CFL teams cannot have too many Canadian linebackers – just ask the Hamilton Tiger-Cats or Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Canadian linebackers are, in some aspects, the heart of special-teams in 3-down football. They’re difficult to develop into starters on defense, but still offer tremendous value to clubs for their play on special-teams, an incredibly important aspect of Canadian football.
This years’s class boasts almost strictly players who project as special-teams players at most – which, evidently, is not necessarily a bad thing – except for a certain NFL-alum who tops our list of the top-10 linebackers in the 2016 CFL Draft class.
1. Alex Singleton, Montana State (6’2″, 235-lbs)
Singleton easily tops this list, as the former Seattle Seahawk and Minnesota Viking was already nearly CFL-bound as an international player before receiving his national status recently. Singleton is a pro-ready linebacker, with ideal size and experience in the professional ranks. He’s an athletic freak, and possesses incredible instincts and football I.Q. to go along with it. Amassing 136 tackles in his senior year, Singleton had incredible collegiate production. He’s a fluid player on tape, with sure-tackling abilities, awareness both in coverage and against the run, and aggressive, physical play at the point of attack. He works off blocks, forces cutbacks and is able to chase down ball-carriers. Singleton has a bright future in the CFL, and it could lead to more NFL opportunities down the road.
2. Terrell Davis, UBC (6’0″, 222-lbs)
Having only spent one season as a linebacker after entering the collegiate ranks as a running back with both Arizona State and UBC, Davis is still quite raw. The mental part of the game, such as awareness and pursuit angles, will need developing, but the physical part of the game is there. Davis is quite athletic, and possesses good feet, hips and change of direction skills, and really put them to display in the combine one-on-ones in pass-coverage. He’ll be a project, but Davis has a lot of potential and has the physical traits to excel on special-teams.
3. DJ Lalama, Manitoba (5’11”, 229-lbs)
Lalama, who participated in the New York Giants’ rookie mini-camp, has been an underrated linebacker prospect through the pre-draft process. Lalama possesses a great blend of size, aggression, instincts and reliable open-field tackling skills to project well as both a MIKE and WILL linebacker. He takes accurate first steps and shows excellent closing burst to arrive with force at the point of attack, creating lanes to the ball carrier for himself and for his teammates. As a physical striker with reliable breakdown skills in the open field, Lalama has been an excellent special-teams player with Manitoba as well. Lalama, who was experience long-snapping, should be a respectable special-teams player in this league.
4. Shayne Gauthier, Laval
Gauthier is your traditional, throwback middle linebacker that plays simply off instincts and doesn’t need to be an athletic, quick player. He reads plays well, flows to the ball and meets runners in the hole with authority. He rarely over-pursues and consistently beats oncoming blockers with a plethora of different moves. His pass-coverage skills remain a question, but Gauthier’s 4.6-second 40-yard dash time may have satisfied scouts.
5. Doug Parrish, Western Oregon (6’0″, 225-lbs)
Parrish, a former San Jose State commit, looked good at the combine, where he weighed in 10 pounds less than expected. That’s certainly not a bad thing, especially considering how good he looked at the combine. Parrish was smooth in coverage and very tough to block in one-on-ones, impressing scouts after a disappointing senior campaign.
6. Mitchell Barnett, UBC (6’1″, 205-lbs)
Barnett projects more as a safety in the CFL, but don’t rule out the possibilities of him playing in the box, too. Barnett plays very fast – he ran a 4.85 40-yard dash for reference – and is surprisingly good at winning battles at the point of attack, shedding blocks with his hands. He understands his landmarks when he drops into coverage and reads the quarterbacks eyes, all the while scanning the middle for crossers. With consistent tackling abilities, Barnett projects quite well as a special-teams player in the CFL.
7. Kevin Jackson, Sam Houston State (5’10”, 223-lbs)
Jackson tested very well at the Toronto regional Combine, clocking a great 4.75 40-yard dash and 4.37 3-cone time for a stocky, 5-foot-10 and 223-pound middle linebacker. Coming from a great program in Sam Houston State, Jackson was poised for a breakout senior campaign until injuries limited him to one game in 2015. He lacks college game film, however, and I’m not sure if his combine performance really satisfied scouts.
8. Marc-Antoine Laurin, Ottawa (6’0″, 222-lbs)
Laurin is an athletic linebacker with quite a few technical issues, but he makes for a potential special-teams contributor. While he does have good size and speed, he’s not aggressive enough at the point of attack, and needs to continue to work on angles and tackling.
9. Curtis Newton, Guelph (6’1″, 211-lbs)
Newton has been the fantastic pass-coverage linebacker in his tenure with Guelph that scouts so desperately covet. Newton isn’t built very big and doesn’t play with much raw strength on the football field, projecting more as a safety in my eyes, similarly to Graig Newman. Newton, who struggles to shed blocks with his hands or with power, doesn’t consistently meet at the point of attack with force, as a linebacker should.
10. Alex Ogbongbemiga, Calgary (CJFL) (6’0″, 233-lbs)
Ogbongbemiba tested well in the vertical and the shuttle at the Edmonton regional, earning himself an invite to the National Combine. A productive, smash-mouth Mike LB with Calgary, Ogbongbemiba recorded 23 tackles, 1 sack and 1 INT in six games last season.
When Kyle Walters decided to forfeit his 2016 1st-round draft selection to pick up Dartmouth safety Garrett Waggoner in last year’s supplemental draft, there’s no doubt the Bombers’ GM didn’t anticipate his club missing the playoffs once again in 2015, earning the second-overall pick in this month’s draft.
Waggoner is now essentially the club’s 2016 first-round pick at second-overall. And while, if actually picking second overall this year, the Bombers would be selecting an offensive lineman, Walters should not necessarily regret forfeiting that pick to get Waggoner in the supplemental draft, as the 25-year-old would’ve been ranked quite well in this year’s class of draft-eligible players, too.
Last year, scouts said Waggoner would’ve been the best defensive player available in the draft had he qualified as a national earlier. And while last year’s draft class was much deeper than that of this year, there wasn’t quite the elite level of blue-chip defensive prospects that this year’s class possesses.
Hindsight is 20/20, and Walters should be content knowing the Bombers landed a really talented, young football in Waggoner. Sure, he wouldn’t have warranted a top-two pick, and he wouldn’t have even quite been the top linebacker this year – Montana State’s Alex Singleton is that guy – but there’s no point coming to any final conclusions about a player who’s only year into his career, and who has incredible potential, himself.
Although he’s not the top linebacker in the 2016 class, Waggoner would’ve been the top safety. It’s a strong class of safeties headlined by UBC’s Taylor Loffler and Southern Illinois’ Anthony Thompson, but Waggoner would’ve topped them all.
Waggoner is an athletic freak, clocking a 4.51 40-yard dash, 4.15 shuttle time, and recording a 43-inch vertical jump and 10’3″ broad jump at his Pro Day. He’s an exceptional player on film, and what really separates Waggoner from the pack is his quick, fluid hips, his exceptional football I.Q., his ability to play in the box as well as in the role of a center-fielder, and his tremendous, fearsome tackling skills. He has the size to weak-side linebacker, yet is more or less just as fast as Anthony Thompson, who’s 20-pounds lighter.
