One of the interesting things about writing about football is that ultimately a lot comes down to chance.
Last month I was fortunate enough to sit through the CFL Combine in Regina as part of the CFL Week and saw first hand the invited players and how well they performed the various drills. It was interesting to try then to project those results into on-field performance.
It’s not as easy as you might think. Some players do well in the drills, but when it comes to the one on one drills or game day, they might not do as well because maybe they have gotten this far on intelligence and perhaps lifting weights, but and to be a successful pro, you need not just talent, but hard work.
That’s sort of the reverse thing with players who show well on the field, but find it hard to perform well in drills or practice. In those cases those players perform well when the lights come on, but fair to realize their full potential because they can’t seem to do the mental work to know the playbook and fully understand and use all the weapons available in the playbook. Football in Canada is 12 people working together as one and if one person is free-lancing and doing their own thing, then the unit on the field is not going to work to its fullest potential.
So the CFL draft is kind of a futures market, where you project where the university player today is going to end up two to three years down the line. If you are a GM, you have to make a decision of whether to go for the best player available to you right now, or the best player that may be available in a year or two depending on the extent of their NFL aspirations, or the player that best fits the particular needs of your team at the moment.
So with the NFL draft out of the way and Canadian players either being drafted or invited to NFL undrafted free agent camps, GMs are asked to take a long and short term view about prospects. If they can get a prospect into camp right away, that is an immediate payoff, but if they can get a really talented player in a lower round to show up in a year or two years time, that would also help the team by improving it without taking too much of a risk.
In the case of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Chris Jones wants to bring sustained success to the Riders and that starts with a healthy Canadian contingent. After going through 100 plus players last year and incurring various league fines for illegally practising suspended players or trying to work out players on the sly, one could argue that either the Riders recruiting was not that smart or they were so intent on bringing in players, they forgot to figure out how to play together as a team.
The Canadian talent on the Riders two years ago was perhaps over-priced for the productivity it was providing the team. The problem was once you moved past the aging and injured starting Canadian talent, the talent drop-off was remarkable and the Riders didn’t have the picks to make up ground quickly.
So last year they heisted Ese Mrabure and Dillon Guy from the BC Lions practice roster. Mrabure who had been drafted fifth overall by BC in the 2015 draft gave a workman-like performance at defensive line. Guy was injured for the entire season but at the Rider mini-camp this year, the knee brace he had been wearing was off and he appears ready to contribute.
The Riders first overall pick Josiah St. John was one of those players who had the athletic ability, but discovered he need to work on his strength and footwork if he was going to have a productive football career. Apparently he has dropped weight while working harder in the weight room and apparently working on his footwork so he can be more than a turnstile and able to handle physical defensive players.
So the two areas of likely concentration for the Riders in this year’s draft would be the defensive line and I would have thought linebacker to find a worthy back up to Henoc Muamba, a talented Canadian linebacker who has a tendency to shift ratios, but also shift back to the NFL when he thinks he has a chance.
The thing with Muamba is because of the current collective bargaining agreement in the NFL, after being on a practice roster for a number of years, Muamba would have to be promoted to a starting position or let go. Since he is unlikely to continue collecting practice squad money, which is probably better than starting CFL money, Muamba would have to remain in the CFL and it may be the Riders good luck he stays with them.
So there are two apparent areas of need for the Riders, but another thing Jones is concerned with is character on the team.
The Riders did go on a four game winning streak last season, but in the last three games of the year, they got beat by a rookie quarterback in Vernon Adams Jr. in the rain at Taylor Field, then laid a giant non-participation egg against the BC Lions in the final game at Taylor Field that looked like it meant more to the fans than it did to the Riders, and then got blown out in the last game of the year against the BC Lions.
