cash on the defensive side of the ball… Bryan Hall, an effective player in Hamilton’s 4-3 even alignment, wasn’t a schematic fit for the Argos as a defensive tackle in a nose tackles body. A staple as the 0-tech in Montreal’s 4-3 over, Cash is one of the league’s most underrated players, and one of the few that can truly eat blocks to free up the linebackers.
–Hamilton brings back Andy Fantuz despite knee injury… The 33-year-old national was having his best season in the Black and Gold before tearing up his knee late in the season. Expect a two-year deal heavy on play-time incentives in year one.
–Mike Klassen stays in La Belle Province… Montreal, who’ll have zero Canadian defensive linemen under contract once free agency opens, will need Canadian defensive tackle depth to roll with Keith Shologan at nose tackle in 2017.
–Jabar Westerman joins his older brother in Winnipeg… While I’d love to see Drake Nevis in Blue & Gold, the Bombers need Westerman’s passport. Assuming their Canadian starters consist of RB-WR-C-RG-DE-FS, they’ll need to replace Keith Shologan with another Canadian. The Bombers already have good Canadian depth for Westerman at 3-tech with Jake Thomas.
-Drake Nevis instead sports Black & Gold once again in 2017… A criminally underrated interior defender, Nevis would be a huge re-signing for the Cats. He’s a perfect schematic fit, as like Ted Laurent, he’s a true nose tackle with unprecedented pass-rushing capabilities – very rare in the CFL. He’ll again form the best defensive tackle duo with Laurent in 2017.
–Shakir Bell reunites with Chris Jones in Riderville… This is a slam-dunk, right?
–Chris Williams returns to the Nation’s capital for another ride… There’s no other receiver in the league that can separate like Chris Williams, let alone one that poses a bigger threat to go deep. He won’t be ready for week one, but considering the extremely strong rapport Williams developed with QB Trevor Harris early in 2016, he needs to be re-signed.
–Philip Hunt stays put in Green & Gold… BC may be interested in the veteran pass-rusher, but the Eskimos really need an established rotational pass-rusher with Odell Willis and Markus Howard on the wrong side of 30.
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.
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.
The 2016 recipient of the Kent Hull trophy for the best offensive lineman in the state, Mississippi State right tackle Justin Senior is likely the best Canadian offensive line prospect since Kansas City Chiefs’ guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was the top prospect in the 2014 CFL draft class.
A three-year starter at right tackle in the ever-competitive South Eastern Conference (SEC), the Montreal, Que. native is a true Canadian tackle prospect. He wasn’t necessarily overly eye-popping as a blocker in college to the average viewer, but Senior was a consistently competent player against tremendous competition. No matter how pretty, Senior could be counted on to consistently do his job on every play. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ second best offensive tackle in the SEC in 2016.
With a tree-top build at 6’5″ and 310-lbs, Senior has the ideal build for a tackle prospect. He seems to have big hands and decent arm-length (although he seems to know how to compensate for shorter arms if my estimate is wrong and that is the case). Senior is projected to run around a 5.10-second 40-yard-dash at his Pro Day.
Senior has quick, nimble feet that allow him to consistently arrive at the junction point on time in pass-protection. He has the poise and skill to keep his shoulders square in his kick-steps, relying on the quickness of his feet and resisting the temptation to “open the door” and prematurely turn his shoulders towards the defensive end on outside rushes. Against a well-known speed-rusher with great burst off the line in Auburn’s Carl Lawson – an EDGE prospect projected to go in the first two rounds in the 2017 NFL draft – Senior had no trouble mirroring the defender around the corner and using his feet to maintain good position.
Senior also had no problem using quick-sets in the Auburn game, a technique often used to counter powerful bull-rushers who aren’t as good with their hands. Despite Lawson, a quick rush-end with decent hands, not falling under that category, Senior was successful using quick-sets thanks to his technique. It’s on his quick-sets where Senior’s decent nimbleness is advantageous, as he is able to keep his feet moving and up-to-speed with pass-rushers around the corner even after shooting his punch. His nimbleness occasionally shows up when defending inside-moves on a quick-set, too.
Senior’s hands are a tale of two stories. He struggles with hand speed and keeping his hands high like a boxer, but also has tremendously strong hands and good hand placement. Coupled with a strong torso that allows him to extend his arms once engaged, Senior’s strong hands play a pivotal role in his pass-protection and his run-blocking. His hands aren’t easily swatted once engaged, and if he keeps them high – even if on the shoulder pads, which is technically too high – Senior possesses the upper-body strength to turn defenders and create seams. Senior’s initial punch will occasionally shock the defender, but it’s the strength of his hands that’s quite impressive.
More often that not, Senior’s aiming point with his hands is nicely placed inside the defender’s shoulders and just outside the numbers. When he mistakenly places his hands too far outside the torso, it’s often a product of his lack of hand speed, as the defender was able to get his hands on first. Senior has the upper-body strength to also use a one-arm technique when he knows its unlikely that he’ll be able to get both of his hands inside, or when the defender has a longer reach than him, understanding that one arm reaches farther than two. In the below GIF, Senior sends a shocking blow – not always, but his initial punch can be powerful sometimes – with his outside hand to the defenders outside shoulder, which gives him some leverage, and gets good hand placement albeit on a quick-throw play. The second GIF is simply one of many examples of the redshirt senior’s great initial hand placement.
Despite his hand speed being an issue – too often did interior defensive lineman get their hands engaged on Senior first on run plays – Senior shows some ability to re-set his hands when his initial placement is too wide. This a great reactionary skill for an offensive lineman to have in his toolbox to revert to when desperately trying to prevent a sack after being beaten initially, as we see below.
As a run-blocker, he occasionally takes a wide step when he should take a power step (and vice-versa), but displays strong, flexible hips and, as mentioned above, good strength in his torso to turn defenders and create seams for his running back or quarterback. As a tackle in a zone scheme, rather than driving defenders back, Senior is often asked to simply shield block the defensive end from getting inside. On reach blocks, meanwhile, his aforementioned physical traits are flaunted, and his footwork seems refined. Senior’s first step when down-blocking, however, needs coaching.