Take the best skills of both Thompson and Loffler and put them in the body of a linebacker, and you get Garrett Waggoner. As shown in my report below, Waggoner projects more as a weak-side linebacker than safety, but with his insane athleticism, he could probably play either position.
Waggoner, of course, already has a year of CFL experience under his belt, and I do believe he had a really good rookie campaign. Suiting up in all 18 games, Waggoner was one of the Bombers’ top special-teamers, playing several different roles, including many of the most important on coverage units.
For a player who the team gave up a first-round pick for, many fans were disappointing in Waggoner’s impact – or lack thereof – on defense in his rookie season. As expected, Waggoner saw very little snaps – which is completely normal for Canadian rookies – as the Bombers were loaded on Canadian linebackers – Sam Hurl, Jesse Briggs and Graig Newman were already established with the club. Regardless, as a result of Waggoner playing in all 18 games, as well as his stout play on special-teams, he was still probably the third-most productive Canadian in year one out of the 2015 draft behind Winnipeg’s Sukh Chungh and Saskatchewan’s Nic Demski.
Waggoner is still likely a first-round pick in the 2016 draft, and although he’d be a reach at second-overall, the Bombers still have the back-to-back picks to open up the second round.
The Bombers’ front-office shouldn’t – and doesn’t – regret forfeiting their 2016 first-rounder to pick up Waggoner. Very few really expected to Bombers to take a step back in the win/loss column from 2014 to be picking at second-overall, and the Sarasota, Florida native has the potential to develop into a starting linebacker, anyway. The Bombers still got, what would have been, one of the blue-chip prospects in the 2016 draft, and he’s only scratched the surface so far in his young career.
Plenty has been made of the NFL’s recent interest in Canadian players, and nowhere else is that best represented than with the 2016 draft-eligible defensive linemen.
The top-3 defensive linemen in this class each have varying levels of NFL interest, which doesn’t bode well for CFL clubs that are looking to shore up their depth along the defensive line in the draft.
It’s an incredibly weak year for defensive linemen beyond the top-3. But, fortunately, those top-3 are incredibly talented. Where they’ll each be drafted, however, remains a mystery, particularly for the prospect that tops the list, who just happens to be the best Canadian prospect in years.
1. NT David Onyemata, Manitoba (6’4″, 300-lbs)
A fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, Onyemata may never play a snap in the CFL. He’s an incredibly gifted athlete, and although he’s extremely raw by NFL standards, with coaching and some seasoning, Onyemata has the potential to develop into a starter down south. He was one of the most athletic interior defensive lineman selected in the 2016 NFL draft, and as a result, may not be drafted until the mid-to-late rounds of the CFL draft.
2. DE Trent Corney, Virginia (6’3″, 251-lbs)
Corney is easily the most athletic player in the draft, as the 6-foot-3, 251-pound edge-defender clocked a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, and recorded a 38-inch vertical jump, 10-foot broad jump, and 34 reps on the bench press, which would have tied him for the most reps at the national NFL combine. In fact, Corney would have likely earned the best SPARQ score – a scoring system designed to measure sport-specific athleticism – out of every defensive lineman and linebacker at the 2016 NFL combine. Regardless, Corney was surprisingly not drafted or offered a UDFA contract, settling on a mini-camp invite with the New York Jets, which has likely seen his CFL draft-stock sky-rocket.
Pending some wild fall-out, Corney will surely be a first-round pick next week, as he has the potential to develop into a starter fairly quickly. He has a great burst off the line, as well as the shoulder turn and flexibility to turn the corner as a rusher. He’s good with his hands and, best of all, fully understands how to use leverage to his advantage. Although Corney has a great motor, he can get washed out at the point of attack as a run-stopper.
3. DE Mehdi Abdesmad, Boston College (6’6″, 284-lbs)
Abdesmad, who signed with the Tennessee Titans after going undrafted in the NFL draft, had an incredibly productive senior season in the ACC after two previous injury-riddled campaigns. The Montreal, QC. native collected 49 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks in 12 games despite being one season removed from a severe knee injury suffered against Florida State. He’s not expected to make the Titans’ final roster, however, so it’s possible that the CFL team that draft’s him could sign him by September, unless he signs on the practice roster.
Abdesmad is an intriguing prospect for the CFL, as I’m not sure if he has the athleticism, body type and flexibility to turn the corner as an edge player. He’s better suited as a defensive tackle, lining up as a 3-tech or a 4-tech. He’s strong and great at the point of attack, but will absolutely need to improve his pad-level before he can start in the CFL.
4. NT Rupert Butcher, Western (6’4″, 327-lbs)
Butcher had the best Combine one-on-one performance I’ve ever seen, dominating every match-up that presented itself. The huge University of Western product displayed fantastic hands – he had three clean swim moves – as well as good explosion out of his stance and power, dominating three separate reps with bull-rushes. He drastically needs to lose some weight – which could improve his shiftiness – but Butcher’s Combine performance likely at least somewhat made up for his mediocre game film. He is, however, a wall against double-teams, planting his outside leg and fighting hard to maintain position in his gap. But I question his recovery athleticism and tackling abilities for a big-man.
5. NT Quinn Horton, SFU (6’3″, 289-lbs)
Horton is quick, agile and strong, but his pad-level is quite poor – he stands right up off the snap. He does, however, play with a huge motor and is quick to diagnose run direction, playing with instincts and football smarts. He has ideal size and really good hands, but he’ll get swallowed by double-teams in the pros if he can’t improve his knee-bend and punch. The Winnipeg, MB. product has good lateral quickness to be a threat on twists, and his motor will help compensate for some of his flaws.
6. DE Michael Kashak, McMaster (5’11”, 242-lbs)
Kashak is able to set a strong edge in run-defense, and while he’s shorter than teams would like at the edge position, he effectively uses his leverage to generate a pass-rush on the outside. He’s relatively athletic, but still kind of stiff and doesn’t have enough bend to turn the corner as a speed-rusher. Kashak is explosive – he is, in fact, better out of three point stance than standing up – and possesses a strong arm-over move as his go-to. He’s a smart player, and could develop into a rotational player in the future.
7. DE Denzel Philip, Eastern New Mexico (6’0″, 228-lbs)
Seen as tweener between defensive tackle and an EDGE, Philip evidently shed a lot of weight to gain the speed and quickness he lacked as a defensive end. Despite the weight loss, Philip didn’t seem much different in combine one-on-ones. Although explosive out of his stance, he’s still very stiff and doesn’t turn the corner until he’s already washed out of the play. I said long ago that Philip would be best suited inside, and with Philip choosing to lose weight to gain quickness as a defensive end rather than gaining weight, that window is closed.
8. DE Boyd Richardson, UBC (6’2″, 234-lbs)
Richardson gets off the ball fast, displaying quickness and agility as a pass-rusher. But he lacks strength to maintain gap integrity and will get washed out in the pro ranks if he doesn’t get bigger and stronger. He does, fortunately, have a few different pass-rush moves, and possesses the lateral quickness to possibly do some damage on twists. He’s a late-round player, however, and could return to UBC for a fifth season after training camp.
