March 19, 2019

Preparation meets Opportunity: More to the CFL Combine than meets the eye

For Jim Popp and the Toronto Argonauts, scouting for the CFL Combine presented by New Era starts well before the big weekend in March.

The Argos general manager, along with his entire football operations and scouting staff, start looking at over 900 prospects as early as they can, evaluating talent and then try to shorten the list by the spring.

“Everybody’s involved in the draft and everybody is looking at film and talent and scouting, getting out to watch U SPORTS games or NCAA games, whether it’s in person or on film,” Popp said over the phone earlier in March. “Then we narrow the field down, we get it under 100 by this time of year. By the time we’re entering the combine, we’ll work that list down between 50 to 70 people.”

That shorter list becomes the prospects that Popp and the Argos will keep an eye on at all three regional combines – the Western, Ontario and Eastern – and at the national stage in Toronto.

» Regional Combine helped Howell to ‘dream-come-true’ rookie season
» Combine 101: The basics behind each prospect drill
» Behind Closed Doors: The art of the interview at the CFL Combine
» The Waggle, Ep. 149: Combine season is here

Argos Director of Football Administration Catherine Raiche and Director of Canadian Scouting Vince Magri take in the 2018 National Combine (Jason Halstead/

Although combine results can be a great addition to any prospect’s football resume, Popp doesn’t like to use it as a deciding factor of whether or not his team will draft a player.

“The game is played in pads with a team and that’s how you really determine how fast somebody plays,” said Popp. “When you do all of this testing, we do this testing whether it’s at a CFL Combine or a try out camp, whether it’s in the U.S. or Canada, these are measurables. The NFL does them, NCAA does them, pro days, we do them. They’re measurables to compare all athletes.”

Defensive back Justin Howell competed at last year’s National Combine, after impressing scouts and general managers and earning a ticket to Winnipeg at the Eastern Regional Combine in Montreal. He went on to get drafted by the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the seventh round and found himself backing up fellow Canadian Antoine Pruneau at safety as well as starting two games himself.

The 22-year-old competed in all six of the testing sessions in Winnipeg including the bench press, 40-yard dash, shuttle, 3-cone and the vertical and broad jumps.

Preparing for each of those drills started early for Howell, as he tweaked his usual workouts to combine-specific training. The Carleton grad added sprinting to his everyday routine, working with a track coach to prepare for the speed drills (40-yard dash, 3-cone and shuttle), along with getting in as many reps as he could at the others.

“My workouts were geared towards sprinting, they’re more track workouts to increase explosiveness and your sprinting ability, stuff like that,” said Howell. “I was doing combine drills, two, three times a week, on top of my track sessions. It was a lot more training for combine drills and I didn’t necessarily feel like a football player. It was a lot different than my normal training where you’d just be doing individual sessions and some kind of speed and agility stuff on top of your normal lifts.”

Along with the six drills, prospects participate in one-on-ones, where they strap on their pads and complete in an on-field battle with other prospects. In this uniquely Canadian Football League session, defensive backs and receivers go head-to-head, linebackers and running backs match up and offensive and defensive linemen battle in the trenches.

“You just have to go with what you know, your fundamentals and trust yourself and just go and compete.”

Justin Howell on the one-on-one session

Justin Howell participates in the vertical jump at the 2018 National Combine (Jason Halstead/

“It (the one-on-ones) can also be deceiving because guys may not have been in pads for four months, since their U SPORTS season and their NCAA (season),” said Popp. “You can’t expect someone to just go out there and be at their best, to all of a sudden turn it on in pads when they might not have been in them for four months. I do not let that be a negative deciding factor. If someone does really well, it can enhance them.”

Along with training, prospects can prepare for the one-on-ones by studying other combine attendees. For Howell, watching film on any receiver that he hadn’t had the opportunity to play against in his collegiate career was high on the priority list before he hit the field.

“I definitely looked at a bit of film just to kind of get a sense of certain guys that I may not have known or didn’t play in the OUA,” said Howell. “I checked a bit of their film to see what kind of route runners they are. At the end of the day, it’s just a one-on-one rep. You just have to go with what you know, your fundamentals and trust yourself and just go and compete.”

While the drills and one-on-ones can give GMs and scouts a sense of who a prospect is on the field, what they can’t tell them is who they are off of it. That’s why the interview process is so important to the combine weekend.

Each team has a panel of coaches, general managers, and anything in between that will bring each prospect they’re interested in into a room to do an interview. Any question is fair game as the clubs try to understand the work ethic, commitment and discipline of each hopeful.

“We try to talk to every single player for a period of time and get to know them a little bit better, find out some key questions we have for them and what their response is to it,” said Popp. “Some players you’ve already had conversations with and some you’ve never have, or never met. All elements of this is important to try to come up with who you want to draft or who you think best fits your locker room or your schemes.”

The combine is, for some, the last chance to get noticed and scouts and general managers will be watching prospects with a close eye as they look for the next Canadian to add to their team’s roster. It’s up to each prospect to take advantage of their opportunity.

“At the end of the day, I got out there, I know I gave my best effort,” Howell said of the combine process. “I still showed out and I proved that. I got my foot in the door and that’s all I really wanted.”