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May 3, 2019

Eskimos Select Top-Rated Defensive Lineman In First Round

Choosing Mathieu Betts with their first pick of the 2019 CFL Draft was a no-brainer as far as Eskimos General Manager and Vice President of Football Operations Brock Sunderland was concerned.

Yes, there’s a possibility that Betts may not show up in Edmonton this season because the talented six-foot-three, 250-pound defensive end signed a free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears after last week’s NFL draft, but the Eskimos felt it was a risk worth taking.

“He’s a transcendent player,” Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas said about the 24-year-old Betts, the top-rated player in the CFL’s Scouting Bureau, a two-time Vanier Cup champion with the Laval Rouge et Or and the first player to win the J.P. Metras Trophy as Canadian university football’s best lineman three years in a row (2016-18). “You don’t see those guys every year.”

Betts, who was also named U SPORTS top rookie in 2015 and Male Athlete of the Year in 2018, had nine sacks in only six games in his final season and 35.5 sacks in his college career.

“The analogy we use to describe him is he’s a Canadian John Chick in his prime,” Sunderland said about the three-time CFL All-Star, two-time Grey Cup champion and the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2009 who retired after playing eight games with the Eskimos in 2017.

Chick had 72 quarterback sacks in only 125 CFL games with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Eskimos.

“Overall, my philosophy is you take the best player available,” Sunderland said. “Look, if he’s a fifth-round (NFL) pick, we’re not taking him No. 3. As an undrafted free agent, we’re willing to roll the dice a little bit for how talented he is.

“He was the highest player on our (draft) board.”

Sunderland loves Betts’ entire package – the quickness at the line of scrimmage, the fact he’s relentless and his versatile skill set to use different techniques (speed, power, spins, etc.) to get to the quarterback.

“He wins a lot of matches right off the snap,” Sunderland said. “It wasn’t just at the U SPORTS level. When he was down in the all-star games in the U.S., he was beating pretty good American tackles down there, too. We certainly think his game translates to the CFL.”

The Eskimos could also afford to take a chance on Betts because they felt they already have the players needed to provide depth on the defensive line.

“(Mark) Mackie is a guy who can go inside and outside,” Sunderland said about the 2017 eighth-round draft pick who played 13 games last season. “Very productive on the interior last year.

“We signed Andrew Marshall (a 28-year-old, six-year CFL veteran who is primarily a special teams player, but can also play defensive end) and then we have our (seventh-round) draft pick from last year from Acadia (Gabriel Bagnell). We think the arrow is up for him as well.”

In addition, the Eskimos have several potential ratio-breaking Canadian players on the roster. Defensive end Kwaku Boateng and cornerback Arjen Colquhoun play positions normally held by international players while linebackers Adam Konar and Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga both started games the past two years.

“We can start Canadians at a number of different spots,” Maas pointed out. “It depends on how we want to play it. … The way our roster shakes out, just with the fact we can play Canadians at different spots, you go ahead and wait (for Betts to arrive).”

In the second round, the Eskimos selected six-foot-seven, 290-pound offensive lineman Kyle Saxelid, who started 36 games over three seasons at UNLV – including 12 at left tackle in his senior year – and spent the past winter playing with the Cedar Rapids Kings in the Indoor Football League. His first weekend in Canada was during the CFL Combine at Toronto in March.

“Big guy with very good feet,” said Sunderland. “Down blocking very powerful. Left tackle. We think he can obviously play the tackle position well … and play tough enough to transfer inside, so he’s a versatile guy.”

Saxelid, 24, who grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., has never played Canadian football and just obtained his Canadian citizenship late last year to change his CFL eligibility from international to a national player. He attended a couple of free-agent camps with the Saskatchewan Roughriders last year before he revealed that his mother, Cheryl, was adopted after she was born in New Brunswick and immediately moved to the United States.

“At the end of the day, I’m just excited to be on a team and knowing that in two weeks, I’ll be playing football again,” said Saxelid, who already has been out of school for a year.

“There’s some definite differences between American and Canadian football,” he continued. “Obviously, the three downs, the yard off the line stuff means a lot to me. It’s also faster than American football, but I got used to that playing some indoor ball because they have a 25-second play clock.

“I’m just slowly preparing myself for things like that, but at the end of the day, I feel like I’m a fast learner. Once I get into camp and start playing against some guys going on that yard-line, I won’t have any trouble with that. And three downs, it just means there’s more pass protection. I’m perfectly fine with that.”

The Eskimos’ other draft picks were:

  • Peter Cender a six-foot-five, 220-pound fullback out of Grand Valley State in the fourth round;
  • Shai Ross, a speedy, six-foot, 180-pound receiver from Manitoba who set a broad jump record at the Combine, and 2018 All-Canadian Evan Machibroda, a six-foot-three, a 280-pound defensive lineman from Saskatchewan, with back-to-back picks in the fifth round;
  • Scott Hutter, a six-foot, 195-pound defensive back with 11 interceptions over 30 games at Wilfrid Laurier in the sixth round;
  • Hunter Karl, a six-foot-one, 185-pound receiver who had 134 catches for 2,286 yards and 14 touchdowns in 27 games with Calgary; and
  • Eric Blake, a six-foot-two, 190-pound defensive back who played 30 games with McMaster the last four years.

“You obviously project for them to be active, hopefully, special teams immediately at minimum,” Sunderland said. “Some of these guys practice roster. Some of these guys we know are going back to school. We’re OK with that with where we took that particular player.”