The process of building a CFL roster is a tricky one. Teams can pull in Canadians through the draft and Americans through negotiation lists and free agency deals, but the NFL's shadow means a lot of CFL scouting involves finding guys that league passed over. That matters on a couple of levels. CFL rosters are still built by going out and targeting players based on their film and accomplishments, but teams also realize that some top talents may slip through the traditional CFL scouting system as well. That's the idea behind open tryouts or free-agent camps like the one the B.C. Lions held in Seattle Saturday: for a $100 registration fee, any player can try and impress team coaches and executives, attempt to earn an invite to a CFL training camp and try to keep their football dreams alive. I was on hand for the camp, which provided a great look at both how players are drawn to the CFL and how the Lions build their roster.
Saturday's camp took place at Rainier Beach High School in southern Seattle, and it made for a fascinating scene. About 75 athletes clustered around a high school football field at 9 in the morning, along with some friends and family members who were there to cheer them on, some agents and plenty of Lions coaches and executives. It was a typically grey Seattle morning, but right from the start, there was a sense of anticipation in the air. Players largely wore gear from the NCAA schools they played at, and plenty of those were represented Saturday, from Stanford to Brown and San Jose State to Alabama A&M. They came from different races, backgrounds, and levels of football experience, but they all carried one goal; finding a way to pursue or continue a professional football career.
That's not an easy goal to achieve, though. One thing that was very clear from the start is that the odds facing participants in a camp like this are enormous. This was just one of the seven free agent camps the Lions held this year (in places ranging from Boca Raton, FL to Dallas to Washington, D.C. to Las Vegas). The vast majority of players at a camp like this aren't even going to get an invite to the Lions' training camp, much less make the team; player personnel coordinator Neil McEvoy told me after the camp that on average, two guys from each camp might be invited to come up to the Lions' training camp.
"Out of all the camps, we do seven of these, we do at least two from each," McEvoy said. "That being said, some camps are four, some camps are zero, but on average, it's about two or three guys per camp that we like to invite."
That means that 72 or more of the participants Saturday won't get even a training-camp invitation. The Lions are upfront about that, though, and the event began with Lions' general manager Wally Buono addressing the players and telling them just how tough their odds were.
"We're going to be realistic," Buono said. "What we want to try and do is make you understand the standards. ... We're probably going to send most of you home. What we want to do is find that one guy."
Buono said some types of players wouldn't even be considered, thanks to the size and positional needs of the CFL.
"We don't sign tight ends, we don't sign fullbacks, and if you're a 5'11 centre, we're not going to sign you," he said.
Buono told the prospects they should be absolutely clear on how stiff their odds were before they elected to pay their money and take part in the tryout.
"Think about it before you give Neil your money," he said. "We're not here to cause issues. All we're here to do is try and sign football players. ... The whole idea is to find the next player."
He said the fee's to cover the costs of an event like this, which includes bringing Lions' coaches and executives in to run it, and the last goal on the Lions' mind is to make money from it.
"If we wanted to make money, we'd charge you more."
Buono added that not all the players would be sticking around for the duration of the event, as cuts have to be made quickly to let the coaches focus on the top-tier prospects.
"It doesn't take long to find the good guys," he said. "In fairness to the guys who are really good, we've got to give them more opportunities."
Lions' defensive back coach Mark Washington also pointed out that given the foreign nature of the CFL, players have to have to be able to enter Canada.
"If there's a warrant for your arrest, a pending court case, you won't be able to cross the border, so don't even sign up," he said.
The warnings didn't seem to discourage anyone, as players quickly flocked to register following Buono's speech. They paid their fees, obtained individual prospect numbers (worn on shorts or a shirt) and then started to warm up with stretches. Washington led the prospects through a short warmup session after that, and then it was on to the 40-yard dash. As remarked upon previously, the 40 is seen as a critical test for evaluating players, particularly recievers, running backs and defensive backs. It doesn't give a complete picture of someone's football abilities, but especially at an open camp like this, it can show who might have the physical attributes required to play their position in the CFL and who probably doesn't. The 40 times registered Saturday came in all over the board, with at least one as low as 4.39 seconds and at least one as high as 5.11 seconds (for a receiver, no less). Low 40s don't guarantee anything, but some of the really high ones had players' chances already looking quite tenuous.
Following that, players ran through agility drills and then broke up into position-specific drills. Those made for some interesting moments, including receivers running assigned patterns and then taking a throw from whichever quarterback was up at the moment. With both receivers and quarterbacks trying out, and most of them not having experience together, the communication wasn't always the greatest, but it went surprisingly smoothly. The Lions' coaches each worked with different groups to see what they needed, and they slowly selected smaller and smaller groups of players to focus on, sending the rest home.
One of the final drills came around 12:30 p.m., and it looked almost like an in-game situation: five receivers lining up across the field, with one or two starting in motion, a quarterback dropping back to throw and five defensive backs working together to shut them down. It was challenging for these players, given their lack of familiarity with each other, but the execution on both sides of the ball was often impressive, and there was clear talent on display at the camp.
McEvoy said at the end of the day he was impressed with how things turned out.
"I thought today's camp went really well," he said. "We had about 75 athletes out here, and as you can see, we're breaking it down to about the top 10 guys, so it's gone how we typically run our camps."
He said the talent level was similar to what he'd seen at the Lions' other camps across the country this year.
"There's always good and there's always bad," McEvoy said. "We always break it down to the top 10 guys, and it's pretty much comparable to what we've seen throughout the nation, really."
Running camps like this is a substantial investment of time and energy for the Lions' coaching and personnel staffs, but McEvoy said they do it to get personal experience with potential players rather than just trying to sign people based off college film alone.
"The value for us is we want to see and look the players in the eye before we sign them," he said. "Watching film and everything else is great, talking on the phone is nice, but it's nice to see the person in real life to get to know them before we invite them to training camp. Training camp is such a short time that we like to have these guys out here, look at them, give them a little bit of coaching, and if we really like them, then sign them to contracts."
McEvoy said the Lions' typical procedure isn't to sign players immediately after any single camp, but rather run all the camps and then see what their needs are, comparing players from all the different tryouts.
"After the workouts, we'll go back and we'll visit our roster again and we'll start filling the holes," he said. "This is the last one, so now we'll start putting our notes together and figuring out which players we want to invite from all the camps."
He said the team's already made some signings, but their focus now is on picking players who fit their depth chart.
"We have signed a bunch of guys that we've liked, but now it's to the point where we have to sit back, look at our depth chart and see where there's a need," he said. "If there's a need, then we certainly look at the notes and bring in the guys we want."
Running camps like this can be challenging and time-consuming, but McEvoy said it's completely worth it for the Lions, and it's something they're planning to do for years to come.
"Absolutely," he said. "This is how we, as an organization, build our football team, and we've been very successful doing that. We're going to continue to do so."