9. DT Donnie Egerter, Guelph (6’2″, 278-lbs)
The best thing about Egerter is his ability to perhaps suit up as an offensive lineman, as he seemed adequate in limited reps on offense at the CFL combine. In his natural defensive tackle position, Egerter gets low and has a good bull-rush, but he’s limited athletically and doesn’t have very good hands.
10. DT Tarique Anderson, Delaware State (6’4″, 270-lbs)
It wouldn’t surprise me if Anderson went undrafted, as he’s an incredibly stiff interior defensive lineman, and also has far from ideal size or build. Anderson is very ineffective with his hands and struggles with block-shedding. He’s not quick, explosive or powerful, and has many technical flaws.
Quality Canadian offensive lineman are directly linked to success in the CFL, and the best teams will continually draft at least one each and every draft.
This year’s draft class, however, is not particularly deep, and aside from the top-three offensive linemen on my board, I’m not completely convinced that even the first-round selections will develop into starters down the road.
There’s not a lot differentiating these prospects, particularly those that I expect to be taken in the mid-first to second round (prospects 4-6 on my list). They’re quite similar in terms of their potential, and it could come down to a team’s personal preference for player-types that’ll decide the order in which those players are picked.
Regardless of exactly how talented this year’s class of offensive linemen is in comparison to last year, fans should not complain when their team spends an early-round pick on a blocker. Canadian offensive lineman are a priority as well as the life-blood of the CFL, and each team should stock up.
It’s always wise to choose a Laval product, and that’s where the list begins.
1. RG Charles Vaillancourt, Laval (6’4″, 329-lbs)
A four-year starter at the University of Laval, Vaillancourt is one of the most decorated offensive lineman in CIS history. The four-time All-Canadian right guard is the most polished offensive line product in the draft, making himself the safe pick for Saskatchewan at first overall. He’s a tough, mean, technically-sound center who holds his own in one-on-one match-ups with leverage and hand-placement. Vaillancourt has raw strength as well, getting low and moving defenders, and doesn’t lose many battles once engaged. His footwork is clean and well-developed, and although he can be slow out of his stance, the Coaticook, QC. native has compensated for this weakness with his hands, strength and pad-level. I do, however, think Vaillancourt really needs to lose some weight.
2. RT Josiah St. John, Oklahoma (6’6″, 309-lbs)
Contrary to Vaillancourt, St. John is more of a high-risk, high-reward prospect. The product of Toronto, ON. only has four starts with Oklahoma under his belt, and frankly, he seemed to struggle in those games. St. John simply didn’t have the quickness to contain edge-rushers, and while was ineffective as a run-blocker, he certainly displayed the footwork and the strength to stonewall inside cuts up the B-gap. St. John projects more as a guard – at least to start his career – to me, and although he wasn’t much of a mauler in the run-game, St. John maintains good pad-level and keeps his feet moving. His hand-placement needs work, but St. John seems athletic and has ideal size to be a starting offensive lineman in the future. He’s not pro-ready by any means, but could develop into a starting offensive tackles in a few years.
3. LG Philippe Gagnon, Laval (6’3″, 317-lbs)
Gagnon is a powerful, technically-sound product that may be living in the shadow of Charles Vaillancourt. Gagnon isn’t that far behind his Laval teammate, as he is, in fact, better than Vaillancourt in certain areas. Both out of his stance and while initiating contact, Gagnon is far more explosive, and although I wouldn’t say his footwork is better, he’s slightly shiftier and quicker. Gagnon has decent hand-placement, understands how to use leverage and maintains good knee-bend throughout the play. He must work on keeping his feet moving, or else Gagnon will be the victim of finesse moves in the CFL. Although he will occasionally lower his head on impact, Gagnon is a technically-sound guard who rounds out the big-three of offensive line prospects in this class.
4. C Michael Couture, Simon Fraser (6’3″, 292-lbs)
Couture is a smart, athletic, versatile blocker that has room to improve as a run-blocker before he’s ready to play at the next level. The Burnaby, B.C. native has bulked up considerably over the winter – his senior playing weight at 275-lbs was far too light to play in the pro ranks – and is still the quick, nimble pass protector that he is on tape. He’s not the most explosive down lineman out of his stance, but Couture sets up quickly, remains patient and effectively uses his leverage. He needs to continue to get bigger and stronger – pad-level alone allowed Couture to move defenders in the GNAC conference, but it won’t in the CFL – and is a few years away before he’s pro-ready. Couture is well-coached and relatively technically-sound, but it’s no guarantee that he develops the power and explosiveness to be a top Canadian offensive lineman.
5. C Brandon Revenberg, GVSU (6’4″, 285-lbs)
Revenberg, a product of NCAA Division II school Grand Valley State, is still an underrated prospect at this point. He maintains the best pad-level of any offensive lineman in the draft, has smooth feet and good punch to win battles once engaged. He’s played both center and guard with the Lakers, and looks very quick and explosive out of his snap. The Lakers operated a zone-blocking scheme on offense, and Revenberg seemed very smart, comfortable and patient in the displacement of attacking defenders. The biggest concern, of course, is his size. It remains unknown whether or not Revenberg is still 285-pounds, but he’ll need to bulk up considerably to play at the professional level. Revenberg must continue to improve his hand-placement and footwork, and will need some seasoning as a depth player before he’s ready.
6. RT/OG Jason Lauzon-Seguin, Laval (6’4″ 294-lbs)
After binding his time behind offensive tackles Danny Groulx and Karl Lavoie, who were each first-round picks last year, Lauzon-Seguin made an immediate impact with the Rouge et Or last season despite it being his first season starting at right tackle. The Pointe-Claire, QC. product was a dominant CIS right tackle as a result of his quickness and great footwork. And while Lauzon-Seguin has great balance and agility, I have questions about his ability to shock defenders with his initial block, and his punch to maintain his block without behind swatted or shoved aside. Lauzon-Seguin will certainly be asked to move inside to guard to start his career, and while he compensates for a lack of lower-body strength with quickness, his strength is still not quite where it needs to be.
7. LG Dillon Guy, Buffalo
A four-year starter at the University of Buffalo, it’s difficult to get a read on a player that was facing much harder competition than the average CIS lineman. But it’s hard to overlook some of Guy’s glaring flaws from both an athletic and technical standpoint, as the native of Hamilton, ON., who seems slow out of his stance, also lacks agility, balance, power and punch. Although he has decent footwork, Guy will sometimes initiate contact with his body instead of his hands, and drops his head on impact. Guy has ideal size at 6-foot-4 and 317-pounds, and it’s very evident that he plays with an attitude and finishes blocks, but is not the polished product that a four-year starter at the NCAA level should be.
8. RG Sean Jamieson, Western (6’6″, 306-lbs)
At 6-foot-6 and 306-pounds, Jamieson certainly looks the part. He has several other good physical traits, such as lower-body power, quickness and agility. Jamieson, however, has poor hand-placement and often over-extends for the defender, as shown several times in the combine one-on-ones. His technique and upper-body need refining, but Jamieson’s size, feet and lower-body power could make him an intriguing mid-round selection.