So the team appeared to lack the mental toughness to handle the cold rain, never mind the Montreal Alouettes, and then lacked the pride to match the fans intensity against the BC Lions. As a long suffering Rider fan and owner, I cringe every time I hear an opposing team has a ceremony honouring a retiring player when the Riders come to visit because nine times out of 10 those teams play well and thump the Riders. The Riders on the other hand are gracious hosts and usually lose on special occasions like that.
So Jones is looking for not just talent, but mental toughness and character in players to avoid repeating those situations this year. With the second overall pick he went with Cameron Judge, a linebacker at UCLA who is considered the most explosive player and even better, was captain of his special teams unit at UCLA.
Judge is going to a free agent camp for the Houston Texans of the NFL, so it may be awhile before he shakes free. Jones likes what he calls measurables and I never really appreciated what that meant until I met defensive lineman Willie Jefferson. With his extraordinary arm length, as a defensive lineman there are a number of ways he could disrupt an opposing offense and Judge could either go to linebacker or move to safety, which is interesting because Steve Francis, who was a former receiver turned safety last year, is now being listed as a linebacker, which is interesting. If Judge lines up at safety, that would allow the Riders to use Francis’ skill set at linebacker which would result in less risk of teams picking on him as they did when he was safety because he was all alone at safety.
Now to show how silly some of the draft talk goes, when the Riders picked Judge, Blue Bomber talk said the Riders would regret not taking Dariuz Bladek, who had figured out he was somehow eligible for the Canadian draft, and is an offensive lineman who showed well in the drills I saw at the Combine even though he hasn’t played football in a year.
The Riders went with a futures prospect in tight end Anthny Auclair of Laval who got money from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent. The rumor mill is he is expected to be in Tampa for at least a year, but if he comes up, his size and skills are supposed to be in the Ray Elgaard range, which is pretty spectacular if true.
One name to keep in mind is Eddie Meredith of Western, who played at Boston College, and hung up his cleats at the start of the 2016 season. The Riders brought him in and tested him before the draft and apparently he might be the steal of the draft. If this offensive lineman can make the team, then the Jones check under every rock for players approach may start to pay off.
The Riders added receiver Mitchell Picton who will be joining Mitchell Baines, a free agent signing from the University of Ottawa who impressed in the Rider mini camp. Picton will need to add some weight, but the Riders are looking to upgrade their Canadian talent all over, not just on the offensive line.
Another offensive lineman is Danny Sprukullis of Toronto who has the ability to play tackle or guard. The Riders like his measurables 6’4” 325 Lbs, but this is a player who if he sticks on the roster, will likely not take off for a couple of years or so until he learns his trade.
The Riders selection of linebacker Alerxandre Chevrier was due to his being highly rated as a special teams player. He was the fastest linebacker at the Combine and that speed will help on special teams and perhaps learning to be a back-up linebacker as well.
Emmanuel Adusei of Ottawa is a 6’2” 357 lb defensive tackle who could be moved to the guard position. This is obviously another of Chris Jones project players and the interesting thing will be how well he rises to the challenge since he seems to have the size to be a force no matter where he lines up.
Marc Glaude is an offensive tackle who missed last season with an ankle injury, but performed well in the East-West Shrine game. Glaude will be an inside offensive lineman, able to play centre or guard and his versatility will help him make the team. Considering he slid down the draft day due to his injury, if he has recovered, the Riders effort to fill the holes in their Swiss Cheese offensive line will be taken more seriously.
So now the next step comes May 28th when the Riders open their training camp in Saskatoon. The Rider Fan day is June 3 where the Riders will hold a scrimmage and afterwards fans can meet the players on the field, get selfies and autographs.
June 10 is the Rider exhibition game against Winnipeg which will likely sell out. That game is not televised because apparently TSN wants to save the stadium its close up at the July 1 season opener against yes, the God Less Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The Riders final pre season game against BC June 16 will be televised, giving fans a pretty good idea of what the team may look like heading into the season.
With training camp showing up, it will be interesting to see if Chris Jones has learned from the mistakes made last season and whether the team is ready to make the move to actually contending.
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