Senior is going to make his money off his agility and technique, but that’s not to say he isn’t a functionally strong player. Although his lack of elite raw strength sometimes got him in trouble, Senior’s technical strength is nothing to second guess. When his posture is good – flat back, knees bent, slight forward lean, head and hands up – he’ll have no problem setting the anchor against bull-rushes. But if his first step in his pass-set is too wide and the defender counters with an inside move, the functional strength isn’t always there to stonewall the rush. The same can be said when his footwork isn’t good on down-blocks.
Pass block technique
Senior plays every down with ideal pad level, keeping his knees bent throughout the block. He keeps his back flat and his head up. As previously mentioned, he doesn’t “open the door” too early, remaining square in his pass-set until the last second. His punch timing will occasionally get him in trouble against defenders with quick hands, but it’s not a huge red flag. He needs to work on keeping his hands up in his pass-sets to be able to send a short, quick punch at any time.
Run block technique
Senior must work on bringing his hips/feet back under him to create power when blocking to move defenders more as a run-blocker. The 22-year-old often struggled with blocking in the second level, but it wasn’t because of a lack of change of direction skills. Senior must simply work on breaking down in the open field, and that’s coachable. His footwork, as mentioned, needs polishing, but I imagine that’ll get cleaned up fairly quickly when he receives NFL coaching.
Although we don’t always know the exact protection call, Senior often seems slow to react to twists and blitzes.
Senior’s first stop will be in the NFL. He’ll play in the East-West Shrine Game in January, and a good showing there could result in him being a day three pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. (And if not, he’ll have loads of undrafted free agent contracts sent his way immediately following the conclusion of the draft). He’s a fairly polished offensive tackle that, by CFL standards, checks almost every box in terms of his physical traits. His vision and ability to recognize stunts and twists is concerning, but as for his other flaws – hand speed in particular – either the one yard neutral zone in the Canadian game should nullify them, or they’re coachable. He’s not a nasty player by any stretch of the imagination, but Senior plays with a short memory and has a proven reputation in arguably college football’s best conference. He’s the best player in the CFL draft class but may not here his name called until the middle rounds – I wouldn’t expect Senior to be drafted as early as UNLV OT Brett Boyko was in 2015 (early second round).
Grade: 4.7 (out of possible 6.5)
Projected round: 4-5
With the another season in the books, its time to take a look at how, aside from the Grey Cup game, the 2016 campaign came with minimal surprises for Eric, who nailed his season predictions top-to-bottom in both divisions. Here’s a brief look at what went wrong and what went right for each team in another odd year of Canadian football. You can read Eric’s West Division predictions from June here, and his East Division predictions here.
1. Calgary Stampeders
Projected record: 12-6, 1st in West
Actual record: 15-2-1, 1st in West
Coming off a 14-4 season, the Calgary Stampeders were expected to decline given the off-season departures of Jon Cornish, Eric Rogers, Keon Raymond and Frank Beltre. Maybe they’d still win the West, some said, without head coach Jon Hufnagel and defensive coordinator Rich Stubler. But no one expected Calgary to come one win shy of being arguably the greatest CFL team of all-time.
And, one week ago, no one expected the Stamps to become the greatest CFL team to not win a championship. Led by 26-year-old QB Bo Levi Mitchell and rookie head coach Dave Dickenson, the Stamps breezed through the regular season, losing their first game of the season since week one in their final regular season game. Mitchell, unanimously voted the league M.O.P., had a career season largely thanks to the protection and time he was afforded. An offensive line anchored by LT Derek Dennis and RG Spencer Wilson, the Stamps allowed a league-low 20 sacks and boasted the league’s leading rusher, Jerome Messam.
Defensively, rookie defensive coordinator DeVone Claybrooks maintained the philosophy of Stubler, his predecessor. The Stamps weren’t blitz-heavy, instead relying on their loaded front-four to bring pressure – and Charleston Hughes, Ja’Gared Davis, Cordarro Law and Micah Johnson took care of that. Calgary’s secondary ran through its veteran triangle of safety Josh Bell and halfbacks Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith, who tackled most of the more difficult mental responsibilities, which allowed for young corners Tommie Campbell and Ciante Evans to play a simpler game with less thinking. It’s a zone-heavy scheme that’s not much different from that of Richie Hall or Mark Nelson. The difference is that the Stamps are outstandingly disciplined in their communication and tackle extremely well.
The 2016 Stamps were a team with no weaknesses. The Grey Cup was simply a complete team meltdown, as Mitchell was unable to adjust to some surprising wrinkles in the Ottawa defense – he threw three interceptions despite throwing just 8 all season – the offensive line gave up more pressure to Canadians Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Connor Williams than they have all season, and the secondary lacked communication and made a lot of mental errors. Wall, specifically, made a couple huge mistakes in coverage, while Campbell simply struggled in his one-on-one match-ups. In the end, though, despite the Stamps bringing their ‘D’ game against Ottawa’s ‘A’ game, the 104th Grey Cup was decided on a third-down play in overtime.
Regardless, without a championship banner, the 2016 Calgary Stampeders, like the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders, were ultimately unsuccessful.
2. BC Lions
Projected record: 10-8, 2nd in West
Actual record: 12-6, 2nd in West
One of the biggest moves of the off-season was an internal move in the Lions’ organisation – handing the coaching reigns back to Wally Buono. There was a complete culture turn-around in the Lions’ locker-room that seemed so drastic it was hard to believe that this team was not yet one year removed from a tumultuous 2015 season under an uncommitted coach, Jeff Tedford.
The Lions were re-fueled with Jonathon Jennings, who came on strong as a rookie, entering training camp as the day-one starting quarterback. Jennings was a huge spark for the entire organisation and the team wouldn’t be a 12-win team without him. With that being said, having a young, inexperienced quarterback was the main reason why the Lions couldn’t overcome the league’s elite teams on a consistent basis. Jennings went through many growing pains – he was pulled in a week 7 loss to the Argos, threw just 10 completions in 60 minutes in a week nine loss, and turned the ball over 7 times in 3 games against the Bombers – but certainly showed that his rookie season was no fluke and that he has all the tools needed to be an elite quarterback in the future.
