May 4, 2017

Forde, Ferguson tackle the draft’s burning questions

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

TORONTO — The 2017 CFL Draft is days away and the clock is ticking on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Who will the Bombers take with the first pick in the draft? And which prospects are on the rise and which ones are falling?

Two of the draft’s leading authorities in Duane Forde (TSN) and Marshall Ferguson (CFL.ca) offered their expertise on Tuesday, answering some of the most burning questions in a teleconference with reporters.

Here are some of the takeaways:

1. Who goes first is anyone’s guess

With the first and sixth picks, Kyle Walters holds the keys to the first round of the CFL Draft. He’ll have a plethora of options including trading the pick, selecting the best player available or picking someone who is guaranteed to be present in camp next month.

Should Walters keep the pick, which is the expected outcome at this point in time, two major candidates to go first overall are Iowa defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie and Manitoba offensive lineman Geoff Gray.

“It’s wide open,” said Forde, “but my early inclination is that they might go defensive line. One of the guys that stands out to me is a guy who may be more readily available than some of the guys that have signed NFL deals, Faith Ekakitie from Iowa.”

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

Bombers general manager Kyle Walters is on the clock in Sunday’s CFL Draft (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

Ekakitie took some time to find his identity, Forde added, going from defensive end in a 3-4 configuration to an interior role in a traditional 4-3. But the TSN draft guru believes Ekakitie has established himself as a solid inside player that would fit Walters’ plans in Winnipeg.

“He’s a pretty athletic kid in terms of body type I think he’s a little more suited to the CFL than the NFL,” Forde added. “He’s likely to be here sooner than later and would seem to fit with the Bombers ratio-wise. He’s a guy that I look at as a fit for the first pick.”

Ferguson agreed that Ekakitie and the Bombers would be a logical pairing but he’s not giving up on the idea of Geoff Gray — even though the Manitoba offensive lineman signed a priority free agent deal with the Green Bay Packers following the NFL Draft.

“I still love the idea of Geoff Gray, there’s no better fit,” said Ferguson. “The scary part is that he just looks like a Green Bay Packer, he’s gonna grow the beard out and he’ll be playing with no sleeves if he ever gets a chance to dress in the cold weather . . . He looks like that guy.”

Forde agreed that Gray going first is still a possibility and if he is the player the Bombers want, he’ll be hard to pass up.

“A team like Winnipeg might be able to gamble early on Geoff Gray more than other teams might in a rare year where Winnipeg has those two first rounders,” said Forde. “After Saskatchewan Demski’d them a couple of years ago (the Riders took Manitoba product Nic Demski sixth overall in 2015, five spots ahead of Winnipeg’s next selection), they might really want to get their hometown guy.

“Do you think, ‘OK, we’ll take someone else at one who will be here right away and try to get Gray at six’? Or do you worry about someone undercutting you before that sixth pick and maybe take Geoff Gray at one and see what’s there at six. I’m not sure.”

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Either way, Forde noted, there is truly no indication so far of who will for sure go first overall.

“For me, having done this for a while, I don’t know if there’s been a year — maybe last year — where there’s been less consensus in terms of who goes No. 1.”

2. Dariusz Bladek’s stock trending up — fast

One of the more fascinating stories of this year’s draft, Dariusz Bladek was eligible for the NFL Draft a year ago but couldn’t achieve his Canadian citizenship until after the CFL Draft had passed. So after being out of football for a year, Bladek looks to get drafted north of the border as one of Canada’s top amateur prospects out of Bethune-Cookman.

Bladek’s stock appears to be rising, partially as a result of a weaker-than-usual crop of offensive linemen. Just last weekend, meanwhile, teams learned that top-ranked offensive linemen Geoff Gray and Justin Senior probably won’t be available for at least a little while after finding NFL clubs.

Forde sees Bladek as a definite top-15 pick while Ferguson wouldn’t be surprised if he goes in the first round.

“I’ve been impressed with him at the combine as well as afterwards talking a couple of times with him just how much he wants to be a football player and how much he just wants to be part of the Canadian Football League,” said Ferguson. “He’s embraced the whole idea of it and I think he becomes a legitimate first round guy.”

