CFL Draft 2017: Mock Draft Version 1.0

With college All-Star games all wrapped up, as well as the CFL combine being just a couple of weeks away, it’s time to start back up the mock draft machine.

This is an outstanding draft class. I’ve been really digging into the CFL draft for three years now, and this is the best prospect pool I’ve seen yet. It’s especially top-heavy, featuring a plethora of NCAA athletes and better talent than usual at skill-positions. It’s possible only two offensive linemen are selected in the first round come draft day in May.

This is the first of three 2017 mock drafts.

ROUND ONE

1:1 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers: NT Eli Ankou, UCLA

Photo Credit: Steve Cheng
Photo Credit: Steve Cheng

Ankou fills a positional need for the Bombers and has the tools to justify being selected with the first overall pick. The Bombers cut ties with starting nose tackle Keith Shologan prior to free agency, and considering the team would likely prefer to continue to start three American offensive linemen, Mike O’Shea and Co. will be forced to start a Canadian along the interior of the defensive line. The Problem? Five-year veteran DT Jake Thomas isn’t starter quality. With Ankou pushing him, however, the Bombers could get by in 2017. Free agent acquisition Drake Nevis, an international, will start at nose tackle this season, and although Thomas is strictly a defensive tackle while Ankou is, at this point, strictly a nose tackle, Nevis will see plenty of time as a three-technique as well in order to get Ankou on the field.

Ankou comes from a traditional two-gapping 3-4 defense at UCLA, where he took on an important role as the team’s starting nose tackle. He amassed ridiculous tackle numbers  – 91 in 22 appearances – despite playing a position that’s not supposed to generate statistical production. This can be attributed to the Ottawa native’s spectacular vision. Ankou finds the football early in the play and uses his technique to stack offensive linemen and free himself to make the tackle. Although he checks the majority of the boxes in terms of player traits, the 6’3″, 325-pounder has room to grow as a pass-rusher.

READ HERE: Eli Ankou Scouting Report

1:2 – Saskatchewan Roughriders: OL Mason Woods, Idaho

Photo credit: Idaho athletics
Photo credit: Idaho athletics

Following the retirement of 10-year vet Chris Best, the Riders are once again starving for Canadian offensive linemen. The Riders also have a huge need for Canadian defensive tackles and defensive backs, but selecting a player of either of those positions with this pick would be a massive reach. Plus, at this stage, Matt Vonk is slated as the starter at right guard, with only two second-year linemen – last year’s 1st overall pick, Josiah St. John, and Dillon Guy – as depth. Ouch. Brendan LaBatte may only have one more season in him, too. It was rumored early in the off-season that he was considering retirement due to concussions.

Selecting Woods no. 2 slight might be a slight reach in terms of other players available, but considering the value of his position, this would be a good pick for Saskatchewan. Woods is a mountain of a man, standing 6’9″ and weighing in at 325-pounds. He was a three-year starter in the Sun-Belt conference, playing strong-side guard for the Vandals. The B.C. native has quick, heavy hands to deliver a sharp punch. He does a good job getting his hands high and tight immediately following the snap of the ball. Woods has similar strength to Manitoba guard Geoff Gray but comes without the glaring technical flaws. He compares to Edmonton right guard Matt O’Donnell.

READ MORE: Mason Woods Scouting Report 

1:3 – BC Lions: DE Kwaku Boateng, Wilfred Laurier

Kha Vo/Laurier Athletics
Kha Vo/Laurier Athletics

Rashuan Simonise is a better prospect than Boateng, and since Shawn Gore may retire sooner than we think, the Lions will probably heavily consider the fast, lanky receiver here. Boateng, however, fills a massive need for Wally Buono’s team, as the Lions have just three Canadian defensive linemen under contract. To make matters worse, David Menard will likely be forced to start at DE for ratio implications, and BC has no depth behind him – Dylan Ainsworth is nothing more than a special-teamer, and the jury is still out on 2015 7th-round pick Maxx Forde.

The loss of recent first-round pick Ese Mrabure-Ajufo surely still stings, but the Lions can fill the void with another Wilfred Laurier pass-rusher in Boateng. Boateng has shown the impressive flexibility to really bend on pass-rushes and run the arc. He also posses a large and developed pass-rush repertoire. He’s slightly lacking in the quickness department, but Boateng has the size (6’2″, 250-lbs) and production (Wilfred Laurier’s all-time sack leader) to warrant this pick.

