The CFL's decision Wednesday to expand the annual draft of non-import talent (including this year's edition, set for Monday, May 6) from six to seven rounds suggests the league and its teams believe there's more and more Canadian talent out there that's capable of playing at a high level. That fits with other moves we've seen, such as this year's addition of regional combines (which has already paid off, as Kris Robertson went from stealing the show at a regional combine to besting more nationally-prominent prospects at the full event). The quality of CIS football has improved dramatically, with more and more Canadian university programs not only finding exceptional talent but also developing it, and Canadians are also shining at the junior and NCAA levels. Expanding the draft is a recognition of just how many top Canadian players are out there, and that's smart.
Adding a seventh round to the draft will take this year's edition from 52 to 60 picks and give each current team one extra draftee. The expansion Ottawa team (soon to be officially announced as the Red Blacks), which won't begin play until 2014, is only selecting NCAA underclassmen at the tail end of the first, second, third and fourth rounds, so they won't get an extra player out of this change. In 2014 when Ottawa is fully participating in the draft, each of the nine teams will have seven picks (before trades). This makes sense when you consider that many CFL draft picks are speculative ones of players who still have NCAA eligibility left (such as Bo Lokombo from Oregon, the top-ranked CFL prospect this year who may wind up in the NFL draft next year) or players who already have signed with NFL teams (such as Rice tight end Luke Willson, the football and baseball star who was the only Canadian chosen in this year's NFL draft when the Seattle Seahawks took him in the fifth round, or Regina defensive lineman Stefan Charles, the top CIS prospect who recently signed with Tennessee as an undrafted free agent, along with McMaster offensive lineman Matt Sewell). An extra round might make it a little easier for teams to gamble to get the rights of players who are unlikely to be in camp this year.
Of course, talented Canadian players who weren't drafted still wound up in the CFL before this. There have been lots of impressive undrafted free agents over the years, including Saskatchewan receiver Rob Bagg, and a player still has the same talent whether he's chosen in the seventh round or signed as an undrafted free agent. However, expanding the draft does have some real implications for these players. Here's a key paragraph from the league release on the draft expansion:
League rules permit teams to bring 75 players to training camp plus players selected in the 2013 CFL Draft, two additional non-imports, players selected in a previous draft by the team that have never attended a professional training camp in Canada or elsewhere, any junior player who has been identified to the League Office (to a maximum of four per team), a Rookie non-import quarterback who is participating in training camp at the quarterback position and an underclassman non-import quarterback who is ineligible to sign a contract or play in a pre-season game.
Thus, teams either can only bring two undrafted non-quarterback non-import free agents to camp or bring those plus others that count against that 75-player limit (which includes the players already on the roster, plus American players trying to make the team). Draft picks don't count against that limit, though, so this expansion is essentially giving every team the ability to bring one more Canadian to camp. Of course, not every team will, as some of these extra picks will be speculative, but they'll still matter; if a player like Wilson, Charles or Sewell is chosen and washes out of the NFL, the team that drafted him will hold his CFL rights. Overall, this draft expansion is recognizing the surging amount of top Canadian talent out there and the extra importance teams are pinning on the draft, and it's providing extra avenues for CFL teams to recruit and develop non-import players. Given the importance of Canadian players to this league, that's a logical move and one the CFL should be applauded for.
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