Draft Notebook: Shrine Game Recap and Geoff Gray Scouting Report

Draft notebook is a weekly series where I share my thoughts from the past week of watching film, hearing what CFL Draft sources are reported to be saying, and general CFL Draft tid-bits. An idea from Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, ‘Draft Notebook’ will hopefully be a good way for those interested in the draft to follow closely along as I comb through the tape of dozens and dozens of Canadian prospects in this year’s class. 

Canadian football players have been well represented in college football All-Star games this year.

Montreal-native Justin Senior (RT, Mississippi State) and Winnipeg-born LB Jordan Herdman (Simon Fraser) are currently in the midst of auditioning down in Mobile, Alabama at the Senior Bowl, while two other highly-touted Canuck prospects – Antony Auclair (TE, Laval) and Geoff Gray (RG, Manitoba) – just wrapped up their one-week job interviews at the East-West Shrine Game.

Auclair, the second-ranked prospect in September’s CFL scouting bureau, got the “start” at TE over Drake’s Eric Saubert – a small-school prospect who’s name’s been buzzing in NFL scouting circles – and made the most out of it. Hauling in a pair of catches for 21 yards, I was thoroughly impressed with just how comfortably the Laval product ran and caught the ball. His pass blocking was stout – which, if you watched him while at Laval, was expected – and I was taken away by his raw take-off speed out of a 3-point stance and as a wide-out.

Auclair will, inevitably, receive comparisons to Toronto Argonauts’ fourth-overall pick Brian Jones sooner or later – its an easy match: they’re both large, physical pass-catchers – but to get it out of the way early, that’s not a good comparison. Despite being 23 pounds heavier at 6’5″, 256-lbs, Auclair is a smoother athlete all around – and it’s not really close. He made money down in St. Petersburg, and I’m expecting the 23-year-old to ink an undrafted free agent contract following the conclusion of the draft.

Gray did not have as good of a week – and that’s fine. Little was expected of the Bison product down south, and scouts likely never planned on altering their grades on Gray whether he had a good week or a bad week. Without a one-yard neutral zone, it’s a huge adjustment for Canadian offensive linemen coming down south to play the 4-down game, and Gray seemed to struggle with hand speed. He tried to compensate by often using a one-arm technique during the game, as it’s easier to get good hand placement punching with one arm, and it somewhat helped him. The strength and power that he’s notorious was still there, and despite his inconsistent pad level, Gray was able to anchor on his first or second attempt against most bull-rushes. He looked slow on pulls – which could be due to the fact that he was being coached to use a slide step by the Shrine Game coaches after using predominantly a cross-over step with the Bisons. Gray surrendered a tackle for loss, but fortunately did not allow a pressure or hit as a pass protector.

Photo via Bison Athletics
Photo via Bison Athletics

Three Downs

1. Eli Ankou, the 3rd-ranked prospect on the CFL scouting bureau, could still very well be the first-overall pick in May. He’s received little NFL interest despite starting two seasons at UCLA, and may only go as far as attending an NFL rookie mini-camp or two. Landing Ankou would be a great pick for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at first overall. Ankou gives the Bombers a future replacement for Keith Shologan at nose tackle, while Kyle Walters would still be able to land a terrific receiver prospect with the sixth-overall pick. For more information on the Ottawa native, I recently published a scouting report of Ankou here.

2. Montreal Carabins’ DT Junior Luke, who’s currently ranked seventh on the scouting bureau, is one of the most interesting prospects I’ve studied this year. He’s an absolute physical specimen – I can say without watching half of the draft-eligible defensive tackles that he has the fastest get-off – but severely lacks technique. I don’t know what he was coached to do down at the National Bowl, but it seemed like he was looking to penetrate into the backfield on every play, having no regard for his gap assignments. With excellent coaching and develop, though, Luke could become a monster in the CFL. It would take time, and he’ll have to be able to apply all the teaching points to his game, but the physical traits are certainly there.

3. Last week I touched on how receivers are back in a big way this season after a dull crop of pass-catchers last year, but after watching more tape over the week, I’m beginning to get the idea that this draft class is better than that of 2015, a draft-year that was said to be remarkably talented considering the new eligibility rules. The 2017 class is loaded with receivers, defensive lineman, defensive backs and linebackers. Ironically, though, it appears to be a down year for offensive linemen.