1:4 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats: WR Rashaun Simonise, Calgary

rashaun_simonise
Photo by Josh Schaefer (getmyphoto.ca)

The Ti-Cats won’t pass on this talented of a receiver again, right? (See Durant, Lemar). With excellent Canadian content and only depth needed, Hamilton should select easily the best player available in this scenario – Rashaun Simonise.

Simonise is an absolute freak athlete. At 6’5″, he ran a 4.42 and 4.48 40-yard dash at his Pro Day last year. Simonise, who left the University of Calgary to declare for the NFL supplemental draft after being ruled academically ineligible, already has NFL experience – he was a late training camp cut of the Cincinnati Bengals last August. NFL opportunities will certainly come into play in terms of Simonise’s draft stock, but after playing last season for the CJFL’s Okanagan Sun, it could be harder for Simonise to land another shot without getting some better game tape against increased competition.

1:5 – Edmonton Eskimos: LB Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga, Maine

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Peter Buehner Photo

The Eskimos will likely consider University of Manitoba guard Geoff Gray here, as the days in the CFL for long-time guard Simeon Rottier are numbered, but Mulumba Tshimanga would be the best player available. Having brought back Shamawd Chambers from Saskatchewan, the Eskimos can wait until a later round to fill the loss of receivers Devon Bailey and Chris Getzlaf.

Mulumba Tshimanga is one of the most pro-ready players in this draft class. He’s a smart, instinctive linebacker that’s often one step ahead of the offense. He’s nearly reached his athletic potential, with NFL-size physical attributes at 6’1″, 245-lbs. He’ll be asked to drop some weight, but the fact that he’ll likely run around a 4.84 40-yard dash at his current weight is eye-opening for CFL talent evaluators. Considering the Eskimos will roll with four Americans on the defensive line following the release of Eddie Steele, Mulumba Tshimanga may need to contribute in some capacity as early as next season, as head coach Jason Maas would certainly rather not start three Canadians at receiver.

READ MORE: Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga Scouting Report

1:6 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers: WR Danny Vandervoort, McMaster

vandervoort-one-hander

Receiver is the Bombers’ biggest need heading into the draft. Fortunately for Kyle Walters and the blue and gold, the receiver position is a massive position of strength in this class. After years of mediocrity with the likes of Rory Kohlert and Julian Feoli-Gudino, the Bombers may finally land a high-end receiver prospect in the first round.

Vandervoort has a coveted combination of size and speed at 6’2″, 205-lbs. He pulls away from defenders on deep crossers, fades, etc., and displays a massive catch radius on 50/50 balls. Like most receivers who enter the CFL draft, the Barrie, ON. native must sharpen his route-running. Vandervoort, who’s third all-time in Canadian University Football touchdown receptions, has all the tools to become a dynamic CFL receiver.

1:7 – BC Lions: OL Geoff Gray, Manitoba

Photo via Bison Athletics
Photo via Bison Athletics

The Lions have a nice core of Canadian offensive linemen in the likes of Hunter Steward, Cody Husband, Kirby Fabien and Charles Vaillancourt, but Wally Buono won’t be able to keep all four forever. While the Lions have a greater need for a pass-catcher and a defensive tackle, it’d still be a wise move for Buono to invest in another high-end offensive line prospect.

Considering the current state of the Lions’ offensive line, Gray would be granted the time he needs to develop in order to reach his maximum potential. Gray, an olympic lifter, is an absolute bulldozer on the field. He’s fairly agile and has excellent size at 6’5″, 319-lbs. Gray has obvious technical issues that will keep him from seeing the field without seasoning first –  the Winnipeg product struggles with pad level and hand usage – but the pick could pay off hugely in the future for BC. Just envision, if all goes well, Charles Vaillancourt and Geoff Gray would form an exceptional duo for the future.

