REDBLACKS weigh options with first overall pick

TORONTO — Thanks to a productive winter, the Ottawa REDBLACKS head into spring with a plethora of options in front of them ahead of the CFL Draft.

General manager Shawn Burke has the first overall pick and will feel free to use it in the way that yields him the most benefit. That’s thanks to some moves that give the REDBLACKS very good National depth at the offensive line, a spot that’s filled by homegrown players on rosters across the league.

“Our draft philosophy is best player available,” Burke told reporters on a conference call ahead of the CFL Combine presented by New Era.

“When there’s ties or close measures, that’s when we talk about positional need, but in terms of the o-line we obviously have (Jacob) Ruby and Drew (Desjarlais) and now we have Cyrille (Hogan-Saindon) and Zack (Pelehos, the second overall pick in 2022) as well.

“I feel we have the opportunity to definitely be not drafting based for need, but to draft the best player that’s available to us when we pick each and every time.”

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That’s a great place to be in as the REDBLACKS look to get back to the playoffs this season for the first time since their Grey Cup appearance in 2018. National content is of course a staple of any playoff and championship-winning team. As Burke gears up for his second season at the helm in Ottawa, he feels that’s in a good spot.

As he got set to evaluate talent at last week’s combine in Edmonton, Burke knew he’d be rubbing elbows with decision makers and roster builders from other teams across the league. Talk of his attachment to that first overall pick was bound to come up at some point.

“The last month the draft really heats up. You saw that with the NFL, obviously, they got out of the combine and then the pick was traded about seven to 10 days later,” Burke said.

“I don’t know if that’s ever happened that quickly in our league but when you get a bunch of likeminded people together that like to discuss things, you can occupy a lot of time, be it rules committee or scenarios that can help your football club.”

You don’t have to look very far back to see that the top pick can move. Last year, the Edmonton Elks dealt the No. 1 spot to the Montreal Alouettes, who used it to take linebacker Tyrell Richards. Edmonton used Montreal’s fourth overall pick to take defensive back Enock Makonzo. In 2020, the BC Lions traded up to No. 1, swapping their third overall pick with the Calgary Stampeders to select linebacker Jordan Williams.

Burke isn’t opposed to going off the board to make a high pick, either. Last year, he took Pelehos second overall, after the former Ottawa Gee-Gees o-lineman had made it to the CFL Combine via the East Regional combine a few weeks earlier.


“I think we were really high on him before (the main combine),” Burke said of Pelehos.

“With the film watching we do, we saw a guy that physically did the things we look for in the DNA of an Ottawa REDBLACK. That’s someone who plays an aggressive nature of football. The Combine reinforced that and it added to matching what it showed on film in terms of his athleticism and traits like that.”

Pelehos suited up in 10 games for the REDBLACKS last year. Burke and head coach Bob Dyce will look to him to take a step forward this year and feel confident having added Desjarlais after the former Winnipeg Blue Bomber had spent some time in the NFL. Burke remembered being a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2019 and Desjarlais making a great impression on him in the interviews then. That factored into him going after him as a free agent this winter.

“I remember coming away from Drew’s interviews so impressed with who he was as a person and a player and who he wanted to become, and he’s become that,” Burke said.

“I haven’t been shy, since I took over the job of talking about what we want. We want to be a physical football team, we want to control the line of scrimmage, D and O lines, both imperative to doing that and we want to have great quarterback play. Great quarterback play comes with protecting the quarterback and to have Drew available on the market, I think it didn’t catch any of the teams, our league off guard, but the media beforehand, his name wasn’t coming up.

“I think it was just a huge ad for us free agency-wise. When you talk about building your team, you want to build it with the o-line. When you can get an elite offensive lineman like him and set that tone for your organization between him and Ruby, we feel we really have two great pieces on the o-line to play football the way we want to.”

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