Many players go from the CFL to the NFL, but few have the impact of Cameron Wake. The former B.C. Lions' star has racked up 37.5 sacks for the Miami Dolphins in the last three NFL seasons and was named to the All-Pro team last year after a 15-sack campaign. Before Wake was a Lions' star, though, he was a Penn State product who was cut by the NFL's New York Giants and then missed an open tryout for B.C. (a tradition the Lions, as well as many other CFL teams, continue) thanks to going to the wrong D.C.-area university. B.C. general manager Wally Buono still extended Wake a camp invite sight unseen, though, and as Buono told Grantland's Robert Mays for a piece on Wake as one of the NFL's 22 most-overlooked players, he was quickly rewarded—especially once he converted Wake from a linebacker to a defensive end:
"What's the worst that can happen?" Buono says. "You bring him in, he doesn't do well, you send him home. All you waste is a ticket." ...
"When he didn't show [at the first tryout], it kind of gives you the idea that this guy doesn't care, or he's a goof," Buono says. "He's the furthest thing from that."
It took one day for Buono to see the results of his gamble. The first time the Lions lined up for one-on-one pass-rush drills, Wake took the team's starting left tackle, dumped him on his back, and quickly slapped the dummy on his way back toward the line. "They pulled me aside and said 'We've decided. You're going to make this team,'" Wake says. "I thought they were saying that to everybody." ...
In talking about his choice to move Wake to defensive end, Buono uses some variation of "explosion" four times. "He just explodes out of his stance," Buono says. "It was just so evident. I think his vertical [was measured at] like 46 inches." That's not an exaggeration. At the NFL combine, Wake's standing vertical was 45.5 inches. As an outside linebacker in a 4-3, a player forced to move both backward and laterally, the advantages of that explosion are lost. "The instincts of a linebacker and the instincts of a defensive end are completely different," Buono says. "If you take a fish out of water, he can't swim." The analogy is a cliché, but it's apt. As a rusher, Wake resembles a shark gliding through the shallows. It looks like what he was born to do.
Part of that positional switch was thanks to size. The 6'3'', 258-pound Wake was primarily used as a linebacker at Penn State (although he played a little defensive end there) and was a linebacker during his brief 2005 stint (two months) with the Giants. Many NFL defensive ends are near or over 300 pounds, with defensive tackles being even larger, so Wake didn't look like a DE to anyone. In Canada, though, that was different. With smaller offensive linemen opposing them and the full one-yard neutral zone between the lines, pass-rushing in the CFL is more about speed than raw size, and a 260-pound end is far from unheard of. Alex Hall, the league's current sack leader, is listed as 256 pounds, while second-place Charleston Hughes is listed as 247. Thus, Buono was free to consider Wake's explosiveness as a pass-rusher without being restricted by his size the way many conventional NFL thinkers were. That gave him the benefits of Wake's speed, as he was clocked at 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Penn State.
The differences in the game also matter. It's quite possible to use linebackers in a primarily pass-rushing role in the NFL, and many teams have done this to great success: Green Bay with Clay Matthews and Baltimore with Terrell Suggs are just a couple of the examples. Those linebackers are usually rushing out of a 4-3 or 3-4 (linemen-linebackers) front, though: each of those formations has four defensive backs (adding up to American football's 11 men per side), and NFL offences frequently field four or less receivers, providing substantial opportunities for linebackers to get after the passer. The CFL tends to favour 4-2-6 systems, though, and the linebackers usually have greater responsibilities in pass coverage. You occasionally see NFL-style hybrid ends/linebackers (like Odell Willis in 2011 with Winnipeg) and various blitzes, but generally, it's the four men on the line coming after the passer. Therefore, if you want a guy like Wake to rush the passer, you're likely lining him up as a DE. Buono did just that, and Wake rewarded him, racking up 16- and 23-sack seasons (plus a pair of top defensive player awards) before leaving for the NFL.
Interestingly, the CFL idea of smaller defensive ends has since somewhat spread to the NFL. Wake started as a Suggsesque pass-rushing linebacker with Miami in 2010 and 2011 and did well there, even earning a Pro Bowl invite in 2010, but it was his switch to the defensive line in 2012 that really saw him break through. He hasn't gotten much bigger, but NFL teams are starting to develop more appreciation for unconventional players on both sides of the ball. The upsurge in effective passing quarterbacks who can also run (Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick are just a few of the examples) has increased the premium put on speed at defensive end, as lumbering DEs often have a tough time bringing those guys down even if they can get to them. Meanwhile, as Mays shows with several excellent illustrations in his piece, the kind of speed Wake has can not only let him beat bigger offensive linemen, but also helps him draw crucial holding penalties. Smaller defensive ends have been common in the CFL for quite a while, and that was a big part of what helped Wake succeed in Canada, but his translation of that success south of the border is also helping to change the NFL game. The Miami Dolphins and their fans owe Buono a debt of gratitude for Wake's sight-unseen camp invite and positional change, as do smaller pass-rushers everywhere hoping to follow in Wake's footsteps.