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CIS Corner: Should the wave of returns to the university ranks spur changes in the CFL draft?

B.C. draft pick Kirby Fabien is one of the many players returning to school this year.

The massive numbers of top CFL draft picks (including Kirby Fabien, Frédéric Plesius, Carson Rockhill and Arnaud Gascon-Nadon) returning to school without even attending training camps (and others, like Ismael Bamba, threatening to do the same before eventually signing) is provoking some consternation across the league, and for good reason. It may not be a full-fledged crisis yet, but it's definitely putting a strain on CFL-CIS relations and may cause CFL general managers to rethink the Canadian university game as a source of instantly-available talent. It's also drawn some interesting commentary from surprising sources, and some of the most notable has come from CFL agent Darren Gill. Gill represents a wide variety of players, including Rockhill, but his take on this isn't what some would have expected. Here's what he told Jim Mullin about the trend:

"My opinion is that nobody wins with this recent trend," Gill said. ...

Gill thinks that there is plenty of damage for all involved.

"The player loses out on a year in the CFL, the CFL now has to fight for talent with the CIS, and the CIS damages their relationship with the CFL," he said.

"I have no issues with a player wanting to go back to school but there needs to be a way to keep players from refusing to sign from ever happening again."

That's the key takeaway here. The issue isn't so much players wanting to go back for an extra year of school, but rather the sense that these players were drafted under false pretenses. Historically, CIS guys have been seen as players who can come in and boost CFL teams' Canadian content right away as opposed to the "futures" element involved with picking players who red-shirted in the NCAA and still have another year there. In many cases, that likely led to these guys being drafted higher than they would have been if they'd made it clear they had no intention of showing up in camp this year. Of course, under the current system, players have no incentive to tell teams their true intentions, and that can lead to problems on both sides. It wouldn't be hard to change the system, though.

We've already seen significant problems with the CFL's draft eligibility system, and one of the major ones is that the Byzantine Empire would have approved of its needless complexity (definition #5). As detailed by this 2006 piece (the easiest-to-find CFL.ca source on the issue) and the tweets of the ever-knowledgeable Kent Ridley, here's the system:

- Players are eligible following the fourth football season after they first enrolled at a four-year school...

- Or five years after they first enrolled at a junior college...

- Unless they've turned 25, in which case they're eligible in the first CFL draft after that happens, or...

- Unless it's their NFL draft year (a rule change to prevent future situations where current NFL players like Vaughn Martin become available for the CFL draft years later).

This system has historically worked reasonably well in the CIS ranks, but it has major issues south of the border. NCAA players are allowed to declare for the NFL draft after being out of high school for three years, so as juniors or redshirt (where players practice with a team but don't play for their first year, and don't have it count against their eligibility) sophomores, but many wait until after their junior year or even their senior year to enter the NFL draft. Thus, the typical pattern is for NCAA players to become eligible for the CFL draft following their fourth (usually a redshirt junior) season, but then stay in school and apply for the NFL draft following their fifth season. That's further ramped up the difficulty of CFL teams' always-challenging task of balancing players' skills with the NFL interest in them, and it's led to CFL teams wasting a lot of high picks on players who never play a down north of the border. Ideally, as Saskatchewan coach Corey Chamblin said Thursday, when you draft a player, they should be in your camp:

"For the most part, when you draft a guy you should know he'll be here. That's something the coaches and management should discuss in the off-season to make sure that we are getting the guys we need and that's why we drafted them.''

Contrary to some of the discussion on the topic, it's not just the redshirt system that's at issue either. Two of the most prominent players drafted by the CFL a year early and then taken high in the NFL draft the following season are Baylor offensive linemen Danny Watkins and Philip Blake, but neither redshirted. Both came through the junior college ranks and played four full seasons of football, so you'd think they'd be eligible for the CFL and NFL drafts in the same year, but Watkins and Blake both had their CFL draft year triggered by them turning 25 a year before they declared for the NFL draft.

The complex eligibility system is problematic on a number of fronts. For one, it makes it hard for fans to understand the CFL draft, and it makes it harder for the league to promote it. Taking players who aren't going to be available for a year or two is also an issue, and although it adds some intriguing strategic dimensions for player-personnel departments (do they go with the top talent, the talent most likely to show up, or a mix of the two?), it diminishes the importance of the CFL draft. One thing that's made the NFL draft so popular is that high-round players in particular are likely to be significant contributors to their teams in their first season, so it's worthwhile for fans to watch thanks to the sense of immediate impact. That would be tougher to achieve in the CFL in general, as most players start off as backups or special-teams guys rather than key components, but reducing the amount of drafted players who won't be there for years would be a promising start.

There's a really simple way to do this, too. Much like the NFL draft, put the onus on the player to declare if they want to come out early. If the current regulations were kept with only that tweak, CIS players would have the option of saying if they wanted to go back for a fifth year and be drafted after it, or if they were ready to come play in the CFL right away; that would go a long way towards solving the issue of players returning to school and would boost the relationship between CIS and the CFL. Similarly, NCAA redshirt players would be able to put off their CFL draft eligibility until they finished their careers and were set for the NFL draft, allowing CFL teams to get a firm idea of where they stood.

Of course, under the current system, that wouldn't change the situation for future players like Watkins and Blake. However, that could be addressed too just by taking out the maximum-age requirement. Under this system, players would be allowed to apply for the CFL draft whenever they'd met the conditions currently existing, but they could defer their eligibility if they intended to stay in school further. It would clarify the process immeasurably, smooth relations between the CFL and the university ranks and make it so that more drafted players would be in camps. From this corner, that's well worth doing.

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