Thursday's CFL draft carries plenty of intrigue, but for some unusual reasons. The most notable might be the invisible spectre of the NFL, which will very much be present during the proceedings; there's a lot of talent available in this draft, but it's not just the CFL that's noticed. An unprecedented three Canadian players (two of whom were eligible for this year's draft) were selected in last week's NFL draft, and several other top prospects have either signed with NFL clubs as free agents or accepted invites to NFL minicamps, so many teams will have to face the difficult task of weighing prospects' raw talent against the chances that they might stick south of the border. The oddness goes beyond just the NFL, though; there are top prospects such as Ben Heenan, widely pegged to go first overall, who could see their stock fall thanks solely to teams' draft positioning and roster makeup, and there are enough teams in unconventional positions that there's a sense this could be a remarkable draft. We'll have a live chat for the first two rounds here starting at 3 p.m. Eastern, and those rounds will also be televised on TSN. With the shadow of NFL interest looming, a wide debate over which top prospects will go where and multiple teams in curious positions heading into the draft, it should be an event to remember.
Let's start with the NFL, as the American league's interest in Canadian talent has been particularly remarkable this year. Plenty of Canadians have headed south over the years, of course, but three (one-time top-ranked 2011 CFL draft prospect C/G Philip Blake, current top-ranked 2012 CFL draft prospect DE Tyrone Crawford and current sixth-ranked prospect DT Christo Bilukidi) have never been taken in a single year of the NFL draft before. When you add in that another top prospect (OL Austin Pasztor, currently ranked fourth overall) has already signed with the Minnesota Vikings and that two more top-10 prospects (WR Shamawd Chambers, who has declared that he's more than an athlete and is ranked third, and DL Jabar Westerman, ranked eighth) have already agreed to minicamp tryouts with NFL teams, there aren't many elite players left who don't have at least some NFL interest in them. That interest might amount to nothing, or it might lead to them spending their entire football career south of the border. No one knows at this point, and that's why selecting any of these players is a gamble. Given their talent, it's one that could pay off in spades, but it's also one that could leave your team with no return.
It's not just the players with NFL interest who aren't sure things, though. Many draft evaluators have Heenan pegged as a guy who's certain to succeed at the CFL level, but those predictions don't always turn out, even for offensive lineman (see Tony Mandarich, Mike Williams, Robert Gallery and more). What's most interesting is that many of the arguments against Saskatchewan drafting Heenan first overall have nothing to do with him, though; the Riders' offseason signings of Brendon LaBatte and Dominic Picard and extension of Chris Best have given them three presumable starters on the interior of the offensive line, and that's led some like Rod Pedersen and Jamie Nye to argue that Saskatchewan GM Brendan Taman should choose another player or trade down. Those choices carry significant peril too, though, as there's no clear-cut alternative for the first choice now that top-ranked picks Crawford (#1), Chambers (#3) and Pasztor (#4) have seen NFL interest; fifth-ranked linebacker Frédéric Plesius carries a lot of potential, but is seen by many as a boom-or-bust candidate too and there don't appear to be any trade partners willing to meet Taman's asking price.
That's another interesting element of this year's draft; plenty of teams are in unusual situations. The Riders are at the top of the draft, and the widely-suggested choice is a guy with strong local connections in Heenan, but their offensive line moves suggest they may be thinking about doing something else. Other teams don't seem all that eager to move up, though; three teams (Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal) have no first-round picks at all thanks to trades (Toronto sent theirs to Edmonton in the Ricky Ray deal, Montreal sent theirs to B.C. for Sean Whyte and Winnipeg gave up theirs by selecting Kito Poblah in last year's supplemental draft, which has worked out nicely), but the Argonauts appear content where they are and the other teams certainly haven't been willing to meet Taman's price so far. Meanwhile, consider Edmonton and B.C., two teams that were very good last year but will both be picking twice in the first round barring trades thanks to their acquisition of extra picks. The Lions in particular will be well worth watching; they obviously have a solid returning squad from their Grey Cup campaign, so will that motivate Wally Buono to go for guys who could step in immediately and perhaps help put them over the hump again, or will the already-strong team encourage him to gamble on high-risk, high-reward prospects with NFL ties?
All of those elements will be coalescing into what should be a spectacular drama Thursday afternoon. Teams will be trying to figure out just how likely players are to catch on in the NFL, but they'll also be going over footage, interviews and combine results for the umpteenth time to try and see if there are any signs of hidden gems or potential busts. Teams like B.C. and Edmonton will get extra choices early, while the Argonauts, Alouettes and Bombers will have to consider if they want to wait at their existing spots or if they want to try and move up to grab higher-ranked players. Expect plenty of trades and lots of surprises; in fact, this year, the best expectation may be to prepare for the unexpected (that, or the Spanish Inquisition). Join us at 3 p.m. Eastern for a live chat as it all goes down.