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April 30, 2020

Eskimos went all-in on Betts last year

Brock Sunderland was willing to gamble the Eskimos’ No. 3 pick in the 2019 CFL Draft on defensive lineman Mathieu Betts, but will he be as daring with this year’s fourth overall selection on Thursday night?

The Eskimos General Manager & Vice President of Football Operations admitted last year that he took “a calculated risk” in choosing Betts, whom he called “a Canadian John Chick in his prime,” so early in the draft.

“My philosophy is you take the best player available,” Sunderland said afterwards. “When you get the No. 1 player in the draft in your opinion at No. 3, you take it.

“We understand there’s a little bit of a risk because of the NFL, but he wasn’t drafted so that changes things.”

Every CFL general manager faces the “should we/shouldn’t we?” dilemma prior to the CFL Draft each year. Do they take a chance on that great prospect who has been just drafted by an NFL team or, at the very least, signed as an undrafted free agent with the possibility of making an NFL team? Or do they grab a sure thing (who is still a very good player) while he’s still available and hope to get a chance later in the draft to pick up the stud player who may not play in Canada for a few months, a few years or ever?

“Look, if he’s a fifth-round (NFL draft) pick, we’re not taking him at No. 3,” Sunderland said about Betts last year. “As an undrafted free agent, we’re willing to roll the dice a little bit for how talented he is.”

Betts had already signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Bears, but Sunderland was willing to play the odds last year because he knew 70 per cent of undrafted players signed by NFL teams are released prior to the start of the regular season.

“I’ve also been in the NFL and I understand if you’re a draft pick, you get a lot more opportunities if you make mistakes; you have a lot longer rope,” Sunderland pointed out. “(Betts) didn’t have that luxury.”

As it turned out, the six-foot-three, 250-pound Betts learned a lot while he was with the Bears, but was still released by the NFL team at the end of training camp. He signed with the Eskimos on Sept. 9th.

Betts, 25, was eased into the Eskimos D-line as he adjusted from the NFL’s four-down game, where defensive linemen start close to the line of scrimmage instead of a yard off the ball in the CFL. He played in the final six regular-season games (one start) and both playoff games with the Green and Gold, rotating occasionally with starting defensive ends Kwaku Boateng and Nick Usher, who signed as a free agent with the Las Vegas Raiders this off-season.

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 consecutive seasons (2016-18), Betts made his presence felt immediately with the Esks. He collected quarterback sacks in each of his first two games while also forcing a fumble at a key point of the game in his debut and making a defensive tackle in his second contest.

The Eskimos have had mixed success in the past when taking a chance on players with NFL aspirations. They drafted offensive lineman Justin Senior – the top-rated player, according to the CFL’s Scouting Bureau in 2017 – 40th overall in the fifth round, one pick ahead of rising star defensive end Kwaku Boateng. Senior, who was also chosen in the sixth round by the Seattle Seahawks and signed to a four-year contract, is currently an NFL free agent.

The Esks’ patience paid off with wide receiver Tevaun Smith (eighth overall in the first round) and defensive back Arjen Colquhoun (17th overall in the second round) after the 2016 CFL Draft.

Smith, 27, finally joined the Eskimos last year, making 55 catches for 632 yards and a team-high six receiving touchdowns, while the injury-plagued Colquhoun, who signed as a free agent with the Toronto Argonauts during the off-season, played 24 games (mostly as the starting cornerback on the wide side of the field) during the past three seasons.

Meanwhile, it took seven years for defensive lineman Stefan Charles – the first pick of the second round in 2013 – to make his way to Edmonton last September after playing 49 games while spending time with five different NFL teams from 2013-19. He was also with the AAF’s San Antonio Commanders last year. The 31-year-old Charles (six-foot-five, 323 pounds) has yet to play a game with the Eskimos.

The Esks are also still waiting for offensive lineman Austin Pasztor, 29, to put on an Edmonton jersey. Pasztor, the No. 4 pick in the first round in 2012, has started 43 of 67 NFL games, playing regular-season contests with three of his five NFL teams.

With Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool and Oklahoma defensive tackle Neville Gallimore having been already selected in the NFL Draft last week, most CFL teams will likely forget about them for a while and look elsewhere during the first few rounds of Thursday’s CFL Draft, just like the Eskimos did with Senior in 2017.

Gallimore and Claypool were ranked 1-2, respectively, in the Scouting Bureau’s Top 20 list. Claypool, six-foot-four, 238 pounds, was taken in the second round (49th overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers while Gallimore, six-foot-two, 305 pounds, went 82nd overall in the third round to the Dallas Cowboys.

Where does that leave the Eskimos with the fourth overall draft pick?

Depending upon what the three teams drafting in front of Edmonton – the Calgary Stampeders (from the Ottawa Redblacks in a trade for quarterback Nick Arbuckle), Toronto and the BC Lions – decide to do, the Esks could be in the same position they were with Betts last year.

There are quality players available at almost every position across the board, but a few of Canada’s top players who didn’t get selected in last week’s NFL Draft have already signed free-agent deals with NFL teams.

University of Alberta Golden Bears offensive lineman Carter O’Donnell (ranked No. 3 by the Scouting Bureau) signed with the Indianapolis Colts, Brown University defensive lineman Michael Hoecht (No. 6) went to the Los Angeles Rams, Montreal Carabins defensive back Marc-Antoine Dequoy (No. 9) joined the Green Bay Packers and Simon Fraser’s six-foot-seven, 237-pound receiver Rysen John (No. 18) agreed to terms with the New York Giants.

If Calgary, Toronto and B.C. all pass on O’Donnell, Sunderland could make a similar play to what he did last year with Betts. The Eskimos can afford to wait on the six-foot-six, 315-pound O-lineman after leading the league in fewest quarterback sacks allowed last year.

But Hoecht and Dequoy, who didn’t even play a single down of football during four of his first five seasons after high school, are also interesting options.

Among other players the Eskimos may consider with their first draft pick are:

  • East Carolina Pirates linebacker Jordan Williams, ranked eighth, was almost signed by the Ottawa Redblacks as an American player last year before they discovered he could play as a national – if he took a year off to qualify for the CFL Draft – because his mother was born in Canada. He hasn’t played since his senior year in 2017, but has been compared to Alex Singleton when he was with the Stampeders from 2016-18.
  • Virginia receiver Dejon Brissett, a six-foot-one, 195-pound receiver, has had injury issues since he was the Richmond Spiders’ top receiver with 63 catches for 896 yards and seven touchdowns during his junior college season in 2017. He broke a bone in his foot and played only three games as a senior, which enabled him to receive a medical hardship and use the year as a red-shirt season. After making a graduate transfer to the Cavaliers, he also missed his first two games at Virginia after having a screw taken out of his injured foot and started only two games last year.
  • Quarterbacks usually aren’t a priority in the CFL Draft, but Nathan Rourke may be an exception. Rourke, who is ranked seventh overall, was a dual-threat touchdown machine at Ohio University, passing for 60 TDs and running for another 49 majors in only 39 games over three seasons.