READ MORE: Geoff Gray Scouting Report

1:8 – Calgary Stampeders: TE Antony Auclair, Laval

auclair

As usual, the Stamps have the best Canadian content in the league. (I know, what else is new?). They’ll pick up some depth nationals in the later rounds to replace some losses in free agency, but have absolutely no pressing needs in the first round. They’re astronomically loaded along the offensive line, with Canadians Pierre Lavertu, Spencer Wilson, Dan Federkeil, Shane Bergman, Karl Lavoie, Brad Erdos, Roman Grozman and Cam Thorn. Calgary’s in perfect position to invest in an NFL-bound player, and who better than Laval TE/SB Anthony Auclair, a truly unique prospect to the CFL Draft.

Auclair, who impressed at the East-West Shrine Game, possesses NFL-wanted TE size at 6’6″, 254-pounds. When watching him at the Shrine as well as during his time at Laval, I was shocked by just how comfortable and smooth he seemed running and catching the football. He’s going to get an NFL opportunity, but if he comes north, the Stamps will have a seriously interesting player on their hands. There’s truly no current CFLer to compare with Auclair – he’s a unicorn. I envision Auclair as an F-receiver that doesn’t need to be subbed out for a fullback in those personnel groupings. The Stamps would be able to get incredibly creative with their offense if they ever landed Auclair on a CFL contract.

1:9 – Ottawa REDBLACKS: WR Nathaniel Behar, Carleton

Ashley Fraser/Postmedia News
Ashley Fraser/Postmedia News

Although the Redblacks could go many different routes with the last pick in the first round, selecting Behar makes a lot of sense. It fills a need – Ottawa has suspect depth behind Brad Sinopoli – and adds another local product to the team’s receiving corps. Behar is a London, Ontario native but, of course, played college ball in Ottawa. The Redblacks could use another offensive lineman – McGill’s Qadr Spooner will be considered – as well as a defensive tackle, however a DT such as Idaho’s Faith Ekakitie or Montreal’s Junior Luke would be a reach in the first round. Behar’s local ties edge out Spooner.

Next mock draft: 3 rounds following the Combine.

CFL Draft 2017: Mason Woods (OG, Idaho) Scouting Report

At this point in preparation for the 2017 CFL draft, the crown as the number one offensive lineman in the class is still up for the taking. Idaho’s Mason Woods, though, may be the one to emerge atop everyone in the end.

Excluding Mississippi State OT Justin Senior, who’s NFL-bound, Manitoba’s Geoff Gray has been heralded as the top offensive lineman in the class. A participant in the East-West Shrine Game, Gray possesses otherworldly strength and ideal size. Woods, however, possesses some elite traits of his own and comes without as many technical flaws.

Woods was a three-year starter for the Vandals in the Sun-Belt conference. He played strong-side guard in Idaho’s pro-style offense, meaning on any given play he could be the left guard, right guard, or offensive tackle.

Measurables

Woods is a mountain of a man standing six-foot-nine. Despite his height, he’s able to bend his knees and out-leverage defensive linemen, similarly to Matt O’Donnell. Woods carries his weight healthily at 320 pounds.

Footwork, Agility

Woods is quite nimble for a man of his size. He consistently arrives on time in pass-protection, mirroring pass-rushers with ease. He does sometimes lack quickness to recover against hump-moves, or other sudden needed changes of direction. Despite being the puller on Idaho’s trap and counter runs, he’s not particularly fast getting out of his stance and into open space. He stands straight up on fold blocks, resulting in a fairly soft block on the edge defender. Woods’ footwork needs plenty of development. I’ve noted a plethora of over-sets and under-sets from the Port Coquitlam, B.C. native, while in the run game, Woods will often take work poor angles on fan blocks.

Hands

Woods’ hands are a strong-point for the 22-year-old. He’s the first to get his hands up upon the snap of the football, bringing them high and tight like a boxer, ready to punch at any given moment. He’s able to establish inside hand placement before his opponent. Woods’ arms are like a steel barricade for defensive linemen. If he’s able to reach an arm out, even just in desperation, Woods has a chance to stop the defender without drawing a flag. He possesses heavy hands to lock onto defenders and control their movements.

woods-active-hands
Woods’ fast, active hands in use.