9. OT/G Roman Grozman, Concordia (6’3″, 299-lbs)
Grozman will be a huge project for whoever takes a late-round flier on the Concordia product, as while he might have the best punch of any offensive lineman in the draft, his technique is far too poor right now to put himself in a position to engage with defenders at the professional level. Grozman has slow feet, and he doesn’t keep his weight over his legs in pass-protection, often over-extending and reaching for the defender. Grozman took reps at all five positions at the CFL combine, and while scouts love versatility, that decision may have hurt his stock more than it helped. He has upside, and quite honestly, I think Grozman is better suited as a defensive lineman in the CFL.
10. RT Jamal Campbell, York (6’5″, 292-lbs)
Although Campbell is an extremely raw offensive tackle prospect from a smaller school in York University, he has incredible athletic potential, and if an offensive line coach can develop his technique to the point that they scratch the surface of that athletic potential, Campbell could be a solid late-round draft pick. At this point, however, Campbell lacks patience, has poor footwork that leads to over-stepping with his kick steps, and gets too upright in his stance. He poorly projects as a guard, which hurts his stock seeing as many of the most blue-chip tackle prospects are moved inside.
Best of the rest: RG Zach Intzandt (McMaster), RG Kadeem Adams (Western), Alex McKay (Manitoba)
They’re no 6-foot-6, 310-bound right tackles who played in the prestigious SEC, and they certainly aren’t products of Laval, but versatile offensive lineman Michael Couture and Brandon Revenberg could be sky-rocketing up draft board’s ahead of the CFL draft.
Prior to the combine, neither were notable prospects. Couture, a product of Simon Fraser University, was an undersized player, and Revenberg, who was likely much more favored by CFL scouts than by league pundits, hadn’t garnered much attention being from a lesser-known Division II school, Grand Valley State. Fast forward two months, and it’s easy to see both big-men as blue-chip prospects destined to be selected in the inaugural round of the 2016 CFL Draft.
Couture’s draft-stock likely took a turn for the best the moment he stepped on the weight scale at the combine. The 6-foot-4 native of Burnaby, B.C. weighed in at a healthy 292-lbs, dispelling any questions about his lack of size. Couture played the 2015 season at around 275-pounds, which is far too light for professional football, but put on a lot of weight during the winter months and, as a result, boosted his draft stock tremendously.
Couture evidently already had the athleticism and the technique to worthy an early-round pick, but size was enough to write him off until the middle rounds. And while he should certainly continue to bulk up, size is no longer a glaring issue anymore, and after a tremendous performance in the combine one-on-ones, Couture very well could be a top-5 pick this May.
Revenberg, meanwhile, does not have a dominant combine performance to boost his stock – he opted instead to participate in GVSU’s pro day that weekend – but his game film at Grand Valley State is already enough. A three-year starter with the Lakers, Revenberg might have better natural pad-level than any other offensive line prospect in the draft. He has really smooth feet, and a strong enough punch to give defenders issues with using finesse moves to disengage. Revenberg, a two-time Great Lakes Conference All-Star, played several positions along the offensive line, offering highly-valued versatility at the next level.
Couture also offers versatility – he has game experience at centre, left guard and right tackle with the Clan – and displayed it at the combine, taking reps at all five positions. Couture, who’s well coached in a sense that he sets up quickly after the snap and remains patient, has a great balance of technique and athleticism. He has quick, nimble feet – his kick steps are very fundamentally sound – and appears to be very alert and aware with his responsibilities. He’s not the most powerful player – his technique allowed him to move defensive lineman around in the GNAC conference – and, similarly to most – if not every – draft-eligible offensive lineman this year, is not at all pro-ready. But Couture is certainly talented enough to contend neck-and-neck with Revenberg as the draft’s top blocker behind the consensus big-two, Charles Vaillancourt and Josiah St. John.
After flying under-the-radar all winter, Couture and Revenberg could be the draft’s best blockers outside of the pair in the top-tier. And while Laval’s Phillippe Gagnon is right there with them, there is at least a case to be made for one of the NCAA Division II products – if not both – to be drafted ahead of the ninth-ranked player on the CFL scouting bureau.
Couture and Revenberg are now blue-chip prospects – a far-cry from where their stocks at least appeared to be a couple months ago – and will have made themselves a lot of money recently should they be fittingly drafted where they belong – the first round.
Quality Canadian offensive lineman are paramount to success in the CFL, and the best teams will continually draft at least one – and sometimes up to three – each and every year.
Continually drafting Canadian offensive lineman in bulk every year is crucial, as the CFL draft is, in many ways, a crap-shoot – some picks will pan out, others will flop. Injuries take a toll and make careers short for many offensive lineman, the best of which will depart for the NFL.
With CFL success often being directly affiliated with Canadian content along the offensive lineman, the best teams will often draft one early every year regardless of their needs, and another later on. This year’s class of offensive lineman, however, is not particularly deep. There’s a strong top-tier of offensive lineman, which can now be divided into two tiers with the emergence of Grand Valley State’s Brandon Revenberg and Simon Fraser’s Michael Couture, but it falls off after that.
One player who could be a nice late-round find is York offensive tackle Jamal Campbell, a testing monster at the CFL combine.
Campbell will be a large project for whichever team takes a flier on the 6-foot-5, 292-pound book-end, but it only takes one team to look past the glaring technical issues and see Campbell for the prospect he really is: an athletic freak with a ton of potential.
As the great coach Bill Walsh once said, “You can teach an athlete to be a technician, but you can’t teach a technician to be an athlete.”
Campbell’s testing numbers were off the charts at the CFL combine, as the Toronto, ON. native clocked a mind-blowing 4.984-second 40-yard dash, 31-inch vertical and 7.41-second three-cone time. And while testing numbers are a poor way to evaluate offensive lineman, they can somewhat be an indication of the ever-important athleticism factor, particularly for offensive tackle prospects.
Campbell’s athleticism, the most important piece of playing offensive tackle, is noticeable not only during tests, but also on the field. His short-area quickness is apparent in his kick steps, which requires quick, nimble feet to mirror and contain outside pass rushers while recovering inside to wall-off stunts and twists – Campbell’s natural abilities allows him to do that.
Campbell is also extremely powerful in his upper-body, displaying a powerful punch. He can shock the defender with his initial punch, latch on and not be easily swatted away once engaged. Campbell, evidently, has a lot of natural ability, which can’t be coached at the next level. Natural ability often is a sign of potential, and with the right coaching, Campbell could become an excellent late-round draft pick in the future.
Of course, it’ll take a team willing to invest a lot of time into Campbell. He’s very raw and lacks a lot of fundamental technique, stemming from a lot of different areas. There’s obviously not a lot of film out on the York product, but I found that his eight reps during one-on-ones at the CFL combine showed both the good and the bad of his game.
Balance is very important for offensive lineman, and Campbell often gets too upright in his stance. He’ll often over-extend and reach for the defender, leaving himself susceptible to finesse moves or underneath cuts. His footwork is another issue, and while it’s good to have a wide stance, he can reach too far out wide with his kick steps rather than taking shorter, quicker steps, which he’s quite capable of.
While these are all fixable issues, this doesn’t mean Campbell is a home-run pick, of course, as some of his flaws are quite detrimental if he isn’t able to compensate using some of his strengths.