Scouting Report

RG Geoff Gray, University of Manitoba

Height: 6’5″
Weight: 319-lbs
Hands: 9.375″
Arms: 34.625″
Wingspan: 79.5″
Eligibility: 5th

Positives

The first thing that stands out with Gray is his natural power. He’s an Olympic weight-lifter, and his weight-room strength is visibly translated to the football field. Gray could move players in the Canada West regardless of his technique, but he’s displayed a very strong upper-body, too. Gray is likely the functionally strongest offensive linemen in the class.

Gray’s power also shows up in his lateral quickness off the ball. He shoots out of his stance with tremendous power, possessing the ability to make any sudden lateral movement he must to complete his assignment. This’ll help the five-year Bison pick up blitzing defenders and sudden changes to defensive line alignments in the pro-game.

gray-lateral-quickness

What also stands out is Gray’s tenacity. He’s a bully on the football field, and consistently plays to the whistle. He exhausts every opportunity to take a legal shot at an opponent – and coaches love that. Gray also has quick feet, although they need some technical work.

Negatives

The natural tools are there for Gray but his technique needs some refinement. He struggles with pad level, and while he got away with it at the college level, his raw power won’t consistently compensate for his lack of knee bend in the CFL. He’s quite tall for a guard at 6’5″, which makes it harder to play with good pad level, but his coaches will immediately begin harping on him as a reminder to bend his knees on every practice rep once rookie-camp comes around.

Gray’s work with his hands needs professional coaching, too. He lacks hand speed, as there’s instances on tape of the big-man getting beat with rip moves before he can engage. This correlates to his struggle with hand placement. His hands get too wide on many blocks, which allows defensive lineman to get inside hand positioning and therefore the ability displace Gray when playing the run. If Gray can work on keeping his hands high like a boxer in his pass-set, he can minimize the effect of his aforementioned flawed hand-skill.

Gray doesn’t have the quickest of feet, and while he gets in his pass-set fast enough, he’s surprisingly slow on pulls as well as getting to the second level. When he gets his hands engaged on defenders, though, he can be counted on to complete his assignment.

Projected round: Mid-to-late first round
Grade: 4.45 (out of possible 6.5)

Two Names to Note

1. RG Dariusz Bladek, Bethune-Cookman

I’m reminded a bit of Dillon Guy when I watch Bladek. Despite being in the starting rotation for four years with Buffalo, I ranked Guy as a mid-rounder. Although I need to watch a couple more games, Bladek seems to possess many of the same issues as Guy in terms of technique and overall athleticism. Like the former BC Lions’ draft pick, we must not simply rely on the fact that he played Division I as a reason to draft Bladek early.

2. HB Robert Woodson, Calgary

Woodson is one of the purest cover-defenders I’ve ever watched. He’s incredibly technically-refined, and has the hips, quickness and change-of-direction skills to thrive in the professional ranks. I still have questions about his ability to play the run, which will need to be answered with more film review, but it should be mentioned that the 2016 Canada West Defensive Player of the Year was an excellent contributor for Calgary’s punt return team. Cover-defensive backs are great, but CFL scouts value their traits, such as angles, physicality and tackling, that relate to special-teams the most.

CFL Draft 2017: Eli Ankou (NT, UCLA) Scouting Report

The 2017 CFL draft class boasts a ridiculously talented top-5, and although much of the attention has been focused on names like Justin Senior, Antony Auclair, Rashaun Simonise and even Geoff Gray, UCLA nose tackle Eli Ankou could very well be the first overall pick come May.

The Ottawa, ON. native started his junior and senior seasons for the Bruins, impressively amassing 91 total tackles in 22 games. Ankou filled an uber-important role as the two-gap nose tackle in UCLA’s 3-4 defense, allowing elite NFL prospects such as Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley to flourish. Ankou battled an elbow injury in his senior year sustained in week 4, causing him to miss 2.5 games and play the rest of the season with a restrictive elbow brace. He put together an impressive season nonetheless, but was surprisingly not invited to the 2017 East-West Shrine Game, instead settling for the NFLPA collegiate bowl.