Bethune-Cookman University

Dariusz Bladek could be viewed as a first-round prospect heading into Sunday (Bethune-Cookman University)

Forde agreed that Bladek’s willingness to achieve success in the three-down game should propel his draft stock in the eyes of evaluators. Bladek, Forde said, showed his maturity and understanding of the Canadian game when he showed up at the combine lighter than he was in college.

“When you look at what Dariusz Bladek is physically, I’m impressed by his physical preparation,” said Forde. “You look at a guy who played much heavier in college than when he showed up at the combine and I think part of that is recognizing what it takes to be a Canadian Football League offensive lineman vs. a National Football League or even an NCAA offensive lineman.

“He’s a well-spoken guy, committed, intelligent. He impressed a lot of teams with that part of who he is and a willingness to learn an adjust to the world of Canadian Football. I would think he’s a guy who goes within the top-15 in part because of the constant demand for offensive linemen.”

When it comes to Bladek, teams may see a mature player who will be in camp right away and has the potential to play on this side of the border for the better part of a decade.

“He was kind of an example of somebody that would have been pushed back to the third or fourth round if he was in the NFL Draft,” said Ferguson, “but because it wasn’t his year, because he had to wait out the year, now we’re at this point where he’s just available.

“He’s a guy that you can draft and you can use him and he wants to be here.”

3. Finding the draft day bargains

Last year in the Eastern Final it was a former sixth round draft pick bulldozing the Ottawa REDBLACKS through the snow and past the Edmonton Eskimos in the Eastern Final.

Plenty of failed picks come in the later rounds for CFL general managers yet sometimes those later-round choices are the ones that can define success through the draft.

“To me, off the board guys are the most fun,” said Ferguson. “Kienan Lafrance was the greatest example to me this year of a sixth round pick who had a tangible effect on not only a game but a playoff game, and puts you in a position where you can win yourself a Grey Cup.

“Those guys,” Ferguson added, “are sometimes just as important as the guys taken in the first or second round.”

The Canadian Press

The REDBLACKS may not have won a Grey Cup without former sixth-round pick Kienan Lafrance (The Canadian Press)

For the CFL.ca draft insider, one player to keep a close eye on come Sunday is St. FX defensive lineman Kay Okafor.

“His frame is freakish and he tested super well so it’s like you check all those boxes, and when I watched him in one-on-ones at the combine and saw his game film — he’s only been playing the game for five years so he’s the type of person to me that, if he’d been playing another three years and — not a slight against the U.S. — but if he had been playing in the OUA and been there with a really, really great defensive line coach like a Dennis McPhee when he was with Waterloo or something, he would probably look completely different to me.

“When you actually sit down and interview him, he just talks like the type of guy that I feel like I’d love to have in my locker-room and be around.”

Ferguson says Okafor has plenty of potential but where he goes in the draft is one of the biggest questions of all heading into the weekend.

“He’s kind of a wildcard because to me he has the highest ceiling maybe in the entire draft,” said Ferguson, “and he could go as early as the late teens and as late as the fifth, sixth round — where all of a sudden in two years we’re going ‘where did that guy come from’ and he has four tackles in a game that actually matters and he’s holding down a spot when somebody gets injured or something.”

Another player Ferguson pointed out was Calgary defensive back Adam Laurensse, who played boundary corner alongside Robert Woodson.

“On special teams he doesn’t really fit, he’s an undersized guy, he doesn’t run all that well,” said Ferguson. “But then at the combine, and I know the combine is a dangerous place to singularly evaluate somebody, he just looked like he should have been a national combine invitee in the first place.

“The way that he played the football was aggressive, he was jamming receivers and all the rest.”

4. Will Behar, Vandervoort go in the first round?

As the discussion shifted towards receivers on Tuesday, one topic of interest was the value of pass-catchers in the draft.

Since 2011 when four receivers were taken in the first round (Anthony Parker, Jade Etienne, Nathan Coehoorn and Marco Iannuzzi), only five receivers have been first round selections over the last five years (Shamawd Chambers, Devon Bailey, Nic Demski, Brian Jones and Tevaun Smith).