Campbell still needs to develop his lower-body and add muscle, and as I touched on earlier, he lacks patience. He’ll often rely too much on his athleticism rather than his technique, which will need a lot of work. And as a Canadian offensive tackle who probably doesn’t fit the mold as a guard, the odds become increasingly low for Campbell – many blue-chip, first-round picks who were book-ends in college must move inside to play in the CFL.
But with his freakish athleticism, Campbell has potential. He’s going to be a huge project, and perhaps some teams don’t have the time or the patience to invest into the development of an offensive tackle who, even with seasoning on the practice roster, may never develop into a legitimate professional offensive lineman.
Campbell should still be worth a late-round pick, and while it’s ludicrous to project him as the next Jon Gott (fifth-round pick in 2008) or Chris Greaves (sixth-round pick as a defensive lineman in 2010), he’s shown enough upside to maybe think he could become a solid depth player after some grooming, which would be exceeding expectations for a late-round pick at offensive tackle.
All that’s apparent is that Campbell has potential, and in a draft class of offensive lineman that isn’t very deep, the York product is likely the best developmental offensive lineman in the draft. He has a lot of glaring issues and is far from being any-sort of a technician out wide, but with off-the-charts athleticism, he’ll be in many ways a blank canvas for offensive line coaches to paint into the player they want.
Receivers are often an easy position group to differentiate into different tiers at the CFL draft, but the 2016 class apparently didn’t get the memo.
This year’s group of draft-eligible receivers is, quite honestly, relatively mediocre. A very deep class that lacks star-power, there is very little separating, for example, the ninth best receiver from the fourth-best receiver – it’s that close.
With the no. 1 ranked pass-catcher destined for the NFL in 2016, there are no blue-chip, home-run prospects like 2015 draftees Lemar Durant and Nic Demski. Instead, special-teams value has sky-rocketed within this draft, as it’s already difficult enough for 1st-round draft picks to develop into starting receivers in their career. And, evidently, this class doesn’t boast a 1st-round receiver anymore.
And while it lacks the big names, given how deep it is, this class of receivers certainly must have a diamond-in-the-rough (or two) just waiting to be uncovered. CFL clubs will be finding excellent value from receivers in the late rounds of the draft, and it would not surprise me if every team’s draft-board for receivers was drastically different.
Right or wrong, here are my top-10 receiver prospects for the 2016 CFL draft.
1. Tevaun Smith, Iowa (6’0″, 205-lbs)
The unquestioned top receiver in the entire draft, Smith could still be available at the top of the third round as a result of the interest he’s receiving from NFL teams. He’s a blue-chip prospect, and there’s no doubt he’d be contending for the first-overall pick in the CFL draft had NFL teams not been knocking down his door following an unbelievable pro day performance.
Strengths: Smith really is the total package. A well-built receiver from a physical standpoint, Smith is easily the best and most natural route-runner in the class. He is able to control his blazing speed – he clocked at 4.33 40-yard dash at his Pro Day – to be super smooth in and out of his breaks. His footwork is top-notch, as he has the ability to get in and out of his cuts without wasted movement or stiffness. He doesn’t always need to always sink his hips, restart and go find the football – it’s all one smooth, compact transition.
With a 38-inch vertical jump, Smith can jump out of the gym and be an effective red-zone target. He has excellent ball-tracking skills, excelling at winning contested catches in traffic. After the catch, Smith shows good vision and is great in space.
Weaknesses: Consistency is the biggest area of improvement for Smith. He will occasionally give away his route with his shoulders, and may sometimes fail to maintain his pad-level. When releasing off of jams at the line of scrimmage, he can miss his swat with his hands or can step outside of his halo with his feet. And while he does a good job catching the ball away from his body, there have been a few ‘concentration’ drops in his junior and senior seasons.
2. Llevi Noel, Toronto (6’1″, 202-lbs)
Noel’s rare combination of craftiness in his route-running, dynamic after-the-catch ability and special-teams value could be enough to make him the first receiver off the board. Although I think the next handful of players could develop into better receivers, it’s special-teams value that has Noel, who has some intriguing potential on offense, himself, at the top of the list behind only an NFL-bound pass-catcher.
Strengths: The Toronto, ON. product was a dominate special-teams player in the amateur ranks, contributing in the 2015 season as a returner – he had a punt return TD, kickoff return TD and missed field goal return TD in 5 games – and as a gunner on the punt team, demonstrating great open-field tackling skills for an offensive player.
Noel uses that vision he’s shown as returner on offense, making him a thrill to watch with the ball in his hands. He takes long, powerful strides and does not lack the physicality of a professional receiver.
Weaknesses: Although he doesn’t lack craftiness, Noel is far from a complete route-runner. He has solid short-area quickness, but is still developing his footwork. He sinks his hips and has good pad-level, but must refine the technique in his head and shoulders, which will improve his ability to remain unpredictable and sell the deep route. Noel doesn’t seem to drop the ball a lot, but could benefit from extending his arms and catching further away from his body to prevent defensive backs from making plays.
3. Mike Jones, Southern (5’11”, 178-lbs)
Jones might just be this draft class’ hidden gem at the receiver position – he’s that good. And while I think he might develop into the best pass-catcher of this underwhelming class, his ability to contribute on special-teams could affect his draft stock. Jones is a little bit of a risky pick without having special-teams value to fall back on.
Strengths: Jones combines natural, dynamic speed with stop-on-a-dime ability to form spectacular route-running skills by this class’ standards. He’s the best in this year’s draft at remaining unpredictable in his routes, pressing deep each and every route by driving off pf the line-of-scrimmage with his shoulders square, pads over his knees and legs in full stride all the way into the top of his route. He’s smooth, light on his feet and puts on a clinic with his releases off the line of scrimmage, displaying the ability to use his quick stutter, explosiveness, and also, to a lesser degree, his hands. Jones also supplies some craftiness as a route-runner, using that wiggle he has to step outside his halo at the stem of the route to stutter without losing balance or burst.
He has solid ball-tracking skills in the air and serviceable hands, catching the ball away from his body and with natural form. He runs a full-route tree and is adequate at reading zone coverage and maintaining spacing in his routes, which was important for Southern’s Air Coryell offense.
Weaknesses: Although he’s found a way to compensate for his lack of size in his releases, Jones still noticeably lacks physicality and, as a result, some after-the-catch ability. He doesn’t have a lot of fight in contested-catch situations, and is easily brought down in the open-field. Jones’ vision, meanwhile, doesn’t help his after-the-catch ability, and can affect his abilities as a returner, which is really the only aspect of special-teams that the diminutive speedster could play. And while he’s one of the best route-runners in the class, he’s far from a polished receiver, as he needs to continue to work at bursting out of break and coming back to football.
A three-year starter at Norther Illinois, there’s no questioning Brescacin’s level of competition at the collegiate level. As a sophomore in 2013, he posted career highs in catches (33), yards (499) and touchdowns (6) while playing with QB Jordan Lynch, who’s currently a member of the Edmonton Eskimos.
