55 Yard Line - CFL

The CFL Scouting Bureau has put out its first Top 15 list of prospects for the 2011 CFL Canadian draft, and there are some interesting names included. Unlike most rankings, though, perhaps the most notable prospect is buried in the middle.

The oddest name to appear on this list is number-eight prospect, San Diego Chargers' defensive lineman Vaughn Martin (pictured at right in their training camp this summer). Martin played one season of CIS football for the Western Mustangs in 2008 before leaving school early for the 2009 NFL Draft, where he was selected in the fourth round by San Diego. In most cases where Canadian players also have NFL opportunities, they show up in that year's CFL draft and are taken lower than they normally would be to offset the chance that they catch on in the NFL.

Examples from last year's CFL draft include the Roughriders' number-eight pick, Jordan Sisco, and the Lions' tenth-overall pick, Shawn Gore. Sisco and Gore both had the talent to go higher, but both attracted NFL interest. Sisco signed a free-agent deal with the Indianapolis Colts and spent the summer with them before getting cut and heading back to Saskatchewan to suit up with the Roughriders; Gore did the same with the Green Bay Packers and recently returned to join the Lions. However, according to the league, Martin wasn't included in last year's draft because he would have been set to graduate this year. It appears that CFL teams will still have the chance to vie for his draft rights.

It's going to be very interesting to watch and see where Martin is taken in this year's CFL draft. He is in his second season with San Diego and survived their 53-man roster cuts, but he was listed as their fifth defensive end out of five on their depth chart for last weekend's game and was in fact scratched for the game. He's still seen as a developmental player by many who cover the team, so it doesn't seem likely they'll cut him any time soon, but it's also apparent that he has a ways to go before becoming a regular contributor at the NFL level. Here's what Chargers' blog Bolts From The Blue had to say about Martin this offseason:

"Vaughn Martin: So, you're going to be a football player, eh? This Canadian has the backing of the Chargers front office, but there's still a lot of polishing to do on this diamond in the rough. He hasn't quite cracked the first or second team, but there's potential here. His dominance in the Oklahoma drill should make for some good shots while we introduce him."

From those reports and the mere fact that he's hung on to an active NFL roster spot for two straight years, Martin does seem to have a reasonably secure footing in San Diego for the moment. Even if that goes away, there would likely be other NFL teams at least willing to offer him a practice roster spot. That should probably ensure that he won't be drafted too high in next year's CFL draft, as few teams will want to risk too much on a player who may never come north. Still, Martin's physical skills and NFL resume should ensure that he won't be completely passed over; there will definitely be teams interested in his rights on the off-chance he may see the CFL someday. A lot can still happen between now and April, and where Martin falls may depend on how precarious his NFL job appears at that point.

Plenty of other players on this list seem more likely to have a CFL future than Martin, though. Perhaps chief among them is the man at the top, Baylor offensive lineman Philip Blake.

Blake (pictured at right chasing down Oklahoma linebacker Keenan Clayton after an interception last year) plays for the Baylor Bears in the NCAA's Big 12 Conference, a team that hasn't been terribly successful of late. They went 4-8 overall in 2009 with a 1-7 conference record. They're based in Waco, Texas, which is a long way from Blake's Toronto home, and their athletics program may be best-known for a 2003 scandal around the basketball program that involved one player killing a teammate as well as severe drug and recruiting violations. They also have a pair of real bears as mascots, but aren't allowed to have them present at games at the moment thanks to safety concerns. Still, they're a football program in a BCS automatic qualifier conference (for those unfamiliar with the NCAA game, the designation is explained here, but suffice it to say that AQ conferences house most of the NCAA's traditional powerhouse teams).