Duane Forde says it’s an interesting study: While receiver has historically been the No. 2 position in the draft, increasing strength among other positions such as on the defensive line might be leading to a change in philosophy.

“When you look at teams using American defensive backs and using a lot of their [designated imports] on defence and so on, it becomes a case maybe in terms of matchups where all of a sudden teams are thinking they’re going to use more American receivers to be able to match up — to go head to head with those guys,” said Forde.

 

That also coincides with a renewed focus on the passing game over the last two seasons.

“Since the ball isn’t being run as much, I think you’re seeing a little bit more willingness from teams to use a Canadian at running back instead of a Canadian receiver,” said Forde. “So I think that impacts where guys are going to be drafted as well.”

Ferguson agrees that some receivers are being moved down the totem pole. Now, more than before, he explains, most national receivers are drafted as special teams contributors and developmental players.

“When you get to the second, third and fourth round, to me, the Mitchell Pictons — guys that are really good football players at the university level — you’re going to draft them to eventually play special teams and to have five catches a season for you and to hope they can last in the league for five to 10 years,” said Ferguson.

That still doesn’t apply to the rare elite receiving prospect. With Rashaun Simonise ineligible for this year’s draft, Nate Behar and Danny Vandervoort are the two receivers teams may covet on Sunday. Both could go in the first round.

“I think if you’ve got a guy who’s going to be a high-end starter, certainly that increases the value,” said Forde. “Rashaun Simonise, who was in my opinion the best receiver in this draft class, had a failed drug test that caused him to be bumped until 2018 that quite frankly on draft day that benefits guys like Nate Behar, Danny Vandervoort and so on. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of those guys go within the first nine picks.”

Added Ferguson: “That top end, I still think it’s highly valued and I still think we need those guys. I still think those guys are special.”

5. Late addition Judge could have significant impact

Late eligibility didn’t stop Alex Singleton from becoming a first round pick by the Calgary Stampeders last season. Will the same go for recent draft addition and UCLA linebacker Cameron Judge?

Canadian linebackers are always coveted to play special teams and potentially develop as defensive contributors down the road, while Judge immediately becomes one of the top players of his position in what’s considered a weak crop.

“Judge, to me, is certainly one of the top couple of linebackers in this draft,” said Forde. “It’s not a great class of linebackers. Judge and Cristophe Mulumba from Maine are kind of the guys that stand out.”

Stampeders.com

Last year’s late addition Alex Singleton (right) became a first round pick for the Stamps (Stampeders.com)

Judge played mostly on special teams at UCLA but saw action in 11 games at linebacker, making two starts in all against BYU and Stanford. That special teams experience, Forde adds, should propel his draft stock because teams know he’ll be able to help out right away.

“You know that’s obviously of value here, and athletically he’s among the elite guys in this draft,” said Forde. “That tends to be what separates Canadian linebackers as to whether they’re capable of playing in this league or not: You’ve got lots of guys who are good CIS linebackers but the speed when you get to the CFL level proves to be a challenge for a lot of guys.

“Judge, athletically, is a guy that I think may be able to handle that and so there’s some upside there that he may be a guy that can play some reps for you on defence as well.”

The four-year linebacker, who was a team co-captain in 2015, checks in at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds and has run a 4.47 40.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as the first linebacker off the board and he certainly should be one of the first couple of linebackers picked,” Forde concluded.

6. Who will be this year’s Taylor Loffler? 

Speaking of Alex Singleton, it’s hard to imagine, looking back, that the Stamps’ sophomore middle linebacker fell to the lower end of the first round. Even more surprising, however, was the way Taylor Loffler dropped.

Loffler earned CFL All-Star honours as a rookie safety last year for the Bombers despite not being picked until the third round, 19th overall.

“It was kind of crazy,” said Ferguson. “I don’t know how we didn’t just look at him and go ‘tall, lanky, rangy, physical, plays kind of angry, plays the ball in the air’ — and he fell to the third round.”