Part of this could be attributed to the fact that he only recorded 1.5 sacks in his college career, although I’d like to point out that he was rarely used as a pass-rusher, which is typical for true 0-techs that align head-up on the center, and will often be asked to QB spy in obvious passing situations.

Measurables

Ankou has a great build, especially to play in Noel Thorpe’s or Devone Claybrooks’ defense. While perfect for his position at UCLA, 325-lbs may seem slightly heavy for the CFL, but considering he’s also 6-foot-3, Ankou carries his weight healthily. He has a bulky build, carrying a lot of it in his legs.

Quickness/Explosiveness

Ankou has a solid get-off, whether he’s timing the cadence or watching the ball. His first step isn’t consistently strong enough to withstand double teams, but he’s shown the ability to shoot gaps as a one-tech. For this reason, he’s scheme versatile. For example, Ankou could play the 0-tech in Montreal’s 4-3 shift defense, or the 1 and 2i-tech in Hamilton’s base 4-3 even.

ankou-get-off-0-tech
Ankou (#96 – aligned head-up on center) gains three yards of leverage immediately due to his quickness. Center recovers and sets the anchor because Ankou’s pad level was poor in this instance.
Ankou (#96) is aligned as a 2i tech and splits the gap.
Ankou (#96) is aligned as a 2i tech and splits the gap.

Vision/Awareness

Vision is one of the most important traits to look for in a nose tackle, and it happens to be Ankou’s best skill. Although he wasn’t the most physically dominant player, the Ottawa product amassed monstrous tackle numbers due to his ability to quickly locate the ball-carrier and adjust accordingly. His awareness wasn’t as good – I found multiple examples of Ankou falling for trap blocks, as well as being cut-blocked on zone runs – but the mental aspect of the position is a strength for Ankou regardless.

Despite a
Ankou (#96) is responsible for the A and B gaps and does a great job reacting to the running back. The play is designed to go to the left, and the running back’s shoulders are initially pointing that direction, so Ankou places his head on the inside shoulder of the guard. The RB cuts back and Ankou reacts well, getting his head to the outside of the guard, coming off the block and making the play.

Strength

Ankou isn’t necessarily a consistently powerful player. His strength shows up in flashes, typically when his technique is sound. If his knees are bent and his hands are placed in the strike zone of the offensive lineman, he’s going to move people. He’s strong enough to keep his feet moving through contact, but didn’t always anchor down on run plays against double teams. In regards to his upper-body strength, it shows flashes as well. Ankou uses his torso strength to keep offensive linemen at a distance in one-on-one rushes, but didn’t display overwhelming block-shedding ability through his torso and hips to rag-doll offensive linemen.

Ankou shows strength in upper-body using a one-arm technique.
Ankou shows strength in upper-body using a one-arm technique.

Hand use

3-4 nose tackles generally aren’t supposed to use finesse moves in one-on-one pass rushing match-ups, so its unclear whether or not he has the ability to consistently beat CFL offensive lineman with rip, club and swim moves. He has, however, proven to have quick, strong hands to get inside hand positioning on offensive lineman on bull-rushes. The battle of quickness and accuracy between offensive and defensive linemen to be the first to get their hands in the strike zone first on every snap is key to gaining leverage and winning the rep – Ankou excels in this.

Despite poor pad level, Ankou bull-rushes the LG back because he wins the battle for hand positioning.
Despite poor pad level, Ankou bull-rushes the C into the QB because he wins the battle for hand positioning.
The ability for linemen to quickly reset their hands after a poorly aimed initial punch is key. Ankou is only spying the QB here, but fights for hand placement to be able to displace the OL if the QB starts to scramble.
The ability for linemen to quickly reset their hands after a poorly aimed initial punch is key. Ankou is only spying the QB here, but fights for hand placement to be able to displace the OL if the QB starts to scramble.

Leverage

Ankou’s pad level isn’t as consistent as scouts would like it to be, but he has shown the ability to really bend his knees, get lower than the offensive lineman, and power through. He didn’t have the raw strength to over-power PAC-12 offensive lineman when his pad level wasn’t good, but he won’t need to be as powerful in the CFL as he needed to be as a 0-tech in a 3-4 scheme in a tough conference. Ankou’s still very much welcome to use this off-season to get stronger in his lower-body, of course.

