April 20, 2024

O’Leary: How will pro days impact the CFL Draft?

The Canadian Press

We’re now almost a month past the CFL Combine presented by New Era. Teams from across the league have processed what they’ve seen from the talent that was on the field and spent these last few weeks sliding names up and down in their mock drafts, ahead of when the picks really count on April 30 at the CFL Draft.

The annual wrinkle in this process involves the players that don’t attend the CFL’s combine. Of the top 10 players in the spring edition of the CFL’s Scouting Bureau, eight weren’t in Winnipeg last month. Mostly tied to NCAA programs, those players either took part in the NFL Combine or let their pro days, held at their respective schools, do their pre-draft talking, even if their focus at the moment is on hearing their names called between April 25 and 27 in Detroit.

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These talented Canadians with an eye to the NFL make an already difficult job for CFL general managers that much more challenging. Players that do get drafted to an NFL team instantly become considered a long-term CFL investment and often see their draft stock drop, as the possibility of them making their way back to their home country to play professionally comes into question.

Perhaps even more difficult to gauge are the Canadian players that don’t hear their names called in the NFL Draft, but sign post-draft deals with teams and take their shot at winning coaches over in training camps. Mathieu Betts went this route in 2019, signing with the Chicago Bears. The Edmonton Elks still took Betts third overall in the CFL Draft that year and it panned out for them relatively well, with Betts joining the squad in September that year after he was one of the final cuts in the Bears’ camp. Of course, an outstanding 2023 CFL season re-opened the NFL door for Betts and he signed with the Detroit Lions in February.

Let’s take a look at some of those players that CFL teams may have to make difficult decisions on come April 30.

Isaiah Adams | OL | Illinois 

Mock drafts: Fifth round, 165th overall on NFL.com; fourth round, 114th overall on The Athletic; third round, 89th overall on CBSsports.com

This year, Adams has headlined the Scouting Bureau and kept the attention of both NFL and CFL talent evaluators. A starter in all 12 of his games in 2023 for Illinois, Adams was an All-Big Ten Honourable Mention (coaches and media) and an Academic All-Big Ten. He took part in the Reese’s Senior Bowl and did well at the NFL Combine in March.

The six-foot-four, 315-pound Ajax, Ont. product stressed his versatility at the NFL Combine.

Theo Johnson | TE | Penn State

Mock Drafts: Third round, 86th overall on NFL.com; third round, 80th overall on The Athletic; third round, 80th overall on CBSSports.com

The six-foot-six, 259-pound Windsor, Ont. native has a lot of draft buzz around him. He had career bests in receptions (34), yards (341) and touchdowns (seven), tying for the team lead in trips to the end zone for PSU in 2023. He was a 2023 All-Big Ten Honourable Mention and took part in the Reese’s Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. Through 45 games at PSU he has 77 catches for 938 yards and a dozen touchdowns.

He raised eyebrows with a 4.58 40-yard dash at the combine. If you hear his name at the CFL Draft, it might be safe to expect it to be late in the night.

Tanner McLachlan | TE | Arizona

McLachlan is one of two Canadian tight ends generating NFL interest (Arizona Athletics)

Mock drafts: Seventh round, 227th overall on NFL.com; Sixth round, 196th overall on The Athletic; fifth round, 156th overall on CBSSports.com

The Lethbridge, Alta. product played in 13 games at Arizona in 2023 and had 45 catches for 528 yards, with four touchdowns. He was a 2023 AP second-team All-Pac 12 selection and a 2023 All-Pac 12 Honourable Mention. Injury kept him out of the Reese’s Senior Bowl, but he did take part in the NFL Combine. In his two seasons at Arizona, he had 79 catches for 984 yards and six touchdowns in 25 games.

TSN’s Dave Naylor said McLachlan and Johnson both are on NFL teams’ radar as their draft approaches.

Giovanni Manu | OL | UBC

Mock drafts: Sixth round, 214th overall on The Athletic

There could be something interesting brewing out of UBC. Manu has generated NFL interest of late, with NFL insider Jordan Schultz labelling Manu the best kept secret in the NFL Draft. The basketball player turned offensive tackle impressed with his pro day and has been busy this month meeting with NFL teams.

The Chicago Bears reportedly made the trek out to Vancouver to see Manu and fellow Thunderbirds tackle Theo Benedet this past season.

If you’ve had your eyes on the Scouting Bureau this year, Benedet’s name isn’t a strange one. The fifth-ranked prospect in the spring edition of the rankings, Benedet was a part of a UBC o-line that allowed just 15 sacks, with an offence that averaged 6.8 yards per rush. The six-foot-seven, 305-pounder from North Vancouver started every game after his rookie season of 2019 and was the first offensive lineman to win the J.P. Metras trophy on multiple occasions (2022 and 2023). A two-time first-team All-Canadian (2022, 2023), Benedet took part in the East-West Shrine Bowl and the 2024 College Gridiron Showcase.

Kyle Hergel | OL | Boston College 

Hergel has shown out everywhere he’s played in his NCAA career. He’ll try to do the same as he moves into a pro career (Boston College Athletics)

A possible late-round pick or someone that could sign with a team in the wake of the NFL Draft, Hergel was an All-ACC honourable mention last season at Boston College. He played 13 games last year, as part of an o-line that averaged 4.8 yards per rush, while recording the best PFF pass block grade on his team (86.6) with no sacks allowed and just two quarterback hits on 402 dropbacks.

The six-foot-two, 315-pounder from Toronto was an East-West Shrine Bowl participant this year. He played with Texas State in 2021 and 2022 and was an All-Sun Belt Third Team selection and aa PFF All-Sun Belt First Team in 2022. He was a PFF All-Sun Belt Second Team selection in 2021. After playing for North Dakota from 2018-2021, Hergel started 17 games and was named FCS Independent Newcomer of the Year in 2019.

Hergel is the fifth-ranked prospect in the spring edition of the Scouting Bureau.

Nick Mardner | WR | Auburn

While not taking part in the CFL Combine, Mardner’s name managed to get around in Winnipeg. Former Toronto Argonauts’ GM Jim Barker pegged Mardner as the top pick in this year’s draft, when asked by CFL.ca about what the Elks should do with their pick. Marshall Ferguson picked Mardner as his top choice in the first version of his mock draft for CFL.ca

The six-foot-six, 208 pound receiver from Oakville, Ont. has moved around a lot in his college career. He started out at Hawaii, where between 2018-2021 he had 62 catches for 1,270 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2022, he made the move to Cincinnati, where he had 19 receptions for 218 yards and three touchdowns. He spent the 2023 season at Auburn, but was limited by injuries. He dressed in four games but didn’t record any stats.

He ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at Auburn’s pro day, while posting a 35-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-9 broad jump and 11 reps on the bench press.

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