Forde says he believes it was a combination of things that caused Loffler’s draft stock to drop, from his injury history to the scarcity of starting national defensive backs in the league.

“There just aren’t a lot of starting jobs for defensive backs in the Canadian Football League so there’s not a value early in the draft for those guys for every team,” said Forde, “whereas for every team you can say there’s value in offensive linemen.”

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

After falling to the third round, Taylor Loffler was a CFL All-Star safety in Winnipeg (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Robert Woodson and Dondre Wright, the two highest-ranked defensive backs in this year’s class, could face a similar conundrum, Forde and Ferguson both agree.

Another player that could drop unexpectedly but still offer plenty of upside for his team is Kwaku Boateng. For Boateng it’s more of a matter of fit than anything else.

“If a team looks at Kay Okafor and sees a higher ceiling or sees Fabian Foote and thinks they can play him quicker or he might be more useful on special teams than Kwaku Boateng, then maybe Kwaku kind of unjustifiably starts to drop backwards into the 15 to 20 range,” said Ferguson.

“A guy like Kwaku Boateng, the challenge for him is a lot of teams will look at him as a guy who doesn’t have a position,” Forde expanded. “He’s a Canadian defensive end, he’s a little bit undersized – it’s going to be a challenge for him.

“I don’t see him as a guy who shifts back to linebacker and plays in space even though in terms of body type, that might be a little bit more what he’s suited to do. That’s where I agree completely that I think that’s a guy that you could see fall despite the fact that he’s been a very good CIS football player.”

7. Geography is a bigger factor than ever

For teams and their general managers, proximity to home plays a greater factor than ever at the CFL Draft.

That’s something Forde emphasized on Tuesday, pointing out that unrestricted free agency allows drafted players to get away early in their careers.

“Geography is a much bigger factor in terms of drafting now than it was,” said Forde. “When you’re Winnipeg, for example, you get nervous about drafting a guy who may want to go home to Vancouver or may want to go home to Toronto.

“It affects every team in the league.”

Jeff Miller/Bison Sports

NFL aspirations aside, Manitoba’s Geoff Gray has been heavily linked to the Bombers (Jeff Miller/Bison Sports)

In the past, Forde added, all things being equal, a hometown player would make the most sense — “maybe it gets you some publicity, you’ll sell some tickets, whatever.

“But now, all other factors being close, you’re going to take the hometown guy because of the likelihood that you’ll be able to get him to sign a second contract and stay so you’re not essentially developing your Canadians for someone else.”

Last season the Alouettes took Laval offensive lineman Philippe Gagnon in the first round while Ottawa took Laval offensive lineman Jason Lauzon-Seguin.

The Argos, meanwhile, following their first round pick of Brian Jones, took their next eight players from Ontario schools: two prospects each from Guelph, York, McMaster and Toronto.

It’s even had an impact on pre-draft prognostications. The Ticats have been linked heavily to McMaster’s Danny Vandervoort while no one would balk at Geoff Gray going to the Bombers.

8. Availability means a constant balancing act for GMs

The NFL Draft came and went last weekend and, as usual, threw a wrench in the process for CFL prospect evaluators.

Justin Senior, Eli Ankou, Antony Auclair, Geoff Gray, Cristophe Mulumba and Jordan Herdman have all either signed or been linked to NFL teams, altering their stock ahead of Sunday’s CFL Draft.

For CFL general managers, the balancing act is constant when it comes to weighing the upside of available players against the odds of the most talented prospects ever venturing north of the border.

“If you hit a point where you go, ‘OK, the likelihood of Justin Senior being in the CFL in two or three years is greater than he likelihood of player X developing into a CFL player in two or three years’, that’s kind of where you make the decision to take him,” said Forde.

Yan Doublet/Laval

Antony Auclair is one of several intriguing prospects whose availability is unknown (Yan Doublet/Laval)

For Ferguson, NFL connections can all but rule out a player from being picked in the first round. Last season the first seven picks in the draft all played CFL games and only the eighth overall pick, Tevaun Smith, had NFL ties.