Pass-rush technique

Ankou’s role in college was simple – gain control of the center on run plays to control both A-Gaps, and provide interior pressure on pass plays by bull-rushing or spying the quarterback on passing plays. In the CFL, he’ll have to run twists far more often – he almost never did with UCLA – and align in several different techniques along the inside of the defensive line. A dominant CFL defensive tackle must have a variety of pass-rushing moves in his repertoire – think of the spin, arm-over swim, rip, club and regular swim move – as well as the athletic ability to pull them off. There are a plethora of good scrambling quarterbacks up north, so tackling and closing speed is important, too. It’s not the same as closing speed, but Ankou’s raw speed to chase down quarterbacks or running backs from the back-side isn’t great. With that being said, I think he’s athletic enough to effectively run twists at the professional level. He’ll require good coaching to expand his pass-rushing repertoire, though, as he was simply not asked to do very much at all in these situations while with the Bruins.

Ankou (#96) twists and bends around the edge. For a 325-pounder, this as good as he needs to be on a twist.
Ankou (#96) twists and bends around the edge. For a 325-pounder, this as good as he needs to be on a twist.

Conclusion

Its easier than ever to get on an NFL training camp roster – see Lefevour, Dan – but especially for those fresh out of college after starting two seasons in the PAC-12. Boston College defensive end Mehdi Abdesmad, who was drafted in the third round by the Ottawa Redblacks in last year’s draft, spent all of 2016 with the Tennessee Titans, but there’s always a chance Ankou makes it no further than an NFL rookie mini-camp, similarly to Trent Corney in 2016 as well.

Ankou has the talent worthy of a top-2 pick, but don’t be surprised if he goes unselected until the second or third round because of NFL interest. At this point, though, its hard to say.

Grade: 4.85
Projected round: Early First*

 

*Subject to pending NFL interest

Photo Credit: Steve Cheng
Photo Credit: Steve Cheng

Draft Notebook: Shrine Game Preview, Filippelli Scouting Report and More

Draft notebook will be a weekly series where I share my thoughts from the past week of watching film, hearing what CFL Draft sources are reported to be saying, and general CFL Draft tid-bits. An idea from Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, Draft Notebook will hopefully be a good way for those interested in the draft to follow closely along as I comb through the tape of dozens and dozens of Canadian prospects in this year’s class. 

It’s become apparent that over the last decade or so, Canadian prospects are receiving more attention than ever south of the border from NFL scouts. Players such as Israel Idonije, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and, most recently, David Onyemata, have helped put University football on the map.

These Canucks all participated in the annual East-West Shrine Game, the second-most important College football All-Star game behind the Senior Bowl and a huge platform for the best Canadian-born football players to showcase their talent against closer to CFL-level competition.

This year’s Shrine Game features three very highly-touted CFL draft prospects in Mississippi State LT Justin Senior (scouting bureau rank: 1), Laval TE Antony Auclair (rank: 2) and Manitoba RG Geoff Gray (rank: 5). Here’s what I’ll be looking for from them each individually in the Shrine Game in terms of their CFL draft stock.

Senior: From a CFL draft stock perspective, Senior has the least to prove considering he started (and excelled in) three seasons at left tackle in the SEC. But I’d like to see Senior play with an aggressive edge in the game, displaying some piss-n-vinegar and more of a mean-guy attitude. This aggressiveness is not what you’d associate with Senior’s play-style during his time at Mississippi State – he did not look for defensive backs to eat on long plays downfield; he did not go looking for players to ear-hole on scramble drills; he didn’t ruffle any feathers at the end of plays; and he really didn’t seem to desire contact and drive through blocks at the point of attack, instead often shuffling and sliding to mirror a defender (although some of that had to do with scheme). Scouts love for their offensive linemen to play with an edge and be dirty, and with his NFL dream right in front of him, I want to see if Senior subconsciously releases a real competitive fire during the week.

Auclair: Admittedly, I haven’t dove into the Laval product’s tape yet. But considering most offenses up North don’t really have a defined position for true pass-catching tight ends – likely because tight ends with Auclair’s size and skill aren’t usually overlooked by NFL teams – Auclair can make himself a lot of money in St. Petersburg, Florida. Is he an extremely athletic H-back with unique abilities, or an inside slot-back poised for a unique role? Is he truly good enough for an offense to bring back the Y-TE position in a CFL offense, and what is the value for this position when drafting?