The spreadsheet I included in my post earlier this week looking back at the 2010 draft includes a breakdown of the players selected by conference. Of the 47 players chosen, only five came from NCAA AQ conference teams. Of the other six NCAA players selected last year, three were from other FBS (Division I) schools, one was from a FCS (Division I-AA) school and two were from Division II schools. The other 36 players came from Canadian universities. Players from the NCAA's top conferences obviously have a fair bit of talent, but it can be difficult for Canadians to catch on at those schools, which is probably why those numbers seem low in relation to the talent level of the conferences. However, the numbers certainly aren't low at Baylor; another Bears' offensive lineman, left tackle Danny Watkins, was ranked fourth overall in the scouting bureau's final report in April and was drafted in exactly that position by the B.C. Lions. He's back with Baylor this year for more seasoning, but may make an impact in the CFL after he graduates.

Blake is another Canadian who has made the adjustment to a key role at a school in a tough conference, and he's had to make plenty of positional adjustments as well. He's in his junior year, and played right tackle last year, but switched to centre before this year started. That's some impressive versatility; guard-centre or tackle-guard shifts are more common, but tackle-centre shifts are reasonably unusual because of the different physical attributes and skill sets required. Blake is listed as 6'3'' and 315 pounds, so he definitely has the size to play tackle at the NCAA level, but he must be reasonably agile as well if he can handle the demands of playing centre. Baylor runs a spread offence, which means that Blake will have picked up plenty of experience in the shotgun; that should also help him transition to three-down football, where shotgun formations are used on almost every play. He'd probably slot in as a tackle or a guard in the CFL rather than a centre thanks to the smaller size of linemen on both sides of the ball up here, but his positional versatility could give teams a lot of options.

Another interesting element of this ranking list is that it features three players from a single CIS school, the University of Calgary Dinos, but it doesn't include their most prominent player. It's tough to argue with the choices of slotback Anthony Parker, wide receiver Nathan Coehoorn, and running back Matt Walter; Coehoorn and Walter were both first-team All-Canadians last year, while Parker made the second team. However, conspicuous by his absence is reigning Hec Crighton Trophy (CIS MVP) winner Erik Glavic, the Dinos' quarterback. Glavic is one of only a handful of players to have won the award twice, and the only one to win it with two different teams. The issue of Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL is a complicated one that deserves its own post, and it's quite understandable that Glavic isn't included here, but you have to think he's mildly annoyed that his less well-known teammates are on here and he isn't.

In total, nine of the 15 players on the list come from CIS schools. That's a slight drop from 10 of 15 in the final rankings last year, but not a particularly significant one. What may be more significant is that this year's CIS players seem to be drawn more from schools that were successful last season (and, in most cases, are poised for success this year as well). The Canada West champion and Vanier runner-up Dinos (currently ranked fourth in the FRC-CIS Top 10 poll) have three players, OUA and Vanier champion Queen's (not ranked) has one, Quebec champion Laval (first) has one, Quebec runner-up Montreal (third) has one, OUA runner-up Western (fifth) has one (with special circumstances we'll get to) and the Alberta Golden Bears (seventh) have one. The only player from a CIS school that isn't the reigning Vanier champion or isn't currently ranked is St. Francis Xavier linebacker Henoc Muamba.

By contrast, last year's final rankings featured star players from less prominent football schools including Waterloo and Manitoba as well as schools that only found middling success last year (Bishop's, Concordia, Wilfrid Laurier). Even those rankings may have been affected by school success; eventual top pick Shomari Williams (who I interviewed before the draft last year) went from 15th overall in the September rankings to first overall in the April ones, mirroring the Gaels' run to the Vanier. Much of Williams' rise was certainly due to his exceptional on-field play, but you have to wonder if he would have received so much attention if he'd played equally well and his team hadn't found success. That's not to say that there's necessarily anything particularly wrong with these rankings, or that there are specific players from other schools that are being overlooked. I just find it interesting that many of the NCAA players on the list tend to come from lesser-known or less-successful programs but the CIS ones don't.

These rankings are obviously extremely preliminary, and past history has shown that they tend to change dramatically over the course of the year. In other words, it's far from a lock that Blake (or even anyone on this list) will be the top pick in next year's draft. However, they serve a great purpose; they get discussion going, and they provide CFL fans who also enjoy NCAA and CIS football with some players to keep an eye on. It's going to be interesting to watch how they evolve over the course of the year.

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