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December 10, 2018

Steinberg’s MMQB: A power shift in the West?

Calgary Stampeders photo/David Moll

If DeVone Claybrooks is indeed joining the BC Lions as head coach as Sportsnet’s Arash Madani reports, I’m fascinated to see how that potentially shifts the balance of power in the West Division. The presumed outgoing defensive coordinator of the Calgary Stampeders is one of the most sought after coaching commodities in quite some time for a reason, after all.

As Jeff Krever suggested when he joined me last week, the Lions and Claybrooks seemed like a really sensible marriage due to the latter’s intimate knowledge of the division. And, perhaps most importantly in the West, no one knows more about the defending Grey Cup Champion Stampeders better than Claybrooks. Knowing how Calgary has dominated the West for the last decade, there’s a great deal of value in that.

Of course, BC has targeted Claybrooks for far more than just his inside knowledge of the Stamps. We’re talking about a defensive savant that presided over an elite defence for the last three years running with an extremely keen eye for talent.

One of the phrases used constantly by Claybrooks is “I don’t coach effort, I replace it.” It’s a pretty cut and dried way of saying if he doesn’t like what he sees, he’s going to go out and find an upgrade. His defensive talent evaluation was on display plenty in 2018 knowing how many injuries Calgary had to endure en route to the Grey Cup.

Players respect Claybrooks because he can relate to them as a former player, and just as importantly, as a recent former player. He commands respect with his no-nonsense approach to depth chart decisions but he stays relatable due to his demeanor and recent experience as a player. I can’t see how these things don’t translate from a coordinator to a head coach.

» Argos name Corey Chamblin next head coach
» Rumour Mill: Claybrooks headed to BC?
» View 2019 Free Agent Tracker

DeVone Claybrooks and Derek Wiggan celebrate during a game in 2018 (Johany Jutras/

There’s one other thing to watch out for as Claybrooks reportedly heads west: who he brings with him. Do position coaches like Corey Mace (defensive line) and Josh Bell (defensive backs) go with him to the Lions? It wouldn’t be the first time a promoted or relocating coach brings a number of colleagues with him. It wasn’t that long ago we saw Chris Jones bring a good chunk of his staff with him from Edmonton to Saskatchewan, for instance.

Mace is particularly intriguing, knowing how similar his career path is to the one Claybrooks has forged. Much like Claybrooks, Mace transitioned from his Stampeders playing career to defensive line coach, where he’s been for the last three seasons. Knowing that, would it be a big surprise to see him take the next logical step to coordinator with the Lions?

You wonder how many players might follow Claybrooks to BC, too. At 41, Calgary has the league’s second highest number of pending free agents this off-season, including a bunch of impact makers defensively. Micah Johnson, Ja’Gared Davis, Ciante Evans, Alex Singleton, and Jameer Thurman are just a few names on that list, for instance. I’m not saying they’re all going to be Lions next year, but don’t be surprised if a few follow that path.

If I’m a Stampeders fan, though, I’m not too worried, even if we see Claybrooks take a bunch of personnel with him. Calgary has shown an incredible ability to restock on the fly, whether it be on the sidelines or on the field. With John Hufnagel still serving as this team’s general manager, no one is going to be surprised if the Stamps are right back on top of the West in 2019, regardless of subtractions.

I’m more interested in the addition side of this for BC. In Claybrooks, the Lions are getting one of the brightest young minds in the sport, regardless of country. If and when this becomes official, the expectations will rightfully be extremely high for BC in 2019.

Top end intrigue

Laval defensive lineman Mathieu Betts is in a very unique position and might be poised to do something we haven’t seen in almost a decade. The CFL Scouting Bureau named Betts the top-ranked prospect for the 2019 CFL Draft in the December rankings, promoting him from the number two spot in August. Depending on how things go over the next few months, Betts could do something we haven’t seen since 2010.

That year was the last time the Scouting Bureau’s top ranked prospect ended up going number one overall in the corresponding CFL Draft. 2010 saw the Saskatchewan Roughriders select linebacker Shomari Williams number one out of Queen’s, which hasn’t happened in the eight drafts since. There’s a decent chance Betts breaks that streak this spring.

Of course, Betts would have to maintain his top ranking when the Bureau releases the final list in April for that to be the case, but there’s a strong chance that happens. Talent evaluators have been raving about Betts for the last 18 months, but his 2018 performance en route to a Vanier Cup might have sealed the deal.

As Marshall Ferguson put it last week, Betts is a freak in the best sense. He was one of two U Sports players invited to compete in January’s East-West Shrine Game in Florida. He also became the first player in history to win the J.P. Metras Trophy three times as Canada’s top college down lineman.

Mathieu Betts took over top spot in the second release of the CFL Scouting Bureau (Laval)

So what makes his case more intriguing than other top ranked players in recent years? Well, unlike past number ones like David Onyemata, Justin Senior, and Christian Covington, Betts’s NFL prospects might not be as high. As such, there’s a decent chance he focuses on the CFL Combine process to start his professional career.

It’s not that there’s no interest south of the border in Betts, either, because there is. But as Ferg points out, there’s a feel Betts might be considered a “tweener” by NFL standards. By that, he means Betts might not be a natural fit in any one of the defensive tackle, defensive end, or linebacker spots in that league.

If Betts does indeed opt to focus on the Canadian route over the next few months, it’d be somewhat of a surprise if he doesn’t get the nod by Toronto as the number one overall selection. Betts has the ability to transform a defensive line, which is something you don’t often see from a national player.

The next few months will determine Betts’s path, but I can say this with certainty: I haven’t been this intrigued by the Scouting Bureau’s top ranked prospect for quite some time.

Quick hits

It comes as no surprise two of the first free agents addressed by the Calgary Stampeders were kicking duo Rene Paredes and Rob Maver. In terms of consistency, it doesn’t get much better than this pair and they’re still doing it at a high level.

Since entering the league in 2011, kicker Paredes has been as accurate as they come with four of his seasons going over 91 per cent on field goals. Statistics are harder to track with Maver, but his work in the field position game since becoming Calgary’s punter in 2012 is second to none. The Stamps have some tough free agent decisions to make this winter, but bringing this duo back was as easy as it gets.

Finally, the hiring process in Toronto is interesting. Before they hired Corey Chamblin as their head coach, 3DownNation reported they had interviewed Ryan Dinwiddie for their vacant offensive coordinator job.

Dinwiddie has spent the last three years as quarterbacks coach with Calgary, so you can understand the interest, but it’s the process that intrigues me. Does General Manager Jim Popp want to hire positions separately? Or does he want to allow his head coach, whether it be Corey Chamblin or someone else, to make those calls? We should find out in the very near future.