Laval TE Antony Auclair (Photo via TVA Sports)
Laval TE Antony Auclair (Photo via TVA Sports)

Gray: The University of Manitoba product has already proven just how much of a physical specimen he is – that’s why he’s so highly touted – but the Shrine Game will be a good opportunity for scouts to get a look at his technique against some great players. Playing without a one-yard neutral zone will be a good test to see just how fast Gray can operate, particularly with his hands. Although he’s not used to playing with defenders aligning just inches away, which is a little unfair in terms of evaluating his play, I’d like to see Gray answer some questions about his hand placement, which was sometimes erratic during his Bison career. Gray’s pad level isn’t always ideal either, and we’ll see if he’s naturally strong enough to still win without great knee bend against much better competition than he faced in the Canada West.

Three Downs

1. Justin Senior is a legit blue-chip prospect. He’s not currently projected to be drafted in the NFL draft, but I could see that maybe changing with a good Shrine Game performance – and if not, he’ll be near the top of the board for most teams immediately following the draft as a priority free agent. I’ve already published a formal scouting report of Senior, and not that Senior will be in consideration for the number-1 overall pick due to NFL interest, but he’s considerably better than last year’s top pick, Oklahoma’s Josiah St. John. Like, it’s night and day.

2. After last year’s draft class featured a very mediocre crop of pass-catchers, the receiver position is back in a big way this year. Some big names such as Rashaun Simonise (Calgary), who already has NFL experience, Mitchell Picton (Regina), Danny Vandervoort (McMaster) and Nathaniel Behar (Carleton) give us an incredible top-tier of receivers. I’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of diving into the tape of these guys, but it would not be ludicrous to suggest that any four of these receivers would have been the first receiver off the board in last year’s class.

3. Unlike last year, the 2017 crop of offensive linemen lacks a large top-tier, but it is tremendously deep nonetheless. Geoff Gray is probably a lock for the first round, and Idaho’s Mason Woods could see his stock rise, but in terms of elite prospects, that seems to be about it at this juncture of my draft studies so far this year. 2016 saw six offensive linemen selected in the first 10 picks. Despite offensive linemen being valued like quarterbacks are in the NFL draft, I wouldn’t be surprised if less than half of that number of offensive linemen are selected in the top-10 of the this year’s draft.

Scouting Report

LT Jordan Filippelli, University of Calgary

Height: 6’5″
Weight: 310-lbs
Eligibility: 4th
Scouting Bureau rank: N/R

Positives

A left tackle at one of the Canada West’s top schools, Filippelli has the ideal height and weight to be a successful tackle at the professional. He’s built like a guard, though, with a stockier lower-body build.

Filippelli was well-coached to play with his hands up while at Calgary, as he was often the first Dino offensive linemen to get his hands up upon the snap of the ball, and he keeps them high like a boxer throughout his pass-set. He has good vision and reacts to stunts and blitzes with poise and awareness.

The native of Sherwood Park, AB sends a powerful, shocking initial punch, which helps him get leverage to begin his block. He has a strong torso, occasionally showing the ability to relocate defenders when his technique is good enough to create advantageous angles for his running back. Filippelli possesses serviceable functional strength, and though he’ll need coaching and could take longer than some at adjusting to a new position, he has many desired traits of a guard prospect.

Negatives

First and foremost, its clear almost immediately upon turning on the tape that Filippelli will transition to guard when he enters the CFL. Ignoring other important factors such as quickness and technique, he simply doesn’t move around with the smoothness, gracefulness and agility of a true tackle.

The biggest red flag for Filippelli is his posture, an element that is the very root of all blocks and is very difficult to coach, seeing as it’s deeply-ingrained in muscle memory. The fourth-year Dino has porous pad level, resulting in him sometimes struggling to set the anchor against bull-rushes despite his raw strength not being too bad. Posture is one of the keys to getting leverage, and Filippelli often struggles maintaining a slight forward lean – sometimes he’s leaning too far forward, and sometimes he’s standing too straight.