The Lions’ defense was much aided by the recovery of LB Soloman Elimimian from a career-threatening achilles injury. He had the best season of his career, winning his second-career Most Outstanding Defensive Player. Thanks to a bounce-back season from Alex Bazzie, who notched 11 sacks in his third campaign, the Lions tied the Stamps for a league-leading 52 sacks. With Adam Bighill staying healthy and flying all over the field, the Lions were strong inside the box. They were the league’s worst team at creating turnovers, though, despite allowing the fourth-least amount of passing yards – a testament to Mark Washington’s defensive scheme. With a plethora of young defensive backs starting – as well as the Lions being without CB Ronnie Yell down the stretch – BC left plenty of room for improvement in their defensive backfield.
Jennings’ inexperience and growing pains – coupled with some occasionally shoddy pass-protection, pass-defense and field goal kicking- ultimately prevented the Lions from competing with the Stamps in the West Final.
3. Winnipeg Blue Bombers Projected record: 10-8, 3rd in West
Actual record: 11-7, 3rd in West
Matt Nichols was a revelation for the Blue Bombers, who started 1-4 with Drew Willy at quarterback. The Bombers are an easy team to identify, feasting off turnovers, great offensive line play, the tutelage of Andrew Harris and game-managing play under-center. Oh, and the kicking – how could we forget the kicking?
Justin Medlock put together one of the greatest kicking seasons ever, booting through 88.2% of his kicks despite attempting more than any other kicker and having the longest average attempt. Medlock was perfect on his extra points, and accounted for the largest percentage of his team’s points of all kickers.
The Bombers’ down-fall came largely from a defense that was great during the middle of the season but faltered down the stretch. The Bombers’ pass-rush struggled, and the secondary struggled with discipline in communicating and executing their assignments in zone-coverage. Though Nichols didn’t always maintain his efficiency level down the stretch, he did everything he could have done to win the West Semi Final at BC Place. The Bombers’ offense put up two field goal drives in the second half, which should have been more than good enough for an offense playing with the lead and entering the third quarter with a three-score lead.
The Bombers’ defense will need to be addressed in the off-season, as the turnover-rate they maintained likely won’t carry over into next season. And where would this defense be without their ridiculous ability to create turnovers?
4. Edmonton Eskimos Projected record: 8-10, 4th in West
Actual record: 10-8, 4th in West
The Eskimos’ season went exactly according to plan, and it should be seen as a positive year for a rebuilding team. Unsurprisingly, the Eskimos started the season tremendously slow on defense. What else did you expect out of a team that didn’t have one returning coach from the previous year? But, as the back half of the season rolled around, the Eskimos got their ground game rolling and their defense began to gel and play respectable football. Ultimately, they were legitimate contenders come November. That’s a great accomplishment considering the massive turnover this organisation experienced in the personnel department.
Very few people saw the defending Grey Cup champions regressing in 2016, and they were right – at least in terms of the offense. Their defense never resembled the stingy unit that Chris Jones led over the previous two seasons. Again, that should have been expected considering their losses of Jones, Aaron Grymes, CB John Ojo, DE Willie Jefferson and LB Dexter McCoil.
Though I’m still not sure if I believe in Mike Benevides, Edmonton’s defense did improve as the year progressed. That’s largely thanks to the play of their defensive line featuring Almondo Sewell, Odell Willis and Philip Hunt, a huge late-season addition. The Esks still have some uncertainty in the secondary, however, as boundary defenders Patrick Watkins and Marcell Young have reached their expiry dates.
In the end, the Eskimos ran through their offensive prowess. Despite mediocre pass-protection at left tackle and right tackle, Mike Reilly had another outstanding season. Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker combined for 229 catches, 3350 yards and 19 touchdowns, likely making them the greatest single-season duo in CFL history. John White and Shakir Bell brought life to the ground-game as the days got colder behind the steady play of Justin Sorensen, who continues to rebound nicely after a failed stint in Winnipeg. With Brandon Zylstra also stepping up down the stretch, the Esks had all the makings of a championship offense.
Their pass-protection and defense, however, were not on the same level.
5. Saskatchewan Roughriders Projected record: 5-13, 5th in West
Actual record: 5-13, 5th in West
I’ll never be able to fathom how even the most sane Riders’ fans thought this team would compete for a playoff spot in year one of the biggest rebuild I’ve ever seen. The Riders brought in a completely new coaching staff – be it one with a championship pedigree – and almost no continuity from the previous year.
Overall, the Riders weren’t nearly good enough – it’s really that simple. They had absolutely porous Canadian talent all the way across the board, and while they they discovered some quality international talent near the end of the season that will make them more competitive next season, they shuffled through far too many players to be competitive.
The Riders’ offensive line, in particular, was horrendous. First-round pick Josiah St. John had a rough start to his career compared to other first-round offensive linemen this year, and Darian Durant payed the price for his offensive line’s incompetence. With Shawn Lemon, Justin Capicciotti and Jonathon Newsom proving to be busts, the Riders’ defensive line was nearly as bad. Henoc Muamba and Willie Jefferson were game-changing late-season additions, but there’s still plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the ball and with the Canadian content.
The Kevin Francis project failed, and the Riders hurt themselves drastically by keeping the rookie converted receiver at safety for so long. It took the Riders until the last few weeks to discover a quality running back in Joe McKnight, and Durant seemed to have a different group of receivers every game.
When a team sets a record for the most players used in a season, its not a good recipe for success. Reaching five wins, with most coming in the last third of the season, Chris Jones probably overachieved in his first season in Saskatchewan based on the talent on his roster. The Riders have a bright future, but Jones and Co. need more time.
