January 28, 2011
MOBILE, Ala. -- The Senior Bowl is the first in the Holy Trinity of pre-draft player evaluations. Between the week of practice (which is generally more important to the coaches, scouts, and player personnel people) and the game, this week is the official launch of pro football's annual season of speculation. The scouting combine in February, and school Pro Days in March and April, wrap the process up in a nice little bow.
For the National Football League, it's a three-month race to get all the information possible in preparation for the NFL Draft in late April. But for the CFL personnel comprising an impressively-sized group in Mobile, this part of the offseason is as much about networking and idea-gathering as actual player evaluation. Those who are paid to put a dollar sign on the muscle at the CFL level understand that they have no chance at the NCAA's elite athletes—at least right when they enter the draft process. But it's important to keep the lines of communication open, because there is definitely a pipeline between the two leagues.
"The big thing is to talk to the different personnel guys you know in the NFL," Edmonton Eskimos receivers coach Steff Kruck said from the stands of Ladd-Peebles stadium this week. "The majority of our players have NFL experience, and the reality of it is that if we're lucky, we'll see these guys three or four years down the road. They're all high-profile guys with NFL skills, or they wouldn't be here. So we interact with people in the NFL, and they may drop leads on players for us—players that may become available.
"On the other hand, we've had a lot of players who have gone to the NFL, so they ask us about players they've been scouting who might be able to play on that level as well. It's really as much an exchange of information as anything. Then of course, we're here to evaluate some of these guys who might slip through the cracks of the NFL, and maybe we can keep them in mind for us at some point."
Dan Dorazio, the BC Lions' offensive line coach, talked about how the three-down, spread offense schemes of the CFL make player evaluation different, even when tracking players that the NFL is looking at as well. "I think we're looking for the type of guy that is a borderline height-weight-speed guy for the NFL. There are always a few, though there aren't too many in this group. And then, overall, you're looking at all the talent, getting a feel for who the guys are. Because down the road, you never know—they may fall right back into your scouting system."
Because there are 19 imports and 19 non-imports allowed on each roster, teams tend to stock on certain positions each way. "For us, we will not even look at tight ends and fullbacks here," Kruck said. "Mostly, teams don't employ the tight end because it's 12-man football. The field's a little wider. The NFL will look for bigger guys, especially on defence, and we're looking for smaller, quicker guys. There are certain rules changes that have a major impact. For us, the defence has to be a yard off the football. So, the quickness comes in. And the majority of the offensive linemen in the CFL are what you call non-imports."
Dorazio agreed, though he's been partially responsible for one exception. "The non-imports, traditionally, have been the offensive linemen. Maybe one of the interior defensive linemen, maybe one receiver—the first away from the quarterback, maybe one defensive back—generally a free safety. Those are ‘traditional' positions for non-import players. But every team is a little different based on who they may be able to get. For instance, defensive ends—for many years, there was never a non-import defensive end, But our guy, Brent Johnson, has played that position for years that's normally been an import position. So, you do have exceptions to that rule."
And that one exception this year is Baylor's Danny Watkins (pictured, above right, after Wednesday's Senior Bowl practice). The left tackle who replaced current St. Louis Rams lineman Jason Smith on the Baylor front five is a British Columbia native and former fireman who was selected by Dorazio's Lions in the first round of the 2010 CFL draft. While Watkins was quick to say that the selection was an honor, his commitment to his college team—and to be totally honest, his shot at the NFL—resonated with greater volume.
"I was determined to finish my career at Baylor," Watkins said. "I had a lot of unfinished business there—we needed to get bowl-eligible, and we had some bad luck with injuries at the quarterback position. So, I needed to stay there and finish my term there. But I've seen [Dorazio] here, and had the opportunity to meet him here. We weren't talking business; just saying ‘Hello' and catching up. It was good to see another Canadian down here."
Kruck has one example of the import player on his own position group—the recently signed Adarius Bowman, who fit what the Esks and other teams are looking for. "You look for more mobility and quickness at certain positions—your offensive linemen can have size, but the receivers are more of the quicker variety," Kruck said. "The CFL does employ a lot of spread offense because it's three-down football. If you start with a running play, you could be in a situation where, all of a sudden, it's like third-and-9 in the NFL. You still have to run the ball and use play action, but it's different.
"We have a player we just signed in Edmonton, Adarius Bowman—he was in this game [the Senior Bowl] a few years ago. [Receiver/running back] Yvenson Bernard, who is in Winnipeg now—he played in the game for Oregon State a few years ago."
So, what goes around can come around - there are CFL-to-NFL success stories from Warren Moon to Cameron Wake, but the inverse process happens as well, and for the CFL football minds, there's a lot more to it than just sitting around, waiting fot the "bigger league" to throw them a few crumbs.
"Most of our personnel department people have connections with every NFL team," Kruck said. "Our personnel guy, Paul Jones, has been with us for a number of years. He has outstanding contacts with NFL people and college people. So, we'll come down here from a coaching standpoint, and also to exchange information on different positional things. Like the quarterbacks coach for the Buffalo Bills right now [George Cortez], he came from the Calgary Stampeders. And the Bills' offensive line coach [Joe D'Alessandris] worked with the Ottawa Rough Riders back in the day. There are a lot of connections, and the coaching world is a small fraternity.
"A side benefit for me is that I like to come here to pick people's brains about certain techniques and strategies. It's good information that way."
As Kruck concluded before he got back to watching the North Team in mid-week practice, it's all about scouting and personnel development. No matter what level you're on, some things really are universal, and that's the main reason there's been a Canadian invasion in Mobile this week.