“The GMs are going to want somebody they can actually use,” said Ferguson, “and as we all know, the guessing game is going to be how quickly they’re going to be here.

“For me personally, if I was picking, I would want guys in the first round who were in that sweet spot of really great talent and feasibly could be used quickly if they’re ready and you deem them to be ready.”

A number of other factors could also come into play when it comes to potential ‘futures’, for example the Bombers owning two first round picks and already possessing some of the deepest Canadian talent in the game. Typically, however, the third and fourth rounds are where players like Justin Senior and Antony Auclair, among others, are expected to start going off the board.

9. Is Justin Senior worth the gamble?

The only Canadian player selected in the NFL Draft last weekend, Justin Senior has been the consensus number one player among CFL Draft analysts and the CFL Scouting Bureau over the past several months.

The talent is undeniable; the question is whether he ever makes it to this side of the border, especially after getting picked in the sixth round in the NFL.

For Forde, the payout could be well worth the risk when it comes to Senior.

“Justin Senior is a guy who’s played a lot of tackle at the Division I level,” said Forde. “We know with Canadian guys in the past that hasn’t necessarily translated to being able to play tackle up here but, with the hope that he might be a guy who can play tackle, if you can plug a Canadian in that spot, that has added value.

“With what is not necessarily an overwhelming offensive line class, those are the kinds of things that might move those guys up the order a little bit.”

Mississippi State Athletics

Will the reward outweigh the risk for Justin Senior? That’s the question approaching Sunday (Mississippi State Athletics)

Tevaun Smith was the top ‘futures’ player selected last season, going eighth overall to the Edmonton Eskimos. Trent Corney (Winnipeg) and Arjen Colquhoun (Edmonton) went in the second round while the Elie Bouka (Saskatchewan) and Mehdi Abdesmad (Ottawa) went in the third round.

The biggest comparable to Senior, David Onyemata, fell all the way to the bottom of the fourth round after being picked in the fourth round by the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.

A year later, none of these players has made his way to Canada just yet, illustrating the risks involved.

10. All eyes on Chris Jones

With the second overall pick in his hands, Chris Jones will once again have a major say in how the CFL Draft unfolds. For Jones, this year’s draft will once again be central in the Riders’ continuing rebound.

“Obviously it’s going to be valuable for them,” said Forde. “I think we recognized that last year was a year when overall Canadian talent and depth was an area that needs to continue to be an addressed — it wasn’t an area of strength for the team last year so the hope was to beef that up.”

Last year the Riders took Josiah St. John first overall and Forde believes the offensive lineman still has plenty of upside to develop into a regular starter, if not at tackle then at least on the inside. After spending the last season developing his Canadian depth — the Riders have added both youth and proven veterans in the likes of Tevaughn Campbell, Henoc Muamba, Marc Olivier Brouillette, Linden Gaydosh, Kienan LaFrance and Eddie Steele, among others — Jones may have more flexibility this time around.

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

Riders GM Chris Jones will likely be a central figure in Sunday’s CFL Draft (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

Add in the innovation typically demonstrated by Jones and it’s hard to predict what direction the Riders may be leaning in.

“I don’t know if I’d label one position specifically just because of the way that Chris has demonstrated that he’ll use his Canadians,” said Forde. “It’s not necessarily a great draft on the offensive line and not necessarily a great draft at receiver as well.

“Chris Jones is a guy that I think can take advantage of that because he’s shown a creativity in the way that he’ll use his Canadians and it may vary from week to week. He’s a guy that may be able to capitalize on that a little bit and get some specific parts he can play around with and use on that Rider roster.”

In the end, Forde added, the O-line should still be a focus for the Green and White.

“Obviously Saskatchewan is a team who’s lost some guys over the last few years in terms of their Canadian offensive line depth,” said Forde. “Any time if you have a chance to get one of the top O-linemen then maybe you’ll do that because that’s a position where I think every team feels comfortable knowing they can trot some guys out there.”

In the meantime, all that’s left to do is wait. The 2017 CFL Draft takes place on Sunday, May 7 at 7 p.m. ET, with the first portion of it available live on TSN.