1. Ottawa Redblacks
Projected record: 12-6, 1st in East
Actual record: 8-9-1, 1st in East
For a Grey Cup winning team, the Redblacks sure had a lot of flaws. Like the Eskimos, they had not issues replicating their offensive success from 2015, but the defense took several steps back to start the season. In the end, though, Mark Nelson’s defense clicked in time for the second half of the season, and the Redblacks played beyond their week-to-week capabilities in the biggest game of the season. Credit to Rick Campbell for getting the absolute best out of his players in the Grey Cup.
Ottawa’s a talented team, no doubt, and their execution was absolutely outstanding, but I will say that the X-factor in the Grey Cup was how coordinators Jaime Elizondo and Mark Nelson out-schemed the Stampeders. Without these new wrinkles, Calgary likely wins that game – they’re simply that good. Instead, defensively, Nelson gave Bo Levi Mitchell something he hadn’t seen and couldn’t seem to counter-punch. Ottawa played their pass coverage zones looser than usual, resulting in Mitchell’s hesitation and his tendency to confusingly press the same read for so long. Elizondo, meanwhile, used a plethora of horizontal motion that had the Stamps hesitating along the edge, opening up the middle for Ottawa running backs and buying Henry Burris extra time.
Dominance at quarterback has been the story of the Redblacks this season. Trevor Harris was spectacular in filling in for Burris, who suffered a finger injury in week one, and frankly, he probably never should have been relegated to being the backup again. For the second straight season, Ottawa had four 1,000-yard receivers, and each of their roles seemed to be more understood this season. Despite quite a few injuries along the offensive line – both starting tackles, SirVincent Rogers and Jake Silas, missed the Grey Cup – Ottawa’s pass-protection was solid. (It helps having Burris – the most fluent rover in the pocket – back there).
It took a while for the Redblacks’ secondary to find themselves without the likes of Jovon Johnson and Brandyn Thompson, two huge contributors to their success in 2015. Eventually, though, Jonathon Rose settled in and Abdul Kanneh regained his elite form. Injuries didn’t do this defense any favors either, as they spent stretches without Canadian pass-rushers Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Connor Williams. Zach Evans was heart of the defense, and the mid-season addition of bruising middle linebacker Taylor Reed addressed a missing dimension in the group.
A team that battled injuries and lost a lot of close games, the Redblacks were always better than the 8-9-1 record they posted. Still, Calgary was the league’s best team in 2016, but Ottawa won the games when they mattered – and credit them for that.
2. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Projected record: 11-7, 2nd in East
Actual record: 7-11, 2nd in East
Hamilton’s season will be remembered for the amount of injuries they went through, but they ultimately weren’t good enough and certainly didn’t have the adequate enough depth needed- and that’s the bottom line. Franchise quarterback Zach Collaros was limited to 10 games – he began the season recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season, and missed a chunk of games later in the year with a shoulder injury – but even in the games Collaros played when Hamilton was relatively healthy offensively, he just didn’t seem to resemble the quarterback that lit the league on fire last summer.
Some of that can be put on the offensive line, and some of that can attributed to the loss of offensive coordinator Tommy Condell before training camp – an underrated loss that was far more noticeable than most anticipated. But some of that can be blamed on Kent Austin, who for the second-straight year, turned a blind eye to CJ Gable and the run-game. The Cats’ offensive line was in no way dominant – they can’t find an adequate left tackle, and Pete Dyakowski’s end is near – but offensive lineman are in an awfully disadvantageous position when everyone and their dog knows that they’re dropping into their pass-sets on Hamilton’s next play.
John Chick and Adrian Tracy were both revelations on defense, while Ted Laurent and Drake Nevis could be the league’s best interior duo. The play of the secondary overshadowed Hamilton’s stout defensive line, however. Hamilton had a slew of injuries on the back-end, as Johnny Sears and Rico Murray missed virtually the entire season, while Craig Butler could not recover from an off-season knee injury in time to re-join the team late in the season. Regardless, it was still shocking to see just how porous the Ticats’ depth proved to be at defensive back.
While I’m sure Ticats fans would like to be able to forget this season and start new without the injuries, the harsh reality is that this team may not get another chance. Key personnel like Orlando Steinauer and Andy Fantuz may not return to Steeltown.
3. Montreal Alouettes Projected record: 7-11, 3rd in East
Actual record: 7-11, 3rd in East
Its almost impossible for one to wrap their head around how much damage Jim Popp did to the Alouettes this season. The Alouettes didn’t have a terrible roster – at least in relation to the East Division – but Popp’s inability to control the locker-room lead to him ruining many relationships between players and the club. Popp hit rock-bottom when he cut young, talented pass-catchers Duron Carter and Kenny Stafford, who no longer bought into their coach. And they weren’t alone.
If Jacques Chapdelaine – or anyone who could maintain a decent image among his players – had been head coach all season, Kevin Glenn likely would have never been shipped out, and the Alouettes would have made the playoffs. (Ultimately, though, that would have landed Montreal nowhere, as Vernon Adams Jr. needed reps, and they needed to part ways with Popp as a GM, too).
The Alouettes were in no one’s mind a Grey Cup contender. Their offensive line was the worst in the CFL, and while Adams showed promise for the future, and Glenn was serviceable before SJ Green went down, they obviously lacked a good quarterback. Anthony Calvillo was clearly not ready to be an offensive coordinator either.
The Alouettes’ defense did not have the talent level it had last season, as John Bowman and Gabriel Knapton were both quiet, and their trio of rookie CBs – Jonathon Mincy, Greg Henderson and Ethan Davis – all experienced very noticeable growing-pains. Despite the Angry Birds finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive statistical categories, I maintain that Noel Thorpe’s system is excellent – Popp didn’t provide his long-time defensive coordinator with the young talent to succeed.
There is good news for Alouettes fans. Popp is finally out of the picture, and Adams Jr. is three-for-three as a starting quarterback in the league. All will be fine in Montreal if Adams comes as advertised, even if their the roster is filled with holes. Building a younger, more talented team will take a fraction of the time and effort it has taken the organization to find Calvillo’s successor.
4. Toronto Argonauts
Projected record: 6-12, last in the East
Actual record: 5-13, last in the East
A lot was expected out of the Argos this season, both on the field and off it. Ricky Ray was finally healthy, and the Argos were under new ownership in a small, more intimate venue: BMO Field. More people than not had the Boatmen finishing at or near the top of the East Division, and were surprised to see the complete disaster that was the Argos’ season. Perhaps this warm, fuzzy feeling about the Argos heading into 2016 was simply in good spirits and to spread positivity. Otherwise, I simply don’t know what mislead the public into giving Michael Copeland’s Argos these lofty expectations in year one.
Ricky Ray was 36 heading into the season having and had well-deserved the injury-prone label. It’s well-versed that it takes two good quarterbacks to win in the CFL, and the Argos entered the season with no proven no.2 on the roster. Ray dressed in just nine games – an inevitable situation considering his age, recent history and the offensive lineman in front of him.
Knowing that protecting the now-fragile Ray was their top priority, the Argos’ big free-agent coup was Canadian right tackle Josh Bourke. But the Argos’ offensive line gave up 47 sacks, and Bourke’s decline continued from his last year in Montreal – he is, after all, 34-years-old. Father Time also continued to conquer fellow Canadian tackle Chris Van Zeyl, unfortunately. The Argos could be without both Canuck book-ends next season.
The addition of long-time Stamps defensive coordinator Rich Stubler was a step in the right direction for a notoriously porous defense, but the talent-level was simply not at an acceptable level. Less mentioned, however, was the absence of experienced defensive coaches, and there was an understanding that really only Stubler understood the defensive system out of all the coaches on his staff.
The Argos really missed interior defenders Cleyon Laing and Euclid Cummings, who combined for 16 sacks last year. Aside from Shawn Lemon, a great early-season acquisition from Saskatchewan, the Argos had no pass-rush. The Justin Hickman signing was a bust, and Ricky Foley showed he’s past his prime at 34-years-old.
Copeland is expected to make sweeping changes very soon to a team that evidently lacked leadership this year. Head coach Scott Milanovich was unable to control the locker-room and the attitudes inside it. Milanovich and GM Jim Barker released four upper-tier receivers mid-season – Vidal Hazelton, Tori Gurley, Kevin Elliott – and the players didn’t seem to stand by Milanovich’s decision to ride out the season with Drew Willy at quarterback.
In need of a late-season pickup to bolster their roster for a run at the Grey Cup, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers may have had a perfect fit fall right into their lap.
With Darvin Adams still recovering from a broken collar-bone, the Bombers need an injection of size and talent in their receiving corps immediately.
Insert Tori Gurley, who appears to be everything the Bombers need right now from a physical stand-point. The 28-year-old stands 6’4″ and weighs 230-lbs, and it just so happens that he who should be “their guy” is suddenly a free-agent that Winnipeg could add for the stretch run.
In what was the case of management removing all toxins from the locker-room with their season all but over, Gurley was one of four talented Toronto Argonauts’ receivers released on Monday following their ugly loss to the Montreal Alouettes in week 14. With a good locker-room that’s stable under the foundation of solidified leadership, Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters has likely expressed some level of interest in inking one of these big-bodied play-makers to bolster his receiving corps for a playoff run. It sure appears as though all three of them come with varying levels of baggage, but the Bombers aren’t setting themselves up for any sort of long-term commitment to a problem child here, and there’s enough talent offered to justify taking a flier on a player they can cut at any time if they don’t fit into the locker-room complexion.
Gurley, who might just be the least problematic of the Big-Three, is someone the Bombers need to sign if they’re serious about giving QB Matt Nichols the weapons to make a Grey Cup run.
Essentially a much better version of injured pass-catcher Gerrard Sheppard, Gurley appears to be the absolute prototype for the Y-receiver position in Paul Lapolice’s offense. He produced incredible numbers at the Z-receiver position in his rookie CFL season, hauling in 791 yards and a league-leading 10 receiving touchdowns. Gurley is a high-level talent who appears to check off every box from a physical and talent stand-point for Lapolice’s ideal inside slot-back at the Y-receiver spot.
For an idea of how I think Lapolice wants to use his inside field slot-back, here’s a look at Sheppard’s first-half route-tree from the Labour Day Classic game. Sheppard was motioned into the backfield to pass-protect twice – however there were games where the now-released Jace Davis was asked to pass protects upwards of 7 times – and played near the box on a lot of run plays. The majority of Sheppard’s routes were short ones across the middle, but considering how willing Lapolice is to aligning his Y-receiver in different spots, expect Gurley’s route tree to include more deep routes if he became a Blue Bomber.
Sheppard lined up mostly as the most inside slot-back to the wide-side, but also ran one route from tight end, two from field wide receiver, two as the front receiver in a stack formation, one as the point-player in a bunch formation and one from boundary wide receiver, which was a back-side fade in the end-zone. On that play, Nichols and the offensive line performed a half-roll to the left before Nichols looked back to his right and threw a perfect pass over the back-shoulder that Sheppard dropped, leaving six points off the board before half-time.
That was a play that Gurley consistently made with the Argos.
From a schematic standpoint, Gurley is a perfect fit – he can block, he’s sure-handed, he wins at the catch-point and he can use his 230-lb frame to box-out defenders. He also provides the Bombers with a big-bodied deep-threat for while Darvin Adams remains injured, and with four receivers under 6-feet currently starting, the Bombers are solely lacking a player like that right now.
The only thing that could be making the Bombers hesitate is the chance that Gurley’s attitude becomes a detriment to the locker-room. The Bombers have mentioned plentifully on how they value the importance of high-character guys, and the Argos wouldn’t cut such a talented player if he didn’t have a poor attitude. Although there’s a chance Gurley becomes a toxin, signing him to a one-year contract (so the remaining four regular season games and then playoffs) is still low-risk, high-reward. Gurley, who’d probably come for fairly cheap, could be cut at at any time, while the Bombers already appear to have a strong foundation of leadership established in the locker-room to be able to handle one poor-character player. Being released mid-season may also serve as a wake-up call for the former Green Bay Packer, and being separated from Vidal Hazelton and Kevin Elliott may help him, too. Waters are quite hot on losing teams anyway, and Gurley would be entering a locker-room with a high morale in Winnipeg.
Signing Gurley would not jeopardize that strong locker-room that Walters and Mike O’Shea built, and at some point, the Bombers must understand that, problematic or not, these former Toronto Argonauts’ receivers are going to help them win.
It’s playoff time, and Matt Nichols needs weapons if the Bombers want to knock off the Lions and Stampeders. Nichols desperately needs that big-bodied, red-zone threat in particular, and that’s Tori Gurley.
Having won back-to-back games since early 2014, the Bombers are going streaking.
Facing a backup quarterback – the second in as many weeks – in Logan Kilgore versus Toronto means the Bombers have a good chance to do something no one expected only a few weeks ago: carry a .500 record into the bye week.
The week seven victory has given the Bombers a lot of confidence going into their contest in Toronto. It was likely the biggest home win of this current regime since their week one domination of the Argos in 2014.
1. Matt Nichols: The numbers would say otherwise when comparing both starts, but Nichols improved his play significantly against the Tiger-Cats. 246 passing yards is a rather pedestrian number, but that can be attributed to the Bombers’ success on defense and, mostly, special-teams, which gave the offense fantastic field-position the entire first half. If Nichols had to drive the offense the length of the field consistently, there’s no doubt in my mind that the offense still would have put up more than enough points to win. He put his receivers – particularly Kris Adams in his 1st-career start – in positions to be successful in the second half, and the young receiving corps mostly disappointed. Shoddy pass protection, conservative play-calling and mediocre production in the run-game resulted in zero second-half points, but they’d already done enough damage in the opening two quarters of action. Although Andrew Harris had his worst game of the season on the ground and the offensive line was below-average to their own standards, Nichols’ decisiveness and ball-placement was enough to carry the offense. His 13-yard touchdown pass to rookie SB Thomas Mayo depicts Nichols’ night quite well, as the veteran QB simply anticipated and threw his receiver open, showing exceptional touch to put the ball over HB Emmanuel Davis and into Mayo’s bread-basket. The Bombers’ offense should have a field-day against the Toronto Argonauts in BMO Field if Nichols can maintain this level of play.
2. Christophe Normand: The Bombers’ decision to place veteran fullback Tim Cronk on the practice roster following training camp, thrusting second-year Canadian Chris Normand into a starting role, completely worried me. Undersized and inexperienced at the position after playing running back for Laval, Normand spent all of last season on the practice roster, and was suddenly being asked to be the lone fullback on the roster in Paul Lapolice’s fullback-heavy offense. Yet the 24-year-old is coming into his own at the position, indicating his bright future as an athletic, play-making full-back comparable to Ottawa’s Patrick Lavoie, another former Laval ball-carrier. Normand produced impressive explosion metrics at the 2015 combine, but his blocking has been the most surprising part of the 220-pounder’s game. Near the end of the 1st quarter, Normand drove Ti-Cats’ defensive end Adrian Tracy back seven yards on an outside zone run, which allowed Andrew Harris to bounce it off-tackle. That was incredibly impressive, but Normand’s highlight-reel play came on the very next snap, as he received a check-down pass from Nichols and proceeded to hurdle over middle linebacker Larry Dean, who, under no means, necessarily went low at the sophomore Canadian. It was incredible. Normand’s performance against Hamilton has succeeded that against Edmonton for the best game of his young career.
3. Taylor Loffler: The 2016 CFL Combine winner’s football smarts were my biggest takeaway from watching his tape during my pre-draft work, and based on what he’s displayed in two career starts in the CFL, you’d never have guessed that the Bombers had a rookie back at free safety. For all intensive purposes Loffler should continue to start in the defensive backfield – even if Macho Harris returns to health – until Patrick Neufeld is healthy to complete the ratio. At that point, the Bombers can re-evaluate the free safety position, which, by guess, would mean no changes; Loffler will continue to solidify the secondary as the starter at free safety. His exceptional reach, vision and sound technique gives the University of British Columbia and Boise State product great range, as he sees the routes in front of him develop quickly so he can step up and account for weaknesses in the zone-coverage called. The third-knockdown of Loffler’s career came on Hamilton’s opening drive of the third quarter when he picked up Luke Tasker’s post-route, staying in his hip-pocket as QB Jeremiah Masoli extended the play outside of the pocket. The first-career interception of Loffler’s career, which came late in the first-half, may have been an even better play. Already in a position to breakup the pass to Andy Fantuz’s in-route, Loffler still managed to use his 6-foot-4 frame to wrestle away a turnover after HB Kevin Fogg tipped the ball into the air. With each game that passes, whether it’s on special-teams or defense, Loffler continues to show signs that he could be another Craig Butler – a ratio-breaking Canadian who made a huge impact in his rookie season.
4. Bruce Johnson: The third-year halfback is becoming the player I thought he’d be this year after an early season foot injury that sidelined Johnson for a few weeks. Upon moving back to field halfback after a tumultuous start to the year in the boundary, Johnson’s responsibilities have been simplified and his play has drastically improved. He’s a tremendous press-man defender in man-coverage, so it’s no surprise that he’s much more comfortable in the flats rather than in other zone-coverage roles. Johnson’s lone pass allowed in Wednesday (and Thursday) night’s win came in the third-quarter when he made a tremendous speed turn to redirect and take away an outside-breaking route, which would have been limited to one or two yards had he not missed the tackle. The result: A mere six yards. Johnson is thriving in his old position at field-side halfback.
1. Jake Thomas: He’s undersized, and everyone knows it’s coming, but offensive lineman are constantly dummied by Thomas’ bull-rush. The Acadia product compensates for his lack of size by keeping his pad-level low and his quick feet constantly moving. He can control double-teams better than some 305-pound defensive tackles, consistently opening up lanes and 1-on-1 match-ups for his fellow linebackers and defensive lineman. Thomas, who recorded only one pressure on the night, is a career-backup due to his limited repertoire, but he’s proving to be a valuable, Canadian backup at that.
2. Shayon Green: The bad news is that Green, Adrian Hubbard (since released), Trent Corney and Justin Cole have all struggled drastically this season as the Bombers continue to plug in different pass-rushers into the lineup in hopes of finding one that can produce respectable play opposite Jamaal Westerman. The good news is that Green, with an incredible eight QB pressures total in the Bombers’ last two games, is showing signs of life after a brutal start to his CFL career. Coincidentally, while Green recorded six of those pressures against Edmonton, he graded significantly better against the Tabbies. Despite terrible, ineffective play, the Bombers have kept the Miami product around this season for one reason: his incredible athleticism, which ultimately equals potential for defensive ends in the CFL. Green seriously had one pass-rush move for the first five games of the season – a mediocre speed rush – and seems to have since started to pick up the nuances of other techniques in the CFL under defensive line coach Todd Howard. Offensive tackles will soon start to respect his other moves rather than cheating in their kick-steps to defend his predictable speed-rush, and as he further develops his repertoire, Green’s patented speed-rush will open up.
3. Stanley Bryant: Following a great game for the offensive line in Edmonton, Bryant could be found in the “Junk Bonds” section of this weekly post-game analysis for the first time all season. The two-time All-Star, unsurprisingly, bounced back against against Hamilton’s duo of Adrian Tracy and John Chick at home in a big way, and while he gave up the same amount of pressures this week as last week – just one – he kept the pocket much larger for his quarterback and certainly improved his blocking in the run-game. I also noted that Bryant did his best in assisting a struggling Michael Couture, occasionally giving the rookie’s man a quick stiff-arm before the defensive end closed the distance to make his move.
(Just missed: Maurice Leggett, Clarence Denmark, Khalil Bass, Kevin Fogg)
1. Michael Couture: Veteran interior lineman Jeff Keeping, who injured his knee in the opening preseason game, cannot get back any sooner. I expected at least two years before Couture was ready to be starter in the CFL, but he’s proving to be even less pro-ready than expected, and it’s becoming a concern. I don’t want to be hard on the youngster so early into his career, but he essentially lost every 1-on-1 match-up he saw. As a fantastic defensive coordinator, it’s almost disgraceful that Hamilton’s Orlando Steinauer hardly attacked the rookie left guard, continuing his game-plan of having his defensive tackles essentially spy the quarterback in hopes of drawing offensive lineman out of their zone to open up lanes for blitzing linebackers. Regardless, Couture, the second-best blocker in 1-on-1 drills at the CFL Combine, recorded the worst grade, by far, of any Bomber this season.
2. Sukh Chungh: It makes sense that C Mathias Goossen – in his third CFL season – is outplaying Chungh, who’s only in his second season, but the latter is certainly in a slump right now. While his performance against Hamilton was nowhere near as poor as that of Couture, it was not good enough. He only gave up two pressures, but again, Nichols’ decisiveness played a huge role in that low number. It appears as though an injury is bugging the Calgary product, as he seems to be losing his technique when he starts to be fatigued.
3. Justin Cole: The second-year American’s return to the team after a training camp injury sent Adrian Hubbard packing, but he’s been no better than Hubbard – they’ve both proved to be ineffective. Sure, he recorded two sacks in the Hamilton game, but also really did nothing special on either play; his first was the result of LT Brian Simmons’ feet being completely stuck in the mud, and his second came as he was unblocked on a stunt inside. Although Cole’s been listed as the starter since being promoted to the active roster, Shayon Green has taken more snaps in both of those games.
(Just missed: Mathias Goossen, Trent Corney, Ian Wild, Andrew Harris)
BUY: Lightning delay helps Bombers. Being in a long delay is not an easy thing to handle as a player, and the Bombers’ experience gave them an advantage. It’s difficult to stay mentally prepared, and it’s much harder to keep your body ready to play a game for over 2 hours. The Bombers had already been a part of two weather-related delays this season, and they also had a home-field advantage, with constant deliveries of food and, most importantly, access to stationary bikes and elliptical machines in the locker room.
SELL: Discrediting the special-teams’ performance. The team’s best unit this season has been special-teams, and the best unit against the Tiger-Cats was easily Mike O’Shea’s group. It was the best performance of any special-teams unit this season, and Mark Kilam’s Calgary Stampeders blocked three punts in week one. The Bombers limited the league’s most dynamic returner, Brandon Banks, to merely 3.8 yards-per-return, and also returned a punt for a touchdown by Kevin Fogg, which was negated due to a terrible penalty taken by Kyle Knox. In his season debut, Knox was a menace on special-teams – he was in on at least four tackles – but it was fellow linebacker, Tony Burnett, who scooped up Derek Jones’ block punt in the 1st half. The ‘teams constantly gave the offense great field position, and deserve more credit than the offense or defense.
The CFL Draft is the hardest draft in sports to project, and every year a handful of, at first glance, intriguing prospects plummet down the board when the picks start to to fly by.
Last year, no two players took bigger falls than Simon Fraser’s Lemar Durant and Idaho’s Maxx Forde. Durant, said by some scouts to be the best player of the draft, was taken in with the 18th pick for a lack of special-teams capabilities. Maxx Forde fell to the seventh round, likely as a result of a small body of work, and for being far too much of a ‘tweener between a defensive tackle and defensive end.
There no fall-outs quite like Durant’s, though. None of the falls are really that surprising when you think about it – many I foresaw happening. Regardless, some intriguing names were taken later than expected, but don’t expect many of them to be steals. There’s a reason why each of them were drafted in the spot they were, and here’s your explanation.
1. RG Charles Vaillancourt, Laval – BC Lions (Round 1, pick 5)
Vaillancourt is a pro-ready offensive lineman that will likely start at center for the BC Lions from day one at training camp. So why did this blue-chip prospect, who was expected to be a top-two pick, fall to the Lions? The answer is simple: his lack of quickness. The Laval product has the most refined technique in the class as well as exceptional physical traits, but his lack of quickness could hurt him in the CFL. As was the case a couple times with Laval, it’s easy to see Vaillancourt costing a sack because he was too slow disengaging from a block then using his lateral quickness to step over and pick up a stunting defender or delayed blitzer. He can somewhat compensate for a lack of quickness, but it may put a ceiling on the player he’ll amount to. And while Vaillancourt has the potential to develop into an All-Star, his quickness may always be a lingering issue. As the great coach Bill Walsh said, “You can teach an athlete to be a technician, but you can’t teach a technician to be an athlete.”
2. DB Taylor Loffler, UBC – Winnipeg (round 3, pick 21)
After a dominant first season with the Thunderbirds that was given an exclamation point with an exceptional Combine performance, Loffler was seen as a possible first-round pick. But from looking at his college history with Boise State, it’s easy to see why Loffler fell all the way into the third-round, where the Bombers were more than willing to scoop him up. Loffler’s knees could be a time-bomb waiting to go off, with two knee surgeries already underwent. He’s also had surgery twice to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. A Vanier Cup champion, Loffler’s injuries could be a thing of the past after a clean bill of health last year, but it’s easy to see why teams were skeptical.
Guy is ahead of schedule on his rehab from a torn ACL and was a four-year starter at the University of Buffalo, but was still available when the Lions were on the clock in the fourth round. While Guy has a ton of experience under his belt against high competition, he wasn’t necessarily a stand-out player with the Bulls. But still, Northern Illinois receiver Juwan Brescacin hardly produced against high competition – similarly to Guy – yet he was taken in the second-round. See, with Dillon Guy, his flaws – largely from a technical stand-point, but also athletically – cannot be overlooked by the level of competition he played. My seventh ranked offensive linemen going into the draft, Guy has poor hand-placement, lowers his head when initiating contact and will sometimes initiate contact with his body instead of his hands. He’s also slow out of his stance, and lacks agility as well as balance. Guy has ideal size at 6-foot-4 and 317-lbs, but left college after four years of starting with a surprising amount of flaws.
4. NT Rupert Butcher, Western – Winnipeg (round 6, pick 46)
We may never see another player dominate the CFL Combine’s OL/DL one-on-ones quite like Rupert Butcher did in March 2016. He moved amazingly well at 6-foot-5, 327-lbs, displaying good quickness and hands, as well as a fearsome bull-rush. That took a lot of people by surprise, as his game-film with Western was underwhelming. Butcher was hardly a dominant player, and lacked consistency and motor, as per Kyle Walters. Defensive lineman have a huge advantage in Combine one-on-ones; they’re blocked one-on-one with no help; they know if it’s a pass or run; and they have a lot of time (and space) to operate with. It’s not a good way to make a full evaluation of a defensive lineman’s game, and it certainly didn’t make up for Butcher’s game-footage at Western.
There’s very little separating this mediocre group of pass-catchers that could produce very few, if only one or two, effective starters. Simply put, what does Corby bring to the table that no other receiver in this mediocre class did? Juwan Brescacin offers unique contested catch-ability at 6’4″, 230-lbs. Llevi Noel was a dominant, versatile special-teams player at the amateur level. Brett Blaszko offers a unique blend of size and speed at 6-foot-4 with a 4.55-second 40-yard dash time, which could translate well on special-teams. Mike Jones is a blazing speedster that has the best chance of any receiver to develop into a starter, but with limited – if any – abilities on special-teams, he was a third-rounder. Doug Corby, meanwhile, has no physical traits that separate him from the rest. With a 4.505-second 40-yard dash, he has the straight-line speed to return kicks in a role like Anthony Parker, but he hasn’t proven that it’s in his repertoire.
6. NT Quinn Horton, Simon Fraser – Calgary (round 8, pick 68)
Quinn Horton has a major flaw: pad-level. The Simon Fraser product plays with zero knee-bend, and as a nose tackle in the CFL, he’ll get swallowed by double-teams if this isn’t fixed. Like any prospect, he has other flaws as well that make him no slam-dunk player even if he fixed his pad-level, but his lack of knee-bend was almost enough to make him go undrafted. Horton was the second-best interior defensive lineman in the combine drills, but was able to his deceptive quickness and good hands to win match-ups. Standing straight up right off the snap, the native of Winnipeg often failed to generate a bull-rush, and was sometimes stonewalled with pure power by an offensive lineman while using his speed. Horton has a lot of skills – and not a long list of flaws – that projected him as a third-to-fourth round player, but his pad-level was an issue that teams could not overlook.
7. DE Denzel Philip, Eastern New Mexico (undrafted)
Philip was dubbed a “sleeper pick” and an “underrated prospect” by several draft pundits in the league, and I was not buying it. Very skeptical even before the draft, I was especially not sold on any of the hype after his combine performance. Similarly to Maxx Forde last year, Philip was seen as a ‘tweener – someone who’s too slow and stiff to play defensive end, but too small to be a pass-rushing defensive tackle in the 4 or 5-tech positions. Philip arrived at the combine at a far-too-light-weight at 225-lbs, likely as an attempt to improve his quickness and be seen as a defensive end. Regardless, Philip was the same player – explosive but slow, with no bend around on the corner and no hands. Philip didn’t change even at 225-lbs, making it clear to coaches that he could not play defensive end at the proper weight, 255-lbs.
LB DJ Lalama, Manitoba – Edmonton (round 8 pick 70)
This one baffles me, and I have no explanation. It was shocking to see DJ Lalama as Mr. Irrelevant, as his abilities should project to be an effective special-teams player in this league. While also a dominant linebacker, Lalama was predominantly an anchor on special-teams with the Bisons. He performed well at the Combine, and can also long-snap. The Eskimos could be getting a steal with the final pick in the draft.