Strengths: Brescacin is able to compliment his huge frame with solid feet, allowing him to run crisp, sharp routes. He effectively uses his large frame to win contested catches in the end-zone and along the sidelines, boxing out defenders and catching the ball at it’s highest point. Although he’s not exactly fast, Brescacin is a long-strider that can stretch the field down the seam. He projects as essentially a tight-end playing out wide at the Z-position.
Weaknesses: Brescacin, who clocked a respectable 4.62-second 40-yard dash, doesn’t play with a lot of burst or acceleration. He clearly has excellent size, but really lacks short-area quickness and hasn’t found a way to compensate for that. He’s fairly slow in and out of breaks, and also isn’t very fundamentally sound with his hands at the line of scrimmage or his head and shoulders in his route-running.
5. Felix Faubert-Lussier, Laval (6’0″, 216-lbs)
A testing monster at the CFL draft, I see a lot of upside in Faubert-Lussier. He has a lot of the traits to potentially develop into a rotational slot-back, and if he adds weight, he could be converted into more of an H-back role. But special-teams is where his true value lies, and as a large, physical player with exceptional athletic abilities, he could be a versatile, dynamic special-teamer. Faubert-Lussier is one of the draft’s biggest sleepers, and if it wasn’t so difficult to compare evaluating play at the top NCAA level versus the CIS level, he might be ahead of the fourth-ranked receiver on this list.
Strengths: Faubert-Lussier is not just an athlete at receiver that can’t put it together into a route – he’s actually really underrated as a route-runner. He’s disciplined with his pass-patterns, running sharp routes and, most surprisingly, offering some craftiness at the top of his stem, too. Faubert-Lussier has surprisingly deceptive speed – he clocked a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the combine – and actually has some wiggle in his step. He has experience making difficult catches, and also does a good job attacking the ball on short throws.
Weaknesses: The Laval product, like every prospect, has some flaws as a route-runner. Although I did mention his footwork above, he takes an awful lot of steps while breaking down. Faubert-Lussier can also improve his head and shoulders during his stem to remain unpredictable, which could cover up some of his other flaws. Depending on how teams think they can maximize his potential, Faubert-Lussier will need to put on weight if teams view him best as a fullback, which could take away from some of his abilities.
6. Brian Jones, Acadia (6’4″, 230-lbs)
Jones is a small-school product who garnered a lot of hype at the CFL combine. But don’t add me to the bandwagon yet, as I’m not quite buying it. Understandably, Jones could be drafted higher than others as a result of his special-teams value, but I don’t see a ton of potential as a receiver at the next-level. He could be a better fit as a more athletic H-Back, similarly to Spencer Moore in Saskatchewan.
Strengths: Jones has a large frame and knows how to use it to his advantage. He’s a physical, willing blocker, and can box out defenders when going up for the jump-ball, catching the pass at it’s highest point. Jones also has very reliable hands as well as a noticeable tendency to explode out of his breaks at the top of his route.
But Jones’ best value comes from special-teams, where he’ll offer much versatility at the next level. Unlike most receivers, with the size and power of a linebacker, he can play on all four units and at many different positions.
Weaknesses: Jones is a fairly poor route-runner at this stage, lacking short-area quickness and several fundamentals. He’s far from a smooth route-runner, as he can be too stiff and really has to sit deep into his breaks for us to see his explosion, which can be considered a wasted movement. Jones tends to round his routes too much – an issue stemming from a combination of hip mobility and footwork – and doesn’t always maintain his head and shoulders running into his cut.
7. Doug Corby, Queens (6’1″, 187-lbs)
Corby, the CFL scouting bureau’s no. 18 ranked prospect, is a boom-or-bust player in my eyes. He poses some interesting traits on offense, but could fall as a result of his special-teams value.
Strengths: Recording the fastest 40-yard dash at the CFL combine with a 4.5-flat, Corby certainly doesn’t lack speed. He pairs that with excellent acceleration and quickness, forming a shifty combination. He explodes off of the line of scrimmage, reaching top speed faster than many receivers, and limits his steps while breaking down. He has a soft pair of hands and catches the ball away from his body.
Weaknesses: While he has very few glaring holes, which is obviously welcomed, Corby also simply fails to stand out in many areas. The biggest area of concern is how he tends to round his routes – that’s a huge flaw, don’t get me wrong – but he’s mediocre-to-okay with his hips and ability to press deep. He does lack physicality though, and may be limited to spot-duty on the kick return team in the professional ranks.
8. Brett Blaszko, Calgary (6’4″, 204-lbs)
Reeling in 10 TD passes in 2015, all Brett Blaszko does is catch touchdowns. The Burlington, ON. native has a lot more potential than people realize, but CFL teams are reportedly questioning his preparation, which I’m not sure – actually, I have no idea – if that’s fair/true. Regardless, I would also not be shocked if a team really reached for Blaszko in the draft given some of his natural abilities.
Strengths: Blaszko has good size and speed at 6’4″, 204-lbs with a 40-yard dash at 4.54-seconds. He has a lot of natural talents, such as smooth hips, great hands and excellent acceleration. He really explodes out of his breaks and also offers a large catching radius. With his size, Blaszko could fill a few different roles on special rules, but don’t overlook his potential to possibly play offense in a few years – he at least has the athleticism.
Weaknesses: Blaszko has a lot of room to improve with many different techniques. As a route-runner, his pad-level, footwork and upper-body can all use fixing – thankfully, they can be fixed. He’s still very much a raw receiver, but with dedication and good coaching, Blaszko has a decently high ceiling.
9. Shaquille Johnson, Western (5’11”, 178-lbs)
The CIS record-holder for receptions by a freshman in single-season, Johnson has taken quite the path to the national combine. He spent the 2015 season with the London Beefeaters, earning himself an invite to the Toronto regional combine and then to the national event. As a prospect, at this point I mostly view him as a poor-man’s Mike Jones, which makes him a riskier pick without the ability to really contribute on special-teams.
Strengths: An extra shifty pass-catcher, Johnson has great short-area quickness and natural speed, clocking a 4.391-second 40-yard dash at the Toronto regional combine. His footwork is surprisingly really, really solid, and he showed the ability to run a full route tree at the national combine one-on-ones. He has the quick twitch needed to win on underneath routes.
Weaknesses: Johnson has less-than-ideal size at 5-foot-11, and doesn’t offer much physicality. Although he evidently has great feet, Johnson must continue to refine his techniques as a route-runner into a more compact sequence of events. Johnson, who has all the physical traits, tested quite well at the combine but still needs to put it all together to become a professional receiver.
10. George Johnson, Western (6’2″, 206-lbs)
Johnson, a player I was particularly excited to see, saw his draft-stock take a significant hit at the CFL combine, where he tested poorly and was one of the least eye-popping receivers during one-on-ones.
Strengths: Johnson has a few nice techniques, such as the ability to change gears to create separation from the defensive back and the ability to keep his shoulders square to not give away his route. He was a really exciting player after-the-catch with Western, showing off a good balance of finesse and power. Johnson has a reliable set of hands, catching the ball away from his body, which he also effectively uses to box-out defenders.
