The rookie revolution: why the CFL’s now closer to the NBA than the NFL with young players

One of the startling things with professional sports is the unexpected similarities that pop up across leagues. Of course, the CFL and the NFL will have lots in common as professional football leagues, but it's more notable when there's something from a different sport altogether that's quite analogous to how the CFL does business. A case in point comes from this excellent post from TrueHoop's Henry Abbott, which is written about the NBA draft but applies almost perfectly to how the CFL handles its rookies these days:

Too often the draft is seen as a way for a young player to change a team. And the simple fact is that almost never happens. Other than the Thunder, really bad teams almost never become excellent through the draft.

The smart teams, though, use the draft differently. Instead of looking to change their identity through the draft, the best teams have well-established systems, and they use the draft to find players who can complete relatively simple chores.

The Celtics, Heat and Spurs aren't just three of the best organizations in the league. They're also three of the teams most likely to give long minutes to inexpensive role players and non-lottery picks like Bradley, Kawhi Leonard and Norris Cole. This is no coincidence.

Think if your team as a vehicle. On struggling teams, high draftees audition to be the engine. It's a tough job at which almost all young players fail for years. On good teams, the engine is not a rookie. It's an organization-wide way of doing things -- a philosophy of front office, a scheme from the coaching staff and veteran stars who can keep it all humming along through thick and thin. When draftees and cheap free agents show up, far from being the engine of wins, they are expected to be the gas -- an entirely essential but far less complicated role.

That's precisely how the CFL handles most of its rookies, especially those brought in through the draft. Even first-overall picks like Shomari Williams (2010), Henoc Muamba (2011) and Ben Heenan (2012) aren't necessarily expected to become stars immediately. Williams and Muamba were mostly used as special-teams players in their first seasons, while Heenan was expected to be used primarily as a backup offensive lineman this season heading into camp. They're not alone: most of the picks who could make impacts this year are generally predicted to do so in smaller roles. Those roles are still vitally important, but they carry far less pressure than what we often see in the NFL draft, where even players taken towards the end of the first round are usually expected to be impact players in their first season. Working players in like that has paid off in the long run, too, as Williams and Muamba are now important parts of their teams' defence (Williams started at middle linebacker in Saskatchewan's first game, while Muamba was the primary backup MLB for the Bombers), and the low initial pressure on him has made Heenan's remarkable early success a pleasant surprise for the Riders.

Of course, the CFL's draft is only for Canadians, but many rookie imports are treated similarly. Consider Calgary's Drew Tate, who may be the youngest starting quarterback in the league, but is still 27 and has been in the CFL since 2007 with the Roughriders and Stampeders. He's had plenty of time to learn from quarterbacks like Kerry Joseph and Henry Burris and pick the brains of offensive minds like Kent Austin, John Hufnagel and Dave Dickenson. He's also had time to adapt to the CFL's different rules (12-a-side action, bigger fields, three downs, extended motion, more emphasis on passing and the spread offence), which can present a difficult learning curve for pivots. Tate's put that apprenticeship experience to good use so far, taking over as Calgary's starting quarterback from Burris midway through last season and outshining CFL legend Anthony Calvillo in opening-week action Sunday.

Tate's experience is a little bit of an extreme example, as quarterbacks tend to get more time to develop as backups than anyone else (thanks to both the difficulty of the adjustment and teams' tendencies to only use one primary quarterback per season), but similar stories can be found with lots of other players at different positions. Even at running back, probably the biggest spot where CFL rookies have often started and made substantial impacts, teams have taken long-term approaches; Montreal developed both Avon Cobourne and Brandon Whitaker as understudies for years before giving them the top role, while Winnipeg did the same with Chris Garrett, Calgary followed suit with Jon Cornish and B.C. developed Andrew Harris as a part-time pickup from junior football before he even made their roster. Some CFL players make instant impacts of course, including Cory Boyd, Solomon Elimimian, Weston Dressler, Chris Williams and Cam Wake, but many more work their way up from an initially-limited role to eventual starting jobs. That's the same in the NBA: some of the top picks find immediate success, but many of the players who do the best in the long run start with limited roles and slowly are given more responsibility.

Why does the CFL seem to follow the NBA's trend rather than the NFL's? From this corner, the reasons are twofold. The first is the differences in the amateur and professional games. The CFL's obviously further removed from the NCAA than the NFL is given the different rules, and it's quite a ways from the Canadian university game as well. You can argue that the jump from NCAA basketball to the NBA's bigger than the jump from NCAA football to the NFL, too; although the base game of basketball is similar, there are huge differences in how it's played at the college level and the professional one, whereas that can be smaller in football (especially given how NFL offences are slowly becoming more like many college ones).

An even bigger reason might be talent dilution, though; while the NFL can take its pick of college players, the CFL's restricted to players passed on by the NFL, and similarly, although the NBA usually has its pick of prospects, there seem to be only a few prospects each year who can become legitimate stars against better physical specimens in the NBA. For example, in a cross-sport (NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB) comparison I ran of the 2002 drafts in 2009, just 10.7 of the NBA's first-round picks had become all-stars at that point (compared to the NFL's 28.1 per cent, highest of all leagues looked at), just 25 per cent of their first-round picks were either all-stars or still playing in a majority of games (the lowest of all leagues looked at; compare to the NFL's 50 per cent and the NHL's remarkable 63 per cent), and 17.9 per cent of their first-round picks were classified as complete busts (played less than 100 games, less than two full seasons). That suggests that, much like the CFL, there are less top-quality players out there for the NBA than there are in other leagues. That in turn boosts the incentives for teams to focus on a longer development process.

It's interesting to note that this hasn't always been the case in the CFL, though. Earlier in the league's history, plenty of young players made immediate impacts, including Johnny Bright, Cookie Gilchrist, Tom Clements, Brian Kelly, Warren Moon, Orville Lee and others. However, most of those guys were superb physical talents overlooked or under-regarded by the NFL thanks to various factors, and that's becoming less frequent today; as the record-breaking number of Canadians chosen in this year's NFL draft demonstrates just how thorough NFL scouting has become, especially for outstanding physical specimens. That probably has an effect on the number of young CFL players who can make an immediate impact. CFL schemes on offence and defence have also become more complicated, thus likely requiring more time to learn, and that might have consequences for how quickly rookies can adapt, too. Regardless of the cause, the effect certainly seems to be that CFL teams are following the NBA's long-term thinking teams and giving many of their young players time to develop in limited roles instead of a full baptism by fire. It's a notable trend, and one that doesn't appear likely to vanish any time soon.