There's more and more American interest in Canadian football players all the time, as Brad Gagnon noted last month in an excellent CBS feature on Canadian-born and Canadian-trained talent in the NFL. That has major implications for the CFL and for the CFL draft in particular. CFL teams are now not just drafting based just on pure skill or how they project a player in Canadian football, but also on their understanding of the amount of NFL interest in a player. That's why there are such differences between the prospect rankings and who's likely to actually go near the top of the draft.
Gauging that NFL interest accurately is crucial. If done right, this can lead to top talent being picked later in the CFL draft and eventually coming north. A case in point is Bo Lokombo; he topped the 2013 prospect rankings but wasn't taken until the 21st pick thanks to NFL interest, which wound up being a tremendous deal for B.C. as Lokombo joined the Lions last fall. If that NFL interest is poorly gauged, though, this can lead to high picks being spent on guys who will never play in Canada, such as Danny Watkins.
Unfortunately for the CFL, the NFL interest in Canadians has only gone up in recent years, with a record four Canadian-born players being drafted last year and another record four Canadians attending this year's full NFL combine (plus others working out at regional combines and other U.S. events). Fortunately for the CFL, estimating the level of NFL interest in any particular draft-eligible player should be easier than ever this year, thanks both to a later draft and to the change to draft eligibility rules that will see NCAA players who redshirted drafted by both leagues in the same season for the first time this year. We won't have a complete picture of how American football views these guys until after the NFL draft at the end of April and the following weeks of NFL teams signing undrafted free agents, but we can start to get an estimate now based on a few tiers. Here's a breakdown of the varying levels of proven NFL interest in players thus far.
Tier I: NFL national combine invitees: This is the most obvious level of NFL interest, and it's an important one. Over 300 players participated in the league's national combine, so that's where the vast majority of the 256 picks in this year's NFL draft will come from. Four Canadians took part in that event: UNLV offensive lineman Brett Boyko (ranked #1 on the December prospects list), Yale running back Tyler Varga (#4), Rice defensive tackle Christian Covington (not on the list only because he declared for the draft late), and South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge (not on that list thanks to being a quarterback; there's still no ratio benefit to playing a Canadian quarterback, so CFL teams will draft them late if at all). None of those four are locks to be chosen in the NFL draft, but all have drawn substantial interest and would seem likely to either go late in the draft or be signed as undrafted free agents. Thus, CFL teams probably won't be picking them high unless they're completely passed over by the NFL.
Tier II: Players who took part in other U.S. events: This includes players like UConn offensive lineman Alex Mateas (ranked #2 in December), Western defensive lineman Daryl Waud (#3), Calgary offensive lineman Sukh Chung (#6) and Regina receiver Addison Richards (#10). Mateas turned down the CFL combine in favour of UConn's pro day, where he put up impressive numbers. Waud and Richards were the two CIS players who competed in the NCAA East-West Shrine Game this year. Chung attended NFL regional and super-regional combines before the CFL one. This is not an exhaustive list; I may not have heard about all the CFL prospects who've attended U.S. events, so this tier could be larger.
This is a difficult tier to evaluate; pro days, the Shrine Game and regional combines can lead to NFL finds, but they often don't. These players didn't attend the full NFL combine, so that suggests there may be less NFL interest in them than those who did, but there are always some NFL draft picks who didn't go to the full combine, and there are lots of undrafted free agent signings from those ranks. What is important about this tier is that these guys have at least been on the NFL radar for a while. That may not affect their CFL stock too much depending on what happens in the NFL draft/undrafted free agent signings; Waud and Chung are still amongst my top-five draft prospects, but that's if they don't sign NFL deals before the draft. The length of NFL interest in them does mean that the NFL's a definite possibility for them, though.
Tier III: Players who drew NFL attention from the CFL combine: At the moment, there's only one confirmed player in this category, Regina defensive back Tevaughn Campbell. Campbell was one of the stars of the CFL combine, setting an electronically-timed 40-yard-dash record with a time of 4.35 seconds. Sportsnet's Justin Dunk has reported that nine NFL teams inquired about Campbell after the combine. There may well be other players in this tier where the interest hasn't yet been reported, or hasn't yet come to my attention.
This tier may mean even less than Tier II for the CFL's purposes, though. Players here weren't on the NFL radar before the CFL combine (the inquiries are to get some film on them), making them a real longshot for the NFL draft. However, NFL teams love testing metrics, which explains why a player like Campbell who didn't make the December top-20 prospect rankings but shone at the combine would get some interest ahead of guys on that list. Good 40 results in particular are something the NFL always wants, so while we certainly can't call Campbell an NFL lock at this point, there's a chance he could go very late in that draft or (more likely) as an undrafted free agent. Similar things could be said about other players who impressed at the CFL combine, potentially putting themselves on the NFL radar as well.
It's worth noting that Tier III players won't necessarily go after Tier I and Tier II players. If a team discovered a Tier III player late but really loves them, they might move up the board. Conversely, maybe some of the Tier I or Tier II players weren't all that impressive at their U.S. events, dropping their stock below some Tier III players. Generally speaking, though, the longer the NFL has been following a prospect and the more prestigious events that prospect has attended, the higher their chances of making the NFL are.
Again, none of this is all that firm yet. The advantage of a late CFL draft is that teams will definitely know if prospects have gone in the NFL draft, and they should know if players have signed as undrafted free agents too given the full ten-day gap, time enough for most NFL teams to sort out their rosters. (It's still possible that a player could sign as a NFL UDFA after the CFL draft, but it's much less likely than it was.) Thus, there will be more perfect information by the time the draft rolls around. This is just a first attempt to discuss the different tiers of NFL interest and who looks to slot into each right now.