Preview: Prospects ready to shine at the 2019 CFL Draft
TORONTO — The Toronto Argonauts may hold the cards heading into the 2019 CFL Draft, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have to feel pretty good about their position too.
Thursday marks an important night on the CFL off-season calendar, as the annual draft takes place at 8 p.m. ET (TSN, RDS and TSN Direct) in Toronto, where CFL front offices shuffle their draft boards and hundreds of draft-eligible prospects hope to launch a career in professional football.
The Bombers have back-to-back picks in the first round, while the Argos, led by veteran general manager Jim Popp, have the draft’s first overall selection. It’s a unique position for the longtime CFL executive, and Popp isn’t divulging anything.
“I’ve never picked this high based on standings, or even trading to have a pick like this,” Popp told CFL.ca’s Chris O’Leary. “The one thing we get to do is we get to dictate the draft . . . People are waiting to see the domino fall. Everyone’s speculating and nobody knows.
“Hopefully it can stay under wraps until it’s announced on TV by the commissioner.”
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For the Argos, who took the journey from Grey Cup Champions in 2017 to last place in the CFL with four wins in 2018, Thursday night is a chance to build on what’s been a busy off-season in Toronto. Since December the Argos have hired Corey Chamblin as their head coach, signed star free agents Derel Walker and Shawn Lemon, and named James Franklin their starting quarterback.
Popp could go one of several directions with the first overall pick, from a highly-touted lineman like Drew Desjarlais or Zach Wilkinson to dominant UConn receiver Hergy Mayala. Unless it’s an offer he can’t refuse, the Argos’ GM has stated he won’t trade the pick.
“I think you look at everything,” said Popp. “You look at your own team, you look at the best players in the draft that are available to you, players that you don’t know if they’re available to you.
“We know (Laval defensive end Mathieu Betts) has signed with an NFL team. We know several others are going to (an NFL) mini-camp with no contract but you have to look at everything when you’re making the first pick. Every situation is different with every team.”
The aforementioned Betts may be the biggest mystery in the draft. The star defensive end out of Laval was named the CFL Scouting Bureau’s top prospect for the second consecutive installment, but the Montreal native signed a priority undrafted free agent contract with the Chicago Bears following the NFL Draft last week.
Betts could drop, or he could become a ‘futures’ pick by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (second overall) or Edmonton Eskimos (third overall), both teams that start a Canadian defensive end and would probably love to have Betts in their future.
While the Ticats are looking to have better success with their high draft pick after 2018 first overall pick Mark Chapman has yet to join the team, the Eskimos are looking to build on their recent draft success after players like Kwaku Boateng and Arjen Colquhoun have emerged as regular starters. Former first round pick and receiver Tevaun Smith will also join the team this year after arriving from the NFL.
The Eskimos will pick third overall after narrowly missing the playoffs last season.
“Traditionally, in the CFL Draft, you’re looking for two to three years down the road – not year one immediate impact – for those guys to really put themselves in a position to have a role in offence or defence,” General Manager Brock Sunderland told Esks.com. “But that’s not always the case. Look at Boateng. He was a productive rotational guy (on the defensive line) immediately.
“You want your draft picks to be competing to start and, if they’re not in that position where they are starting, you want them to be significant special teams players.”
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There’s been some talk the Bombers could look to trade one of their consecutive first round picks, but don’t count on it. Walters appears eager to use both the fourth and fifth overall picks, though the team doesn’t have an overly pressing need.
“There’s been a ton of talk over the last two weeks and we’ll see what gets serious,” Walters told BlueBombers.com. “It’s generally not a good philosophy to be trading first round draft picks for American players unless they’re proven, top-notch American players, which you don’t see happen very often in our league.”
Walters indicated on Tuesday that this year’s draft will be about re-stocking the shelves at the team’s Canadian positions, and even creating competition among the starters as early as this year.
