A major part of the reason for the CFL's recent off-field success (including its massive new TV deal, substantialstadiumdeals and high franchise valuations) is the strong quality of the on-field product. This league has tons of top talent at the moment, and that's reflected both in the numbers of CFL players who are attracting NFL interest and in the ever-improving resumes of new CFL players. That latter element was on display this week at the Calgary Stampeders' open tryout in New Orleans. Just about every team does plenty of these tryouts (for example, the Edmonton Eskimos have 24 separate ones across the U.S. listed on their website), and they've proven quite valuable for most franchises, but it's particularly remarkable to see just how impressive the backgrounds of some CFL hopefuls at these camps are. The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Christopher Dabe covered the Stampeders' tryout, and his notes on some of the prospective players are well worth a read:
Chad Boyd turned to keep pace with a receiver whose eyes focused on the airborne football, just as the all-conference defensive standout had done so many times in his life.
Only this time the metal bleachers were nearly empty. It was mid-morning on a sunny Saturday in the spring. And the former Archbishop Shaw and Louisiana Tech defensive back desperately hoped to get noticed once again.
This is another side to the NFL draft. Players who once had reasonable hopes to play professionally after college felt derailed by injury or other reasons. They're all at least a year removed from college. They each want another shot. ...
"If an opportunity presents itself, I'm going to take it," Boyd said.
Many players are in a similar position.
Michael Smith, the leading receiver on Connecticut's Fiesta Bowl team in 2010, felt the season he missed the next year due to poor grades damaged his pro prospects, he said.
Former Southern Miss linebacker Korey Williams already had three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown when he blew out a knee during the fourth game of his senior season.
Those are players from some excellent programs, and perhaps even more notably, guys who shone for those teams. This isn't an anomaly, either; the B.C. Lions' tryout I attended last year in Seattle also featured players with impressive NCAA backgrounds, including former Cal star Kendrick Payne and Montana star Peter Nguyen, and most of the various teams' open tryouts attract some notable former college players. (The Montreal Alouettes even managed to reel in former NFL star Chad Johnson this week.)
That's remarkable considering how slim of an opportunity there is for most of these players. As Dabe writes, the Stampeders are only inviting about 30 of the 600 or so players from across their tryouts to their minicamp, and those players will then compete with about 30 further already-signed free agents for 15 to 20 spots on the final roster. That means, from a numbers standpoint, a player at the New Orleans tryout had a five per cent chance of even earning an invite to minicamp, and less than a two per cent chance of earning a roster spot. That's a long shot by any stretch of the imagination.
Why are once-renowned players willing to take that leap? Well, part of it may be the lack of well-established professional football alternatives. The UFL folded in 2012 after a few brief years, the new USFL isn't off the ground yet, and while the AFL's still alive, it cancelled its 2009 season thanks to bankruptcy and is still facing plenty of challenges. There are other, even less-high profile U.S. leagues, but more and more, the CFL is one of the few professional leagues outside the NFL that pays decently and is on reasonably-solid footing. It also helps substantially that the NFL's paying more attention to Canadian football, with more and more CFL players heading south each offseason. The dream for many of these guys is eventual NFL stardom, and if the CFL can establish itself as a viable pathway to that, a football career north of the border sounds a lot better.
The players mentioned in Dabe's piece may or may not even make it to Stampeders' minicamp, much less the main roster, but they (and the numerous similar articles that can be/are written about most open tryouts) present evidence that the talent pool of potential CFL players is remarkably deep. As explored before, the CFL is still limited to taking guys who don't catch on in the NFL, but there are a lot of great players outside the NFL for one reason or another, from injuries to size concerns to simply being missed by NFL scouts, and a lot of them are trying to make the CFL. While the odds for any particular player at these tryouts are long, the events are quite worthwhile for the teams; the Stampeders can speak to that, having gained stars like Charleston Hughes and Joe West through this process, and most teams could share similar stories. Really, the bigger challenge may be deciding who to take a longer look at. There's no shortage of talented players out there.