Weaknesses: Johnson isn’t a very fluid route-runner at this point. His footwork is rather suspect, surprisingly, and his hips can be too stiff at times. He doesn’t explode out of his breaks like I’d like to see, and his shuttle and 3-cone times, which he really needed to do well on at the CFL combine, only confirmed this. At this point, it’s easy to wonder about Johnson’s overall athleticism at this point, as he only ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash and recorded an ultra-disappointing 25.5-inch vertical.
Best of the rest: Joshua Stanford (6’0″ – 189-lbs – Kansas), Jamal Kett (6’4″ – 208-lbs – Western)
In a league where only a fraction of the receivers drafted go on to become full-time starters, the ability to contribute on special-teams is what earns many of these players their paycheck.
Even many of the most highly-touted receiver prospects fail to cement themselves as starters in their career, and in a draft-class that already lacks star-power at the receiver position, how a player projects as a special-teamer in the 2016 class, where little separates each receiver from another, could be the difference between a second-round pick and a sixth-round pick.
Aside from Iowa’s Tevaun Smith, who’s likely NFL-bound as an undrafted free agent after a spectacular pro day, there are no blue-chip receiver prospects in this class quite like 2015 draftees Lemar Durant and Nic Demski, both of whom project as future starters in the league. Even Durant, who’s one of the best receiver prospects in a long time, fell all the way to the bottom of the second round as a result of teams possibly worried about his ability to contribute in the ever-important phase of the game, special-teams.
Evidently, special-teams are extremely important when evaluating Canadians at the receiver position, and in a draft class that likely won’t boast a first-round receiver – or one that’s as promising on offense as Durant or Demski – special-teams are more valuable than ever.
Perhaps no other pass-catchers are expected to move up on draft-boards strictly due to how they project on special-teams quite like Acadia’s Brian Jones and Laval’s Felix Faubert-Lussier. Both Jones (6’4″, 230-lbs) and Faubert-Lussier (6’0″, 216-lbs) are big, filled-out bodies, and could become situational H-Backs on offense in the future if they add some weight. Unlike most receivers, these two can play on all four units as punt protectors, kickoff return front-line blockers and on kick coverage teams.
Many other receivers are limited to being kick returners and, sometimes, gunners on punt coverage, but Jones and Faubert-Lussier offer much more versatility – and they could probably be gunners on certain punt sets, too.
Although Jones and Faubert-Lussier both tested very well at the combine, it’s still perhaps far-fetched that they’ll ever become full-time starters on offense. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that they’ll each fall below all the better route-runners and pass-catchers in the draft, though; several players project as better receivers than Jones and Faubert-Lussier – that doesn’t say much – but very few, if any, have quite the same odds as, say, Durant or Demski at becoming starters in the future. In this case, they’d have to make it on their special-teams abilities, and perhaps only one other receiver is expected to excel in this area like Jones and Faubert-Lussier.
Will Jones and Faubert-Lussier be the first two receivers off the board because they’re versatile on special-teams? Of course not, since there are some receivers that have a chance at becoming future starters. (And one receiver that could develop into a starter and serviceable special-teams player). But should they be taken ahead of some receivers that, despite having better skills as a route-runner than Jones and Faubert-Lucier, still likely don’t have what it takes to develop into a future starter? Absolutely.
Receivers do not need to be 6-foot-4, 230-pounds to excel and be versatile special-teams players, of course, and Toronto/Windsor AKO’s Llevi Noel is walking proof. The 6-foot-1, 202-pounder was a dominate special-teams player in the amateur ranks, contributing in the 2015 season as a returner – he had a punt return TD, kickoff return TD and missed field goal return TD in 5 games – and as a gunner on the punt team, demonstrating great open-field tackling skills for an offensive player.
Not only does Noel have equally as promising of a future on special-teams as Jones and Faubert-Lussier, but he also has some of the best chances of any receiver at developing into a future starter, as well.
Noel’s potential as both a receiver and special-teams player could make him the first receiver off the board in the draft. It’s a close competition between three players – Noel, Southern’s Mike Jones and Northern Illinois’ Juwan Brescacin – but neither of the last two have nearly the same potential as Noel on special-teams. And since none are sure-things when it comes to their chances of becoming starters, it might be in the best interest for teams to draft Noel, as he could remain on a roster as special-teams player and rotational receiver if he doesn’t develop into a starter – unless they’re fully sold on a riskier pick, Mike Jones.
And although Mike Jones is a guy who I’m most confident can develop into a starting receiver down the road, he’ll still need to maintain a roster spot in the meantime – and even when he does secure a starting job in the future – on the ‘teams. And Jones, who’s undersized and lacks physicality at 5’11”, 187-pounds, may struggle to find a role even as a returner, though it’d be worth a shot.
Even if CFL teams project Jones to be the best straight-up receiver in the future, they may elect to draft another pass-catcher who can be an effective special-teamer ahead of the diminutive speedster from Texas. If worries about special-teams can drop a prospect such as Lemar Durant, who strongly projected as a future starter, into the second round, it will surely affect the stock of Jones, who is a solid receiver prospect, himself, but not quite like the now-Calgary Stampeder.
There’s no telling how much this will affect the draft stock of other draft-eligible receivers such as Queens University’s Doug Corby, Calgary’s Brett Blaszko or Western’s Shaquille Johnson. Similarly to Mike Jones, Brescacin and Noel, all three are better route-runners than Brian Jones and Felix Faubert-Lussier, but none have the same potential on special-teams. They each have the speed to be returners and, maybe, gunners – particularly Blaszko – but none bring as much to the table on special-teams as Brian Jones or Faubert-Lussier, or as a receiver like Noel, Brescacin or Mike Jones.
Sure, Corby, Blaszko and Johnson all have better chances of becoming starting receivers than the big guys, Jones and Faubert-Lussier, but since the chances for all five of these players are minimal, teams will be wise to form their draft boards based on special-teams.
Special-teams are an extremely crucial element to the game, and the key to a paycheck for many Canadian players in the league. Although most of these receivers seem all bunched together in mediocrity, we can use special-teams to differentiate the players and uncover the top prospects in the 2016 CFL draft class – it’s where they’ll make their money.
There’s no telling how much more attention Mike Jones would’ve garnered following the CFL combine had his 40-yard dash time accurately depicted the true speed of the Southern University wide receiver.
Jones is a speedster, and his 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the combine, as a result of the laser timer undoubtedly being inaccurate, was a disappointment. He did, however, clock a 4.43 later at his pro day, and although that time is much better, a 40-yard dash time doesn’t justify just how exceptionally fast the diminutive, 5-foot-10 receiver really plays on the field.
In a class of receivers where no one has really stood out from the rest, the 40-yard dash was Mike Jones’ opportunity to differentiate himself from the pack of receivers and create some pre-draft hype of his own – at least to CFL fans and pundits, that is. CFL scouts know what he’s about, and whether or not he’s the first pass-catcher to hear his name called in the CFL draft, Jones could be the draft’s hidden gem at receiver this year.
If Jones isn’t the first or second receiver on team’s draft boards – excluding Tevaun Smith, who’s NFL bound – then he’s being underrated.