Strength

Woods has remarkable bench-press-like strength. He’s able to use his upper-body strength to relocate defenders with force, whether they’re blitzers from depth or head-on defensive tackles. Woods is able to anchor against bull-rushes, as with his combination of lower-body strength and simply being a sheer mountain of a man, he’s tough to move backwards. He has the ability to stonewall inside rushes with strength, which is one way he compensates for his over-sets. Woods’ run-blocking is inconsistent at times, and it almost seems as though he’s wearing out throughout the game. At times, he’ll drive a defensive tackle off the ball, while other times he’s simply shield-blocking at the point of attack.

Woods (LG, 67) showing that bench press.
Woods (LG, 67) showing that bench press.
Now at RG, Woods shows off the bench-press-like strength again.
Now at RG, Woods shows off the bench-press-like strength again.

Pass Block Technique

Woods maintains solid pad level for a man of his size in pass-protection. He keeps a flat back throughout the block, but doesn’t always maintain a nice forward lean. He’s able to time his punch nicely. He gets his hands high and tight off the ball but, as mentioned, will over and under-set.

Run Block Technique

As mentioned, Woods works some poor angles as a run defender; he’ll sometimes step too flat on a fan block, allowing the defender to rip and come free, or sometimes too sharp, giving the defender the opportunity to run around his block. When blocking in the second level, Woods must become more consistent at rolling his hips underneath him to move the ‘backer, as well as breaking down in space. This goes hand in hand with Woods needing to keep his feet moving during blocks more often. Overall, Woods is a good run-blocker but lacks consistency.

The Skinny

Beyond both being 6’9″ and 6’10”, Woods reminds me Edmonton Eskimos RG Matt O’Donnell. Both players can bend their knees and use their size to their advantage. They have tackle size and quick enough feet – O’Donnell spent 2016 training camp as a right tackle with the Cincinnati Bengals – but will play their careers along the interior of the offensive line. Woods has elite strength and good technique, and his issues are all coachable. He comes without little red flags, and should be a highly sought-after prospect come draft day.

Grade: 4.45 (out of possible 6.5)
Projected round: One

Draft Notebook: Combine Rosters Revealed, Mulumba Tshimanga 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. 

We’re now one month away from the national CFL combine.

The combine rosters have been announced and, although preliminary – there are only 35 participants listed so far compared to 51 players last year – some notable names have been announced.

Some notable names include NCAA athletes Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga (LB, Maine), Mason Woods (OG, Idaho) and Faith Ekakitie (DT, Idaho), as their schools will likely be hosting Pro Days, and as we’ve seen, few prospects partake in the Combine if their school hosts a Pro Day for NFL/CFL scouts. For a league using CFL Week in Regina, Saskatchewan to help draw more interest to the Combine, successfully recruiting more NCAA athletes to the Combine is good news.

THREE DOWNS

1. It’s hard to understate just how good Simon Fraser LB Jordan Herdman is. Despite being inexplicably unranked in the September Scouting Bureau, and then only being ranked no. 16 on the next, the Winnipeg native is likely the second best player in the class, with the ceiling to be the best. Herdman did better than anyone would have imagined at the Senior Bowl for a Division-II GNAC conference player, often catching the attention of NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock. Herdman is a freak athlete that does not come around often. Look for the 5’10”, 238-pounder to sneak into day-three of the NFL draft.

2. As I watch the games of more and more highly-touted offensive line prospects, the less infatuated I become with Manitoba Bisons’ right guard Geoff Gray, who’s the top-ranked lineman on the Scouting Bureau besides NFL-bound OT Justin Senior. Gray has obvious technical issues, and while teams will always value athleticism ahead of any other on-field trait, this class has other offensive lineman that possess similar strength with less technical concerns. One of those players is Idaho’s Mason Woods.

3. Wilfred Laurier pass-rusher Kwaku Boateng is an awfully intriguing prospect at defensive end. He has ideal size, with a rare ability to bend around the edge, displaying a low center of gravity and flexibility in his knees. This trait alone will sell some teams. His testing numbers will be interesting. I’d like to see his 3-cone time before coming to any conclusions.

SCOUTING REPORT

LB Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga, University of Maine

mulumba

Height: 6’1″
Weight: 245-lbs
Eligibility: 4th

Positives

Simply put, Mulumba has a nose for the football that every football coach desires from their middle linebacker. He’s a physical, violent play-maker that always finds a way to get his hands on the ball-carrier at the end of the play. A four-year starter at a Division-I FCS program, the Laval, Que. native accumulated 347 tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss and 4 interceptions in 42 career starts. He’s noticeably good at sifting through the trash to find the ball.