Filippelli is very susceptible to inside moves. He often over-sets in his pass-set and lacks elite strength to stonewall the inside rush. As we also see in his blocking in the second level, Filippelli’s lack of change of direction skills doesn’t help him defend inside moves either. He’ll need lots of work on his footwork for run block – especially considering he’ll be transitioning to guard – when professional coaches get their hands on him, particularly with the aim of his first-step. Incorrectly stepping to, for example, the outside hip on a fan-block could be the difference between a touchdown run and a four-yard loss, regardless of the lineman’s physical traits.

Filippelli is not quick enough to play tackle, and had problems staying square in his pass-sets against more athletic defensive ends because he couldn’t keep up with raw foot speed. He also lacks hand speed, and has a hard time timing his punch, which led to his hands being swatted more often than scouts would like to see from offensive tackle prospects.

Projected draft placement: Rounds 3-4
Grade: 3.1 (out of possible 6.5)

Two Names to Watch For

1. LB Jordan Herdman, SFU

A two-time recipient of GNAC Defensive Player of the Year award, Herdman was shockingly not ranked the in the top-20 of the CFL scouting bureau’s December rankings. A strong, twitchy inside linebacker in a defensive end’s body, Herdman also set the GNAC conference single-season record for tackles with 165 in 2014.

2. DE Evan Foster, Manitoba

Foster, the Defensive MVP in the 2016 East-West Bowl (3 tackles – two for loss –  and 1 sack), rode that wave of momentum from the All-Star game and carried it into his fifth season with the Herd. Foster has good size at 6’1″, 245-lbs and could be the best edge-bender in the class. He often dropped into coverage as a linebacker on passing downs – which explains why he recorded merely 4 sacks in his senior season – and was used in a variety of ways along Manitoba’s defensive line. Foster should project as an excellent special-teams player early in his career/development as a defensive end once he enters the CFL.

CFL Draft 2017: OT Justin Senior Scouting Report (Mississippi State)

The 2016 recipient of the Kent Hull trophy for the best offensive lineman in the state, Mississippi State right tackle Justin Senior is likely the best Canadian offensive line prospect since Kansas City Chiefs’ guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was the top prospect in the 2014 CFL draft class.

A three-year starter at right tackle in the ever-competitive South Eastern Conference (SEC), the Montreal, Que. native is a true Canadian tackle prospect. He wasn’t necessarily overly eye-popping as a blocker in college to the average viewer, but Senior was a consistently competent player against tremendous competition. No matter how pretty, Senior could be counted on to consistently do his job on every play. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ second best offensive tackle in the SEC in 2016.

Measurables

With a tree-top build at 6’5″ and 310-lbs, Senior has the ideal build for a tackle prospect. He seems to have big hands and decent arm-length (although he seems to know how to compensate for shorter arms if my estimate is wrong and that is the case). Senior is projected to run around a 5.10-second 40-yard-dash at his Pro Day.

Agility/Quickness

Senior has quick, nimble feet that allow him to consistently arrive at the junction point on time in pass-protection. He has the poise and skill to keep his shoulders square in his kick-steps, relying on the quickness of his feet and resisting the temptation to “open the door” and prematurely turn his shoulders towards the defensive end on outside rushes. Against a well-known speed-rusher with great burst off the line in Auburn’s Carl Lawson – an EDGE prospect projected to go in the first two rounds in the 2017 NFL draft – Senior had no trouble mirroring the defender around the corner and using his feet to maintain good position.

j-senior-quick-feet
Senior meets Lawson, who’s working his go-to speed rush, at the junction point on time. Notice how Senior does a great job staying square in his pass-set.
j-senior-quick-feet-2
Senior “opens the door” slightly too early but still shows off his quick feet, meeting Lawson at the junction point on time.

Senior also had no problem using quick-sets in the Auburn game, a technique often used to counter powerful bull-rushers who aren’t as good with their hands. Despite Lawson, a quick rush-end with decent hands, not falling under that category, Senior was successful using quick-sets thanks to his technique. It’s on his quick-sets where Senior’s decent nimbleness is advantageous, as he is able to keep his feet moving and up-to-speed with pass-rushers around the corner even after shooting his punch. His nimbleness occasionally shows up when defending inside-moves on a quick-set, too.

j-senior-nimbleness
Not a quick-set but Senior’s nimbleness is well displayed in this GIF.