The Bombers appear to have needs at receiver, a position the team is considering filling with three Canadian starters this season, as well as the offensive line, where Matthias Goossen (retired) and Sukh Chungh (free agent departure) are no longer with the team. Former top-10 draft picks Geoff Gray and Michael Couture are slated to start in their place.
“We’re looking at the roster and we’ve got some flexibility in regards to where we play that seventh Canadian,” said Walters. “There’s some good debate as far as where we play him, so the likelihood of us just taking the best player is high, regardless of position.”
The Saskatchewan Roughriders pick sixth and could target a number of draft needs, including at receiver, where Jake Harty will be sidelined for the season and veteran Cory Watson is slated as the team’s starting wideout. The return of defensive back Elie Bouka from the NFL could alter the Riders’ game plan on Thursday night.
Don’t be surprised if the Ottawa REDBLACKS pick an offensive lineman in the first round, something they’ve done in five of their last six drafts since entering the league. General Manager Marcel Desjardins has a strong track record in the first round, and Ottawa’s O-line depth is the envy of the CFL as a result. Last year the REDBLACKS took Mark Korte fourth overall.
The defending Grey Cup Champion Calgary Stampeders round out the first round of the draft, while the BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes won’t participate in the opening round festivities unless they trade. The Lions gave up their pick in a pre-draft trade last year, while the Alouettes used theirs in the supplemental draft to select projected starting offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone.
While the Lions don’t pick until the third round, 26th overall, the Alouettes have four picks from 13-21 overall, including one of two territorial draft picks the league has added this year — one for the Argos (18th overall) and one for the Als (19th) as a result of their last-place standing.
“A territorial exemption is one more local talent, one more guy who knows the environment, who knows the culture and who won’t struggle to get used to the pace of this city,” said the Alouettes’ director of national scouting, Miles Gorrell, in an interview with MontrealAlouettes.com. “It’s crucial for us to recruit guys who will want to stay with us more than two seasons.
“When we speak to guys, we examine their path, we look at where they’ve been. If a player lived with his parents in a village of Western Canada his whole life, he is far more likely to be home sick when he lands in a big city where everybody speaks French. The psychological aspect shouldn’t be underestimated.”
While general managers will once again look to stockpile offensive linemen — last year saw a CFL Draft record with seven O-linemen picked in the first round, and 20 taken in the draft as a whole — this year’s draft buzz surrounds a deep group of receivers. In addition to UConn’s Mayala, combine star Kaion Julien-Grant out of St. Francis Xavier and NCAA standout Justin McInnis out of Arkansas State are big-name receivers projected to come off the board within the first two rounds.
Finally, don’t rule out the possibility of some running backs making waves during Thursday night’s draft as well. It would certainly be a rare occurrence, but Manitoba’s Jorden Lyles has impressed the scouts, while NCAA running backs Brady Oliveira (North Dakota) and Maleek Irons (Ohio) are bonafide top prospects that simply don’t come along often.
The Bombers should have some obvious interest in one or more of these running backs to complement Andrew Harris, who turns 32 this season, but everyone else is aware of the ratio benefits of having a Canadian running back.
“Obviously if you can find a Canadian that plays a non-traditional or American position, it does allow you to do some things ratio-wise,” said Bombers GM Walters. “We’ve had the luxury of playing a Canadian tailback and I think teams will all look – you’ve seen Edmonton playing a Canadian defensive end (Kwaku Boateng).
“The tailbacks in this draft are pretty darn good . . . like we haven’t seen in a while. I would say this is a bit of an anomaly where you see two Canadians playing big-time roles at American schools.”
Watch the draft live on TSN/RDS and follow along pick by pick on CFL.ca with live Draft Tracker, breaking news, analysis and interviews throughout the night.
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- CFL Draft
- BC Lions
- Calgary Stampeders
- Edmonton Eskimos
- Hamilton Tiger-Cats
- Montreal Alouettes
- Ottawa REDBLACKS
- Saskatchewan Roughriders
- Toronto Argonauts
- Winnipeg Blue Bombers