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May 1, 2019

CFL Draft Picks Like Fine Wine; They Just Need A Little Time

Some of the faces may have changed, but the process of evaluating prospects for the CFL Draft remains the same as it’s always been under Brock Sunderland’s watch.

This year, Sunderland has been working on the draft preparation with Head Coach Jason Maas, new Director of Player Personnel David Turner, Assistant Director of Player Personnel Will Homer, new Director of Scouting Bobby Merritt and Assistant Director of Football Operations/Player Personnel Assistant Nick Pelletier.

“I know from the outside looking in, it looks like there’s drastic changes, but how the process works really isn’t going to change,” said the Eskimos General Manager and Vice-President of Football Operations.

Sunderland revamped the draft evaluation process when he joined the Eskimos shortly before the 2017 CFL Draft. He had already been to the CFL Combine and scouted about three-quarters of the eligible national players while employed by the Ottawa RedBlacks that year.

“We go through every position and every player and then we stack the board,” explained Sunderland. “Ultimately, we have a value board and a position board. What that means is we stack players by their grade no matter what position they are. That’s our value board. Then our position board is the same thing, but only by position – here’s the top running backs from highest grade to lowest grade, receivers from highest grade to lowest grade, and so on and so forth.

“At the end of the day, the general manager has the final say on the grade and what the stacking is.”

LB Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga has become a productive player for the Eskimos since the 2017 draft.

The 2017 CFL Draft was a productive one for the Eskimos. Not only are six of the players still with the team, but their second fifth-round draft pick, Kwaku Boateng, was a steal. The 23-year-old defensive end is becoming a star in the league with 13 quarterback sacks in 34 games during the last two years.

Linebacker Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga (third round) also has played 34 games, making 53 defensive tackles and 24 special teams tackles while totalling five sacks and four forced fumbles, while defensive back Jordan Hoover (fourth round) has 35 CFL games on his resume.

Offensive linemen Jean-Simon Roy (second round) and Kwabena Asare (sixth round) along with defensive lineman Mark Mackie (eighth round) will also be in training camp in May while fifth-round pick Justin Senior, an offensive lineman, is still in the NFL, having recently signed with the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Eskimos will also have seven players from last year’s CFL Draft in training camp.

“That’s what you want. You want your draft picks to be competing to start and, if they’re not in that position where they are starting, you want them to be significant special teams players.” GM Brock Sunderland

“We have high hopes for all of them that are still with us, but it’s early,” Sunderland said about evaluating the 2018 draft class.

“Traditionally, in the CFL Draft, you’re looking for two to three years down the road – not Year 1 immediate impact – for those guys to really put themselves in a position to have a role in offence or defence. But that’s not always the case. Look at Boateng. Year 1, he was a productive rotational guy (on the defensive line) immediately.

“(2018 draft picks) Godfrey Onyeka (second round, nine games played last year) and Jordan Beaulieu (third round, 12 games) are going to come to camp competing to start,” Sunderland continued. “That’s what you want. You want your draft picks to be competing to start and, if they’re not in that position where they are starting, you want them to be significant special teams players.”

2018 picks DB Jordan Beaulieu (left) and DB Godfrey Onyeka (Right) will be competing for a starting spot in 2019

Sunderland also said that fullback Tanner Green, a fourth-round draft pick last year, was “a very good special teams player last year (seven special teams tackles in eight games) so we felt we had good value there.”

Three of last year’s draft picks – running back Alex Taylor (sixth round), receiver Harry McMaster (seventh round) and defensive lineman Gabriel Bagnell (seventh round) – all went back to school for another season of college football. Offensive lineman Curtis Krahn (fifth round) recently retired from the CFL.

Taylor, who rushed for a total of 3,647 yards and scored 31 touchdowns on 442 carries become the Western University Mustangs’ all-time leading rusher, has the potential to be a special ratio-changing player for the Eskimos.

“At worst, he was a practice roster player last year,” Sunderland said. “We think he’s certainly talented enough to be a guy who can carry the ball and be a very productive running back for us. Not a fullback, but an actual running back.”

Sunderland said the national university talent in Canada’s U Sports football keeps getting better every year and test results at the CFL Combine continue to improve. He was impressed with what he saw at the recent Combine, but there were also players who didn’t get invited to the national event from the Regional Combine in Edmonton who caught the Eskimos’ eye “so it was a really productive day for us.”

However, draft day is always unpredictable, according to Sunderland.

“You just never know until people make their picks,” he said.

There is also no guarantee that a highly drafted player will succeed in the CFL.

“There’s always different reasons why players make it, why they don’t,” said Sunderland, “whether that’s their comfort level and how they feel things fit or whether or not they play the way we thought they’d play or whether you have another guy at that position who simply outplays them.”

The Eskimos have the third pick in the first round of this year’s CFL Draft on Thursday. They also have the fourth pick in each of the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth rounds plus a second fifth-round pick acquired from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Top CFL Ranked Prospects: #1 DL Mathieu Betts (left), #2 OL Shane Richards (Middle), #3 WR Justin McInnis (Right)

In each of the CFL Scouting Bureau’s final two editions of the top 20 prospects, Laval Rouge et Or defensive lineman Mathieu Betts, Oklahoma State offensive lineman Shane Richards and Arkansas State receiver Justin McInnis were ranked 1-2-3 both times.

Betts, a six-foot-three, 250-pound defensive end who led U Sports with nine quarterback sacks last year, became the first player to win the J.P. Metras Trophy as the most outstanding lineman in Canadian university football three times. He also won his second Vanier Cup last year and was invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game in Florida.

Richards, a six-eight, 336-pound guard, played high school football with the Crescent Heights Cowboys in Calgary, had one season of junior college with New Mexico Military Institute and then joined the Oklahoma State Cowboys in 2016. He ended his college career by winning the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Missouri 38-33 on New Year’s Eve.

McInnis, who is six-four and 212 pounds, caught 110 passes for 1,548 yards and 10 touchdowns during his last 25 games with the Red Wolves. His best game in 2018 was seven catches for 177 yards and a touchdown against the University of South Alabama.

Of course, players of this calibre will also attract the attention of NFL scouts and may not be available to the CFL team that drafts them for a few years.