Hands

Senior’s hands are a tale of two stories. He struggles with hand speed and keeping his hands high like a boxer, but also has tremendously strong hands and good hand placement. Coupled with a strong torso that allows him to extend his arms once engaged, Senior’s strong hands play a pivotal role in his pass-protection and his run-blocking. His hands aren’t easily swatted once engaged, and if he keeps them high – even if on the shoulder pads, which is technically too high – Senior possesses the upper-body strength to turn defenders and create seams. Senior’s initial punch will occasionally shock the defender, but it’s the strength of his hands that’s quite impressive.

j-senior-strong-hands
Senior’s strong hands lock on DE #4

More often that not, Senior’s aiming point with his hands is nicely placed inside the defender’s shoulders and just outside the numbers. When he mistakenly places his hands too far outside the torso, it’s often a product of his lack of hand speed, as the defender was able to get his hands on first. Senior has the upper-body strength to also use a one-arm technique when he knows its unlikely that he’ll be able to get both of his hands inside, or when the defender has a longer reach than him, understanding that one arm reaches farther than two. In the below GIF, Senior sends a shocking blow – not always, but his initial punch can be powerful sometimes – with his outside hand to the defenders outside shoulder, which gives him some leverage, and gets good hand placement albeit on a quick-throw play. The second GIF is simply one of many examples of the redshirt senior’s great initial hand placement.

j-senior-hard-punch

j-senior-hand-placement
Senior times his punch well and nicely places his hands on the outside linebacker’s numbers.

Despite his hand speed being an issue – too often did interior defensive lineman get their hands engaged on Senior first on run plays – Senior shows some ability to re-set his hands when his initial placement is too wide. This a great reactionary skill for an offensive lineman to have in his toolbox to revert to when desperately trying to prevent a sack after being beaten initially, as we see below.

j-senior-hand-reset

Hips

As a run-blocker, he occasionally takes a wide step when he should take a power step (and vice-versa), but displays strong, flexible hips and, as mentioned above, good strength in his torso to turn defenders and create seams for his running back or quarterback. As a tackle in a zone scheme, rather than driving defenders back, Senior is often asked to simply shield block the defensive end from getting inside. On reach blocks, meanwhile, his aforementioned physical traits are flaunted, and his footwork seems refined. Senior’s first step when down-blocking, however, needs coaching.

j-senior-reach-block
Good power-step, hip/torso power, and aiming point on this reach block.
A very clear example of Senior (RT, #58) using all the power in his hips to shield block.
A very clear example of Senior (RT, #58) using all the power in his right hip to shield block.

Strength

Senior is going to make his money off his agility and technique, but that’s not to say he isn’t a functionally strong player. Although his lack of elite raw strength sometimes got him in trouble, Senior’s technical strength is nothing to second guess. When his posture is good – flat back, knees bent, slight forward lean, head and hands up – he’ll have no problem setting the anchor against bull-rushes. But if his first step in his pass-set is too wide and the defender counters with an inside move, the functional strength isn’t always there to stonewall the rush. The same can be said when his footwork isn’t good on down-blocks.

j-senior-technical-strength
Senior’s strength isn’t an issue when his technique is good.
j-senior-functional-strength
Senior is uprooted from his spot by a powerful right punch and doesn’t have the functional strength to re-anchor here.

Pass block technique

Senior plays every down with ideal pad level, keeping his knees bent throughout the block. He keeps his back flat and his head up. As previously mentioned, he doesn’t “open the door” too early, remaining square in his pass-set until the last second. His punch timing will occasionally get him in trouble against defenders with quick hands, but it’s not a huge red flag. He needs to work on keeping his hands up in his pass-sets to be able to send a short, quick punch at any time.

Run block technique

Senior must work on bringing his hips/feet back under him to create power when blocking to move defenders more as a run-blocker. The 22-year-old often struggled with blocking in the second level, but it wasn’t because of a lack of change of direction skills. Senior must simply work on breaking down in the open field, and that’s coachable. His footwork, as mentioned, needs polishing, but I imagine that’ll get cleaned up fairly quickly when he receives NFL coaching.

