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TORONTO — It was a big night for Canada’s top football prospects as Mathieu Betts, Shane Richards and Justin McInnis all went off the board early on a memorable night at the 2019 CFL Draft.
Hours after it was reported Richards would be the number one pick, the versatile Oklahoma State offensive lineman was the first to go off the board when he was selected by the Argos.
“I didn’t know anything until the start of this week when my agent gave me a call and said there was a possibility that that might happen,” said Richards. “I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet, I don’t think it’s going to hit me until I’m strapped up and I’m walking out to the first practice.”
After the Ticats went with a hometown connection in Hamilton native and offensive lineman Jesse Gibbon, the Eskimos snagged No. 1 prospect Betts, who signed an undrafted NFL priority contract with the NFL’s Chicago Bears the week before the draft.
“The stadium is only 20 minutes from my house so I’m super excited,” said Gibbon of landing with the Ticats. “It’s a privilege to be out there playing professional football. I’m just going to show up to camp in a positive mentality and make the most of being a second overall pick.”
While the Bombers bolstered their trenches on both sides of the ball, selecting offensive lineman Drew Desjarlais fourth and Tennessee defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo fifth, the Riders addressed a top need with Justin McInnis, considered by many to be the top pass-catcher in the draft.
“It was a no-brainer for us,” Walters said of Desjarlais. “We had him ranked very high. He’s tough, he’s physical. He can grow and develop and we think he’s a really big asset.”
The REDBLACKS took Alex Fontana seventh, marking the fifth year in a row they’ve taken an O-lineman in the first round, while the Stamps closed out the opening stanza with highly-touted receiver Hergy Mayala out of the University of Connecticut.
As is usually the case at the CFL Draft, Thursday’s events were predictably unpredictable.
In the second round the Argos landed highly lauded Laurier defensive end Robbie Smith, while the Ticats went off the board with receivers Nikola Kalinic and David Ungerer.
UNLV’s Kyle Saxelid was one of only two offensive linemen to go off the board in the second round to the Eskimos, while the Als made their first pick at 13 overall with receiver Julien Kaion-Grant.
The highlight of the second round may have been when the Bombers selected local product and highly-touted running back Brady Oliveira out of the University of North Dakota. The productive NCAA back could be the heir to the throne for ratio-breaking running back Andrew Harris.
The Argos and Alouettes closed out the second round with their territorial picks that were rewarded at 18th and 19th overall. The Argos took Fresno State defensive back Matthew Boateng, followed by the Als taking Laval product and offensive lineman Samuel Thomassin.
Another major milestone came in the third round when quarterback Michael O’Connor was selected by the Argos, the highest quarterback taken since Jesse Palmer when he went 15th overall in 2001.
Fellow quarterback Chris Merchant out of Western was expected to be taken as well, but ended up going undrafted.
Following a dramatic plunge, Northern Colorado offensive lineman Zach Wilkinson was picked by the Alouettes 21st overall. Many had tabbed him as a first round pick in the weeks leading up to the draft.
Top-ranked receivers Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and Chris Osei-Kusi fell further than expected, landing with the Argos 23rd overall and the Alouettes 30th overall respectively.
Western defensive back Hakeem Johnson will be joined by his brother, receiver Shaq Johnson, after being picked 33rd overall by the Lions.
For coaches, scouts and general managers across the CFL, Thursday night capped off months of film sessions and scouting trips in the span of just over three hectic hours.
But while draft prognosticators will pour over this year’s draft class and pick winners and losers, the reality is it will take years to determine which teams truly came up clutch in the draft room.
Teams like the Argos, who picked first overall, and the Bombers, who had back to back picks in the first round, hope it will be franchise-altering.
The Blue and Gold ended up with a haul of top prospects with Desjarlais, Kongbo and hometown running back Oliveira. Kongbo could work his way back slowly from a season-ending injury last season in college, but Walters believes he could be a future ratio-breaker at defensive end.
“Jonathan Kongbo was too good to not draft,” said Walters. “He had a knee injury which hurt his NFL stock. He was too good to pass up. I think he can start at defensive end.
“At the very least he’s going to be a rotational guy that can get in there and push the pocket. He’s big and he’s strong, he has the athletic frame to grow into a starter.”
The Argos, meanwhile, hope Richards can become a cornerstone on their offensive line for years to come.
“Shane Richards has all the ingredients required in order to be the first overall pick,” said CFL.ca’s draft analyst Marshall Ferguson. “The length and athleticism he provides at his rare size is special but what separates him is major Division I game film blocking some of the NCAA’s best pass rushers.
“It’s simply an opportunity and advantage many others in this draft don’t have,” he added. “The Argos clearly did their homework on Richards and it’s not surprising they came to love him enough to select him with the top pick. When the microphones and the cameras turned off during my combine interview with him, Shane couldn’t have been more down to earth and enjoyable to be around. The Argos got a good one to build around.”
Neither the Lions nor Alouettes had a first round pick on Thursday, but both teams made the most of their night. The Lions got some potential special teams contributors in linebacker Noah Robinson and running back Jamel Lyles. The Als were able to snag a few of the draft’s unexpected fallers, including Wilkinson, Thomassin and Julien-Grant.
The Riders, meanwhile, addressed arguably their biggest need in the draft with back-to-back receiver selections in McInnis and New Mexico’s Brayden Lenius.
“He was the top player on our board to start the draft early on in the process,” said Riders GM Jeremy O’Day when asked about McInnis. “It became clear that he was going to become a Roughrider when we looked at our roster and the needs and depth we needed to create.
“We weren’t going to take a position of need unless it was the right player,” he added. “Fortunately enough in a draft that’s deep in receivers we were able to get Justin and we’re happy with that.”
The defending Grey Cup Champion Calgary Stampeders, who have a strong track record at the draft, scored a top receiving prospect eighth overall in Mayala. They also got Laval defensive lineman Vincent Desjardins and Manitoba offensive lineman Zack Williams.