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Philip Blake, Danny Watkins, the NFL combine, and CFL teams’ drafting conundrum

Baylor offensive lineman Philip Blake goes through a running drill at Saturday's NFL combine.For the second-straight year, a highly-ranked Canadian offensive lineman from Baylor University appears likely to go high in the NFL's draft, hurting a CFL team's hopes in the process. Last year, it was Kelowna-born firefighter-turned-tackle-turned-guard Danny Watkins, who was picked 23rd overall by the Philadelphia Eagles and was the first Canadian picked in the NFL draft's first round since Tim Biakabutka in 1996. This year, it's Toronto-born guard-turned-centre Philip Blake, who's been impressing analysts like Sports Illustrated's Tony Pauline and the NFL Network's Mike Mayock at this weekend's combine. While that's rather good news for Blake, who probably won't go as high as Watkins but still could be selected in one of the NFL Draft's early rounds, it's bad news for the CFL. It also illustrates the difficulties CFL teams face in drafting players, which go well beyond just identifying talent to correctly reading the amount of interest in a player from other teams in both the NFL and CFL.

Here's what Pauline wrote about Blake after Saturday's drills:

Blake's 40 times were adequate, just over 5.10 seconds, yet he was another who stood out when it was time for the offensive line drills. The versatile lineman looked incredibly athletic in all drills, displaying quickness, movement skills and balance. Teams believe Blake can line up at guard or center and after today feel he has starting potential.

That's a strong endorsement for Blake, and one that suggests he's unlikely to wind up in the CFL this coming year. However, unlike Watkins' meteoric 2011 rise, this was much more expected, as Blake was considered to be a solid NFL prospect very early on. There was some indication he might receive NFL interest as early as his appearance at the top of the CFL prospect list in September 2010, and by the final rankings in April 2011, that interest appeared to be the primary factor in his drop to #4 on the CFL list and his eventual fall to 23rd overall in the May draft (Montreal chose him with the last pick of the third round). By contrast, there was a little NFL buzz about Watkins by the time of the 2010 CFL draft, but not enough to keep the B.C. Lions from choosing him fourth overall. Thus, although both players have tons of talent, taking Watkins in the first round was likely a costly mistake for the Lions, while snagging Blake at the end of the third round could be a move with huge upside for Montreal if he doesn't manage to last long in the NFL.

The stories of Watkins and Blake illustrate one of the key problems CFL teams face when trying to draft players; evaluating the NFL's interest in particular picks. The biggest issue here is the time lag; although some players who played CIS football (like Matt O'Donnell) are eligible for both the CFL and NFL drafts in the same year, the CFL's draft-eligibility rules sometimes mean that players are available in the NFL draft first (like Vaughn Martin) and sometimes are available in the Canadian draft first (like Watkins and Blake both were). The players eligible for the CFL draft first are the toughest to predict, as the depth of NFL interest in a player often isn't apparent until after their final college season, and that can result in spending high draft choices on players like Watkins who may never see a CFL down. However, avoiding talented players just because of the NFL interest in them also can be problematic; if Blake isn't drafted or quickly bounces out of the NFL for some reason, all of a sudden, the Alouettes have landed a likely first-round talent with the last pick of the third round because everyone else was scared off by American interest. It's much like a poker game; it's not just about the cards you're holding, but also your ability to figure out what the other players have.

While some rule tweaks could be made to reduce the guesswork involved (such as modifying the CFL draft-eligibility rules to make them closer to the NFL ones, meaning that for most players in the CFL draft, teams would already know if they'd been chosen by NFL teams or not), the overall issue of judging NFL interest in potential CFL players remains a thorny one. Canadian football talent is on the rise, but players like Watkins, O'Donnell, Martin and perhaps Blake won't necessarily wind up ever playing professional football north of the border. Their talent is strong enough that CFL teams can't afford to overlook them entirely, though, so the issue becomes a double-edged sword. Spend a high draft pick on a player who never suits up for you and you waste a chance to improve your team, but get too scared by NFL interest and another CFL team could snap him up and get a great player for a cheap price. The fact is, personnel jobs in the CFL involve much more than just evaluating talent. As the cases of Watkins and Blake show, they also require an ability to try and figure out what other CFL and NFL teams are going to do.

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