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Senior (RT, #58) doesn’t breakdown and runs right past the linebacker in space.
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Senior takes a good power-step on this down-block.

Vision

Although we don’t always know the exact protection call, Senior often seems slow to react to twists and blitzes.

Analysis

Senior’s first stop will be in the NFL. He’ll play in the East-West Shrine Game in January, and a good showing there could result in him being a day three pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. (And if not, he’ll have loads of undrafted free agent contracts sent his way immediately following the conclusion of the draft). He’s a fairly polished offensive tackle that, by CFL standards, checks almost every box in terms of his physical traits. His vision and ability to recognize stunts and twists is concerning, but as for his other flaws – hand speed in particular –  either the one yard neutral zone in the Canadian game should nullify them, or they’re coachable. He’s not a nasty player by any stretch of the imagination, but Senior plays with a short memory and has a proven reputation in arguably college football’s best conference. He’s the best player in the CFL draft class but may not here his name called until the middle rounds – I wouldn’t expect Senior to be drafted as early as UNLV OT Brett Boyko was in 2015 (early second round).

Grade: 4.7 (out of possible 6.5)
Projected round: 4-5

Photo credit USA Today Sports
Photo credit USA Today Sports

Top-Ranked Prospect Justin Senior Unlikely Coming North Soon

The CFL Draft is unlike anything in sports.

You want to draft a good player, but not too good of a player. The NFL has been keeping tabs on Canadian Football more than it ever has, while football in the North is producing better and better prospects each year. Draft too good of a player, and the NFL will lure them away in an instant for a couple years (or for their career – just ask Bombers’ fans).

The top-ranked players in the CFL Scouting Players often spend at least their first year of professional football in the NFL – and sometimes longer. Mississippi State OT Justin Senior, the top-ranked player in both the September and December rankings, will be no different. CFL on TSN colour commentator Duane Forde began nicknaming late-season match-ups between the league’s basement-dwellers the “Senior Bowl” in reference to them competing for the number one overall pick and the opportunity to draft Senior, but that won’t be the case. Senior is NFL-bound, and could be a late-round pick in the NFL Draft if he shows well in the upcoming East-West Shrine Game.

Senior has not been given the hype he deserves for just how good of a prospect he is. The Montreal, Que. native started three seasons at right tackle in arguably the top college football conference in the NCAA, and was the 2016 recipient of the Kent Hull Trophy, awarded annually to the top offensive lineman in the state of Mississippi. Senior was selected as one of two offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus’ 1st-team SEC All-Star team.

The 22-year-old is a tackle prospect through and through, which increases his NFL stock even more. Legitimate Canadian tackle prospects are usually scooped up quickly by the NFL – see Boyko, Brett and Foucalt, David.

I’ve watched four of Senior’s games – Auburn, BYU, LSU and Texas A&M. He’s a complete player by CFL draft standards, although his functional strength, hand speed and run-blocking technique will be detractors for his NFL stock. But as a witness of just how dominant of a player he was during his time at Mississippi State, and just how weak of an offensive line class it is, it’s hard to imagine Senior not joining an NFL club on day-3 of the draft.

Senior held his own against two premier SEC pass-rushers in Auburn’s Carl Lawson and Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall. Senior had no problem using quick-sets against Lawson, who’ll likely be a first or early second round pick in the 2017 draft – despite the defensive ends quickness and burst. It was hard to tell that Lawson is a highly-coveted edge-bender with the way Senior consistently arrived on time at the junction point in regular pass-sets. The 22-year-old dealt with the power of Hall – the sixth ranked EDGE in the 2017 draft – quite well in Mississippi State’s huge upset win over the Aggies, too.

With ideal size and build at 6’5″ and 310-lbs, Senior is undoubtedly the top player in the 2017 CFL Draft class. But that’s not to say he’s a guaranteed first round pick. Senior will likely be drafted later than UNLV’s Brett Boyko was in 2015 (round 2, pick 14), especially if he performs well at the Shrine Game.

Like many recent no. 1 rated Canadian prospects, Senior is just simply too good to warrant spending a first-round pick on a player with no timeline projecting when he’ll actually come to the CFL.