Simply put, Jones is a threat on every play, and that’s not just attributed to his lightning-fast speed. He’s constantly a threat because of his ability to take full advantage of his speed on every play to set defensive backs up in his route, something no other receiver can do as well as Jones, and something many really struggle with. The Bryan, Texas native drives off the line of scrimmage with his pads over his knees all the way into the top of his route, making himself completely unpredictable and constantly a threat to run a deep route.
Jones is able to do this better than any receiver due to his ability to stop on a dime. He’s extremely light on his feet and can break down from top-speed and into his cut in very, very minimal steps. Therefore, he doesn’t need to cheat into his route, and can press deep each and every time.
Jones threatens the deep route by keeping his shoulders square and legs in full stride all the way into the top of the route before breaking down faster than any receiver in this draft class. These abilities, combined with the craftiness of fellow draft-eligible receiver Llevi Noel in his route-running to step outside his halo and punch, makes him the best route-runner in the class. He’s not quite a complete route-runner – I’d like to see him show more burst out of his break among a few other nuances – but the closest there is in the 2016 draft class.
Despite missing most of his senior season with lingering injuries, Jones has ascended as potentially the first receiver off the board when the time comes at the CFL draft. His combine performance was excellent, as the track-star displayed all of his strengths as a route-runner, as well smooth running, good burst and a particular wiggle in his step.
It’s hard to find a knock on Jones before the ball is thrown, but he does lack an element of physicality and after-the-catch ability. Jones is easily brought down in the open field and doesn’t have the strength to fight for the ball in the air. But like a certain Chris Williams, he’s found a way to compensate for a lack of size at 5-foot-11, 178-pounds.
Jones puts on a clinic with his releases at the line of scrimmage, covering up for a lack of strength. He’s unpredictable and displays exceptionally quick footwork from a narrow stance. He influences defenders with his shoulders and shows a great burst out of his stutter-step, leaving poor defensive backs in the wind. He’s so fundamentally sound in his footwork, and in translates clearly into his routes and releases, which can seriously be clinics at times.
Jones has found a way to compensate for a lack of size when catching the ball, too. He has really solid ball-tracking skills in the air, and in short and intermediate patterns, he attacks the ball away from his body to prevent defensive backs from making plays. His hands aren’t the best in the class, but they’re good enough.
In a class of receivers with no bona-fide, blue-chip prospect with no NFL interest that’s a lock for the first round, the ability to play special-teams will have extra emphasis when evaluating receivers this year. While Jones lacks strength and physicality, he could still project as a situational punt returner, though his vision needs some coaching assistance.
That’s not to say he’s not a smart football player, though, as Jones has demonstrated the ability to read zone coverage in his routes and find soft spots. He understands route spacing, and was depended on to be in the right spot at the right time in Southern’s Air Coryell scheme. He’s more than a one-dimensional player, and despite his effectiveness on go-routes, runs a full route tree.
Although the hype isn’t there, Jones could be the drafts best-kept secret at receiver in a class of pass-catchers that’s far from being differentiated. And although he might not be the first, second or third receiver taken off the board, he has the potential to make the most impact on offense in his CFL career.
No receiver in this class is as good of a prospect as Nic Demski or Lemar Durant, but Mike Jones, who’s versatile in his sharp, clean route running, combines the skills of several of this year’s draft-eligible receivers to form perhaps the best, straight-up receiver in the 2016 CFL draft class.
If there’s one sleeper to keep an eye on, it’s Southern University’s Mike Jones.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders, the CFL’s most active team this off-season, may not be done creating waves around the league.
The main event of the off-season for Chris Jones’ Riders is the upcoming CFL draft in May, and with razor-thin Canadian depth on the roster, the idea of trading back in the 1st round for additional draft picks is not only an attractive option, but perhaps even the best option for Saskatchewan.
After the 1st overall pick, the Riders don’t have another selection until late in the third round with the 24th and 27th overall picks – not ideal for a rebuilding team. With only one Canadian linebacker on the roster – second-year player Nehemi Kankolongo – and other significant holes, the Riders could see several of this year’s draft picks suit up in 2016, further emphasizing the importance of this draft.
Although there’s room to improve at every position except, perhaps, defensive end, the Riders are particularly in need of Canadian receivers, fullbacks, defensive backs and, of course, offensive lineman.
The Riders have Rob Bagg and the oft-injured Shamawd Chambers penciled in to start at receiver, however only have Nic Demski and, to some degree, Alex Carroll as suitable depth players. Brandon, Manitoba native Jordan Reaves, who spent training camp with Winnipeg in 2015, and journey-man Seydou-Junior Haidara are also on the roster, but neither are expected to make final cuts.
The Riders made some nice signings at running back in Matt Walter and undrafted UBC product Brandon Deschamps, but are weak at the fullback position with Spencer Moore and former Blue Bomber Carl Fitzgerald – both considered below-average among their peers.
Graig Newman, a former-Rider who the team signed in free agency, is expected to start at safety after spending the 2015 season as a special-teams player for the Bombers. Behind Newman is Matt Webster, Kwame Adjei, a 5th-round pick from last year, and another former Bomber, Dan West, to serve as depth and vital special-teamers. Assistant GM John Murphy acquired one of his most recent draft picks, University of Regina CB Tevaugh Campbell, from the Stampeders in exchange for a fourth-round pick, and although there’s no lack of bodies, the Riders could certainly upgrade the talent-level at the position for Canadians. Someone such as UBC safety Taylor Loffler would be an excellent addition in the middle of the 1st round.
If Chris Jones doesn’t receive an offer he likes, the Riders would likely hang on to the 1st overall pick and select either an offensive lineman – Laval RG Charles Vaillancourt or Okalahoma RT Josiah St. John are logical fits – or perhaps Michigan State CB Arjen Colquhoun, who may receive NFL interest after an impressive pro-day.
While offensive line is a need for the Riders – Chris Best isn’t getting any younger, and not everyone is sold on Dan Clark – it is not nearly as much as a pressing need as linebacker, defensive back, receiver or even fullback. And if Saskatchewan wants effective upgrades – and also a chance to draft exceptional UBC punter Quinn Van Gyslwyk to challenge Tyler Crapigna – in a relatively weak draft class, it’ll likely require them to trade back in the 1st round for a second and mid-to-late round pick.
Whereas Saskatchewan has needs virtually everywhere, the Bombers primary focus is on offensive lineman, as only 33-year-old free agent acquisition Jeff Keeping is under contract to serve as depth behind Patrick Neufeld, Mathias Goossen and Sukh Chungh. And with two second-round picks and no first-rounder, the Bombers are, indeed, in a realistic position to trade for the top pick.
It’s a top-heavy offensive line class, and there’s no guaranteeing that the Bombers will get a guy they are completely sold on at ninth overall. The emergence of SFU centre Michael Couture at the combine into the top-tier really helps – he could push a player such as Buffalo’s Dillon Guy or Laval’s Jason Lauzin-Seguin and Philippe Gagnon into the second-round – but given the dire need of help at the position, Bombers’ GM Kyle Walters must be looking for a future starter with the pick.
The Bombers have some leverage and should not, by any means, force the issue and give up any more than they need to reach an agreement with Saskatchewan. The Riders need to accumulate more draft picks, and be it with Winnipeg or another team, would be wise to trade the top pick in the 2016 CFL draft.