Mulumba is an incredibly instinctive linebacker. At times, it seems as though he knows what play the offense is running before they even do. Mulumba, the leader of the Maine’s defense, signaling and directing traffic in the defensive backfield, is exceptional at recognizing formations and quickly reading his keys. He’s rarely a victim of play-action and misdirection. Mulumba works from depth nicely in pass-coverage, jumping on shallow crosses. He uses a quick first step to his advantage after diagnosing what he sees from the offense as an off-ball player.

Mulumba tackles ball-carriers with a purpose. He was often used as a pass-rushing OLB on third-down, and displayed a good get-off coupled with surprising efficiency working with his hands. Scouts will value Mulumba’s production in a 2-gap defense, as he’ll be free to be more aggressive in a one-gap CFL scheme.

Negatives

Granted, he is 20-25 pounds heavier than the average CFL linebacker, Mulumba doesn’t possess sideline-to-sideline speed, and he will be asked to drop some weight. Expect Mulumba to run around a 4.84-second 40-yard-dash at his Pro Day, which, while above-average, isn’t elite speed.

Mulumba’s change of direction abilities also have room to improve. He can be just a split-second behind at times. While playing in an overwhelming scheme for college blocking schemes to handle, Mulumba also benefited plentifully from a strong front-seven around him. Scouts may also be worried that a player they’d be drafting to be a starter in the future had minimal pass coverage responsibilities.

Mulumba will at times mistakenly get caught on the shoulder of a pulling guard, opening a large rushing lane for the ball-carrier when he’s responsible for two gaps. He wasn’t a reliable TED linebacker for Maine’s 3-4 when asked. (Think of the MIKE linebacker in Richie Hall’s defense, eating blocks to free up the WILL). Mulumba must work at staying square at the point of attack. He seemed to burn out in the fourth quarter of Maine’s week one match-up against UCONN.

The bottom line: Mulumba is a first-round talent with the traits to be a long-time starter at middle linebacker.

Projected round: First round.

Bombers Riskily Betting on Thomas Following Abrupt Release of Shologan

On the second day of free agency, the Montreal Alouettes inked Canadian defensive tackle Jabar Westerman to a three-year deal, spelling the end of any hopes of the Winnipeg Football Club landing the younger brother of Bombers’ pass-rushing specialist, Jamaal Westerman.

The Bombers recently released veteran Canadian nose tackle Keith Shologan before free agency, likely due his remarkably expensive salary of $175,000 annually. Having made this transaction without a set replacement in place, the Bombers seriously needed to land Westerman in free agency, as the former BC Lion was the only proven Canadian interior defensive lineman on the market that the Bombers had a chance to afford. Due to other teams raising Westerman’s value, the cap-pressed Bombers were out-bid early in negotiations, and on Wednesday morning, the 27-year-old was an Alouette.

The Bombers face quite the conundrum now that neither Shologan, who was also picked up by Montreal, or Westerman are options. They’re without a seventh Canadian starter, and while the club’s Canadian content is mostly quite strong, the roster is really only structured to start a seventh national at defensive tackle or as a third offensive lineman, where Patrick Neufeld, who proved in 2015 that he’s a serviceable option at right tackle or guard, would disassemble an excellent offensive line in 2016 thanks to three international starters.

Considering the risk the Bombers took in releasing Shologan at the time they did, as well as the fact that they backed out of negotiations with Westerman, it’s clear the club is confident in the abilities of Jake Thomas, a five-year veteran, to possibly step up as the team’s seventh Canadian starter. Although the Bombers will likely take an interior defensive lineman early in the draft – I believe they’ll use the first overall pick to select UCLA NT Eli Ankou – there’s an increasingly solid chance that Thomas will be thrusted into a starting role in 2017.

Walters and O’Shea are playing with fire here. While free agent signee Drake Nevis will start at Shologan’s now-vacated nose tackle position, the team’s quality of play from Canadian interior defensive linemen will likely steeply decline with Thomas at defensive tackle.

While quite over-paid at $175k, