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 2017 CFL draft class boasts a ridiculously talented top-5, and although much of the attention has been focused on names like Justin Senior, Antony Auclair, Rashaun Simonise and even Geoff Gray, UCLA nose tackle Eli Ankou could very well be the first overall pick come May.
The Ottawa, ON. native started his junior and senior seasons for the Bruins, impressively amassing 91 total tackles in 22 games. Ankou filled an uber-important role as the two-gap nose tackle in UCLA’s 3-4 defense, allowing elite NFL prospects such as Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley to flourish. Ankou battled an elbow injury in his senior year sustained in week 4, causing him to miss 2.5 games and play the rest of the season with a restrictive elbow brace. He put together an impressive season nonetheless, but was surprisingly not invited to the 2017 East-West Shrine Game, instead settling for the NFLPA collegiate bowl.
Part of this could be attributed to the fact that he only recorded 1.5 sacks in his college career, although I’d like to point out that he was rarely used as a pass-rusher, which is typical for true 0-techs that align head-up on the center, and will often be asked to QB spy in obvious passing situations.
Ankou has a great build, especially to play in Noel Thorpe’s or Devone Claybrooks’ defense. While perfect for his position at UCLA, 325-lbs may seem slightly heavy for the CFL, but considering he’s also 6-foot-3, Ankou carries his weight healthily. He has a bulky build, carrying a lot of it in his legs.
Ankou has a solid get-off, whether he’s timing the cadence or watching the ball. His first step isn’t consistently strong enough to withstand double teams, but he’s shown the ability to shoot gaps as a one-tech. For this reason, he’s scheme versatile. For example, Ankou could play the 0-tech in Montreal’s 4-3 shift defense, or the 1 and 2i-tech in Hamilton’s base 4-3 even.
Vision is one of the most important traits to look for in a nose tackle, and it happens to be Ankou’s best skill. Although he wasn’t the most physically dominant player, the Ottawa product amassed monstrous tackle numbers due to his ability to quickly locate the ball-carrier and adjust accordingly. His awareness wasn’t as good – I found multiple examples of Ankou falling for trap blocks, as well as being cut-blocked on zone runs – but the mental aspect of the position is a strength for Ankou regardless.
Ankou isn’t necessarily a consistently powerful player. His strength shows up in flashes, typically when his technique is sound. If his knees are bent and his hands are placed in the strike zone of the offensive lineman, he’s going to move people. He’s strong enough to keep his feet moving through contact, but didn’t always anchor down on run plays against double teams. In regards to his upper-body strength, it shows flashes as well. Ankou uses his torso strength to keep offensive linemen at a distance in one-on-one rushes, but didn’t display overwhelming block-shedding ability through his torso and hips to rag-doll offensive linemen.
3-4 nose tackles generally aren’t supposed to use finesse moves in one-on-one pass rushing match-ups, so its unclear whether or not he has the ability to consistently beat CFL offensive lineman with rip, club and swim moves. He has, however, proven to have quick, strong hands to get inside hand positioning on offensive lineman on bull-rushes. The battle of quickness and accuracy between offensive and defensive linemen to be the first to get their hands in the strike zone first on every snap is key to gaining leverage and winning the rep – Ankou excels in this.
Ankou’s pad level isn’t as consistent as scouts would like it to be, but he has shown the ability to really bend his knees, get lower than the offensive lineman, and power through. He didn’t have the raw strength to over-power PAC-12 offensive lineman when his pad level wasn’t good, but he won’t need to be as powerful in the CFL as he needed to be as a 0-tech in a 3-4 scheme in a tough conference. Ankou’s still very much welcome to use this off-season to get stronger in his lower-body, of course.
Ankou’s role in college was simple – gain control of the center on run plays to control both A-Gaps, and provide interior pressure on pass plays by bull-rushing or spying the quarterback on passing plays. In the CFL, he’ll have to run twists far more often – he almost never did with UCLA – and align in several different techniques along the inside of the defensive line. A dominant CFL defensive tackle must have a variety of pass-rushing moves in his repertoire – think of the spin, arm-over swim, rip, club and regular swim move – as well as the athletic ability to pull them off. There are a plethora of good scrambling quarterbacks up north, so tackling and closing speed is important, too. It’s not the same as closing speed, but Ankou’s raw speed to chase down quarterbacks or running backs from the back-side isn’t great. With that being said, I think he’s athletic enough to effectively run twists at the professional level. He’ll require good coaching to expand his pass-rushing repertoire, though, as he was simply not asked to do very much at all in these situations while with the Bruins.
Its easier than ever to get on an NFL training camp roster – see Lefevour, Dan – but especially for those fresh out of college after starting two seasons in the PAC-12. Boston College defensive end Mehdi Abdesmad, who was drafted in the third round by the Ottawa Redblacks in last year’s draft, spent all of 2016 with the Tennessee Titans, but there’s always a chance Ankou makes it no further than an NFL rookie mini-camp, similarly to Trent Corney in 2016 as well.
Ankou has the talent worthy of a top-2 pick, but don’t be surprised if he goes unselected until the second or third round because of NFL interest. At this point, though, its hard to say.
Draft notebook will be 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.
It’s become apparent that over the last decade or so, Canadian prospects are receiving more attention than ever south of the border from NFL scouts. Players such as Israel Idonije, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and, most recently, David Onyemata, have helped put University football on the map.
These Canucks all participated in the annual East-West Shrine Game, the second-most important College football All-Star game behind the Senior Bowl and a huge platform for the best Canadian-born football players to showcase their talent against closer to CFL-level competition.
This year’s Shrine Game features three very highly-touted CFL draft prospects in Mississippi State LT Justin Senior (scouting bureau rank: 1), Laval TE Antony Auclair (rank: 2) and Manitoba RG Geoff Gray (rank: 5). Here’s what I’ll be looking for from them each individually in the Shrine Game in terms of their CFL draft stock.
Senior: From a CFL draft stock perspective, Senior has the least to prove considering he started (and excelled in) three seasons at left tackle in the SEC. But I’d like to see Senior play with an aggressive edge in the game, displaying some piss-n-vinegar and more of a mean-guy attitude. This aggressiveness is not what you’d associate with Senior’s play-style during his time at Mississippi State – he did not look for defensive backs to eat on long plays downfield; he did not go looking for players to ear-hole on scramble drills; he didn’t ruffle any feathers at the end of plays; and he really didn’t seem to desire contact and drive through blocks at the point of attack, instead often shuffling and sliding to mirror a defender (although some of that had to do with scheme). Scouts love for their offensive linemen to play with an edge and be dirty, and with his NFL dream right in front of him, I want to see if Senior subconsciously releases a real competitive fire during the week.
Auclair: Admittedly, I haven’t dove into the Laval product’s tape yet. But considering most offenses up North don’t really have a defined position for true pass-catching tight ends – likely because tight ends with Auclair’s size and skill aren’t usually overlooked by NFL teams – Auclair can make himself a lot of money in St. Petersburg, Florida. Is he an extremely athletic H-back with unique abilities, or an inside slot-back poised for a unique role? Is he truly good enough for an offense to bring back the Y-TE position in a CFL offense, and what is the value for this position when drafting?
Gray: The University of Manitoba product has already proven just how much of a physical specimen he is – that’s why he’s so highly touted – but the Shrine Game will be a good opportunity for scouts to get a look at his technique against some great players. Playing without a one-yard neutral zone will be a good test to see just how fast Gray can operate, particularly with his hands. Although he’s not used to playing with defenders aligning just inches away, which is a little unfair in terms of evaluating his play, I’d like to see Gray answer some questions about his hand placement, which was sometimes erratic during his Bison career. Gray’s pad level isn’t always ideal either, and we’ll see if he’s naturally strong enough to still win without great knee bend against much better competition than he faced in the Canada West.
1. Justin Senior is a legit blue-chip prospect. He’s not currently projected to be drafted in the NFL draft, but I could see that maybe changing with a good Shrine Game performance – and if not, he’ll be near the top of the board for most teams immediately following the draft as a priority free agent. I’ve already published a formal scouting report of Senior, and not that Senior will be in consideration for the number-1 overall pick due to NFL interest, but he’s considerably better than last year’s top pick, Oklahoma’s Josiah St. John. Like, it’s night and day.
2. After last year’s draft class featured a very mediocre crop of pass-catchers, the receiver position is back in a big way this year. Some big names such as Rashaun Simonise (Calgary), who already has NFL experience, Mitchell Picton (Regina), Danny Vandervoort (McMaster) and Nathaniel Behar (Carleton) give us an incredible top-tier of receivers. I’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of diving into the tape of these guys, but it would not be ludicrous to suggest that any four of these receivers would have been the first receiver off the board in last year’s class.
3. Unlike last year, the 2017 crop of offensive linemen lacks a large top-tier, but it is tremendously deep nonetheless. Geoff Gray is probably a lock for the first round, and Idaho’s Mason Woods could see his stock rise, but in terms of elite prospects, that seems to be about it at this juncture of my draft studies so far this year. 2016 saw six offensive linemen selected in the first 10 picks. Despite offensive linemen being valued like quarterbacks are in the NFL draft, I wouldn’t be surprised if less than half of that number of offensive linemen are selected in the top-10 of the this year’s draft.
LT Jordan Filippelli, University of Calgary
Scouting Bureau rank: N/R
A left tackle at one of the Canada West’s top schools, Filippelli has the ideal height and weight to be a successful tackle at the professional. He’s built like a guard, though, with a stockier lower-body build.
Filippelli was well-coached to play with his hands up while at Calgary, as he was often the first Dino offensive linemen to get his hands up upon the snap of the ball, and he keeps them high like a boxer throughout his pass-set. He has good vision and reacts to stunts and blitzes with poise and awareness.
The native of Sherwood Park, AB sends a powerful, shocking initial punch, which helps him get leverage to begin his block. He has a strong torso, occasionally showing the ability to relocate defenders when his technique is good enough to create advantageous angles for his running back. Filippelli possesses serviceable functional strength, and though he’ll need coaching and could take longer than some at adjusting to a new position, he has many desired traits of a guard prospect.
First and foremost, its clear almost immediately upon turning on the tape that Filippelli will transition to guard when he enters the CFL. Ignoring other important factors such as quickness and technique, he simply doesn’t move around with the smoothness, gracefulness and agility of a true tackle.
The biggest red flag for Filippelli is his posture, an element that is the very root of all blocks and is very difficult to coach, seeing as it’s deeply-ingrained in muscle memory. The fourth-year Dino has porous pad level, resulting in him sometimes struggling to set the anchor against bull-rushes despite his raw strength not being too bad. Posture is one of the keys to getting leverage, and Filippelli often struggles maintaining a slight forward lean – sometimes he’s leaning too far forward, and sometimes he’s standing too straight.
Filippelli is very susceptible to inside moves. He often over-sets in his pass-set and lacks elite strength to stonewall the inside rush. As we also see in his blocking in the second level, Filippelli’s lack of change of direction skills doesn’t help him defend inside moves either. He’ll need lots of work on his footwork for run block – especially considering he’ll be transitioning to guard – when professional coaches get their hands on him, particularly with the aim of his first-step. Incorrectly stepping to, for example, the outside hip on a fan-block could be the difference between a touchdown run and a four-yard loss, regardless of the lineman’s physical traits.
Filippelli is not quick enough to play tackle, and had problems staying square in his pass-sets against more athletic defensive ends because he couldn’t keep up with raw foot speed. He also lacks hand speed, and has a hard time timing his punch, which led to his hands being swatted more often than scouts would like to see from offensive tackle prospects.
Projected draft placement: Rounds 3-4 Grade: 3.1 (out of possible 6.5)
Two Names to Watch For
1. LB Jordan Herdman, SFU
A two-time recipient of GNAC Defensive Player of the Year award, Herdman was shockingly not ranked the in the top-20 of the CFL scouting bureau’s December rankings. A strong, twitchy inside linebacker in a defensive end’s body, Herdman also set the GNAC conference single-season record for tackles with 165 in 2014.
2. DE Evan Foster, Manitoba
Foster, the Defensive MVP in the 2016 East-West Bowl (3 tackles – two for loss – and 1 sack), rode that wave of momentum from the All-Star game and carried it into his fifth season with the Herd. Foster has good size at 6’1″, 245-lbs and could be the best edge-bender in the class. He often dropped into coverage as a linebacker on passing downs – which explains why he recorded merely 4 sacks in his senior season – and was used in a variety of ways along Manitoba’s defensive line. Foster should project as an excellent special-teams player early in his career/development as a defensive end once he enters the CFL.
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
You want to draft a good player, but not too good of a player. The NFL has been keeping tabs on Canadian Football more than it ever has, while football in the North is producing better and better prospects each year. Draft too good of a player, and the NFL will lure them away in an instant for a couple years (or for their career – just ask Bombers’ fans).
The top-ranked players in the CFL Scouting Players often spend at least their first year of professional football in the NFL – and sometimes longer. Mississippi State OT Justin Senior, the top-ranked player in both the September and December rankings, will be no different. CFL on TSN colour commentator Duane Forde began nicknaming late-season match-ups between the league’s basement-dwellers the “Senior Bowl” in reference to them competing for the number one overall pick and the opportunity to draft Senior, but that won’t be the case. Senior is NFL-bound, and could be a late-round pick in the NFL Draft if he shows well in the upcoming East-West Shrine Game.
Senior has not been given the hype he deserves for just how good of a prospect he is. The Montreal, Que. native started three seasons at right tackle in arguably the top college football conference in the NCAA, and was the 2016 recipient of the Kent Hull Trophy, awarded annually to the top offensive lineman in the state of Mississippi. Senior was selected as one of two offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus’ 1st-team SEC All-Star team.
The 22-year-old is a tackle prospect through and through, which increases his NFL stock even more. Legitimate Canadian tackle prospects are usually scooped up quickly by the NFL – see Boyko, Brett and Foucalt, David.
I’ve watched four of Senior’s games – Auburn, BYU, LSU and Texas A&M. He’s a complete player by CFL draft standards, although his functional strength, hand speed and run-blocking technique will be detractors for his NFL stock. But as a witness of just how dominant of a player he was during his time at Mississippi State, and just how weak of an offensive line class it is, it’s hard to imagine Senior not joining an NFL club on day-3 of the draft.
Senior held his own against two premier SEC pass-rushers in Auburn’s Carl Lawson and Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall. Senior had no problem using quick-sets against Lawson, who’ll likely be a first or early second round pick in the 2017 draft – despite the defensive ends quickness and burst. It was hard to tell that Lawson is a highly-coveted edge-bender with the way Senior consistently arrived on time at the junction point in regular pass-sets. The 22-year-old dealt with the power of Hall – the sixth ranked EDGE in the 2017 draft – quite well in Mississippi State’s huge upset win over the Aggies, too.
With ideal size and build at 6’5″ and 310-lbs, Senior is undoubtedly the top player in the 2017 CFL Draft class. But that’s not to say he’s a guaranteed first round pick. Senior will likely be drafted later than UNLV’s Brett Boyko was in 2015 (round 2, pick 14), especially if he performs well at the Shrine Game.
Like many recent no. 1 rated Canadian prospects, Senior is just simply too good to warrant spending a first-round pick on a player with no timeline projecting when he’ll actually come to the CFL.
Putting a label next to Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols’ name has been next to impossible throughout his seven-year career.
At times, he’s looked like a potential franchise quarterback, particularly when he first broke into the league. Other times he’s seemed to have capped off as a solid backup quarterback. During his seven-game starting streak in 2015 with the Edmonton Eskimos, consequently leading to Nichols being traded mid-season for a conditional seventh-round pick, the Eastern Washington product seemed closer to being out of the league than to being one-and-a-half years away from a monster contract extension, which he’s expected to receive from the Bombers in the coming weeks.
The past two seasons have provided some clarity in terms of who Nichols truly is as a quarterback, as 27 of his 32 career starts were made in either the 2015 or 2016 campaigns. Heading into 2016, Nichols had started just barely one season worth of games in his career. In the case of a late-bloomer at the quarterback position, it makes perfect sense that 2016 was Nichols’ breakout season, and that we likely haven’t seen his best yet.
Nichols established himself as a starting quarterback for the first time in his career this past season. While many will point to the Bombers’ turnover-creating defense, sound pass-protection and consistent run-game for Nichols’ success, the veteran passer still did a great job getting rid of the football quickly and limiting turnovers. Nichols’ numbers don’t compare to those of the elite quarterbacks in the league, but his record as a starter (10-3) speaks for itself. For these reasons, Nichols’ latest label has been a “game-managing starting QB”.
A game-manager in football is described as a quarterback with a very conservative play-style, who makes very few costly mistakes and relies on their defense or rushing-attack to win games. Although there were games where Nichols single-handily carried the team – the West Final in B.C. immediately comes to mind – this is a somewhat accurate way of describing Nichols’ play in his first true season as a starter.
Nichols operated very well within Paul Lapolice’s system in 2016. Entering the season, Lapolice prioritized protecting his quarterbacks and having them release the football quickly, implementing route combinations that give the check-down throws better spacing to get more yards after the catch.
Nichols dealt with pressure – the achilles heal for most quarterbacks – surprisingly well. His yards per attempt only dropped about a yard when under pressure, and he maintained a very solid adjusted completion percentage of 61.8-percent. More impressively, despite his yards per attempt still being decently high at 7.4, Nichols’ percentage of turnover-worthy-throws didn’t even increase by a full percent when he was under pressure – 4.6-percent of his throws were deemed turnover-worthy when not pressured compared to merely 5.4-percent when under duress.
I first noted a bit of conservative play in Nichols’ game early in the season against the blitz. He was making good reads and getting rid of the ball quickly, but he was rarely actually making teams pay for sending pressure. That changed as the season progressed, and Nichols became a threat when defenses blitzed the pocket-passer on 2nd-and-long.
While its not the case in the above GIF, Nichols’ mechanics naturally get messy under pressure. But despite his inability to consistently maneuver the pocket, as well as his erratic footwork, Nichols’ quick decisions and recognition have made him decently effective when blitzed or under pressure.
In my opinion, Nichols’ game-manager label was justified by his decision-making in 2nd-&-long situations when the defense drops 8 or 9 defenders in coverage. In these situations, defenses encourage quarterbacks to throw the underneath route so they can rally and make the tackle short of the sticks. While Nichols is good at recognizing coverages – and the coverage’s weaknesses – in these situations, he’s very reluctant to throw into tight windows between linebackers over the middle, quickly targeting his check-down or the underneath throw instead. If he sees pre-snap or during his drop-back that the coverage indicates that he’ll likely be forced to instead quickly progress to his reads in the intermediate level over the middle, Nichols is very reluctant to pull the trigger into a tight window.
Don’t be confused, though. This isn’t an Alex Smith situation. Smith, the poster-boy for game-managing NFL signal-callers, simply refuses to throw the ball deep. He’s far too comfortable throwing underneath and simply does not take any chances. Nichols takes what the coverage gives him, whether it’s a corner-route against cover-3 or a go-route down the sidelines on 1st-down.
The exception to this theory is, as mentioned, on 2nd-&-long versus a three or four man rush, and he’s forced to throw across the middle. An example of a situation like this would be if the Bombers had a smash concept (corner-hitch) in the boundary, with a high crosser from the most inside slot receiver to the wide-side and a little 5-yard sit from the most outside field slot. Nichols sees the cornerback drop into a deep-third and therefore knows the corner-route won’t be open. He can’t throw the hitch, as the defense will make the easy tackle and the Bombers will be punting. He moves on in his progression to the middle of the field, and though if he times the throw well and puts some some zip on the ball he’ll be able to hit the high crosser for a first down, Nichols hesitates and throws the check-down to the sit-route. The defense rallies to the pass-catcher and Mike O’Shea sends out his punt team. The home fans are in disgust seeing the QB throw a five-yard pass on 2nd-and-10.
There’s a time and place for throwing, for example, that five-yard sit-route on second-&-long. Offensive coaches love to say, “end every drive with a kick” – an extra point, field goal or punt – and if there’s truly no window open across the middle, its much better to live to see another down than to throw an interception.
The above GIF is an example of a perfect time to take the check-down. That throw was safe and likely gave the Bombers the best chance to gain the needed yardage for a first-down. Kohlert was tackled one yard short of the sticks, but the Bombers were able to keep the drive alive and convert on 3rd-&-1. While Ottawa’s secondary forced Nichols into the check-down in the GIF above – and that’s OK – it becomes a problem when the quarterback quickly takes defense’s bait and throws underneath when he has even a slight hesitation about throwing over top of the linebackers.
Nichols is just as willing as other quarterbacks to give his receiver a chance to make a play, but he must fight the temptation of frequently taking the defense’s bait and missing opportunities for plays downfield on 2nd-&-long when the opposition drops everyone into coverage.
While there’s other weaknesses in Nichols’ game – those of which that are not linked to his game-manager label, but rather simply all-around flaws – he came along nicely in 2016. Lapolice likely graded Nichols out quite well, and perhaps better than other offensive coordinators would have. There’s a reason Drew Willy absolutely abused throwing the check-down to Andrew Harris out of the backfield in 2016 after seemingly not throwing a single check-down in two seasons under Marcel Bellefeuille. Under Bellefeuille, Willy thrived on using his solid arm-strength and decent release time to force plays downfield, but it unfortunately led to him taking a lot of punishment. Lapolice heavily encouraged his quarterback room when he took over to make quick, safe decisions and avoid taking unnecessary hits – after all, his starting quarterback was coming off a slew of injuries in 2015, including a season-ending knee issue. And while Lapolice certainly wanted to see Willy check the ball down more, it obviously wasn’t his intention to have no. 5 absolutely abuse them.
There’s reason to believe that Nichols can shed the game-manager label in his second year in the system. Lapolice will cater his offense towards Nichols’ strengths and the Bombers’ new-found, really good pass-protection. Nichols, who’s still growing as a passer at almost 30 years-old, has shown glimpses of what he needs to do more consistently in the future.
Nichols has shown that he’s not that much of a game-manager, but he’s going to have to make more throws like the one in the above GIF against those types of coverages in the future to completely remove himself from that conversation. Although Rory Kohlert dropped the ball, that was a really great play by Nichols – evidently, there’s reason to believe that Nichols can make plays like this more consistently next year and ultimately shed the game-manager label in his 8th professional season.
He needs to be re-signed first before we talk about next season, though.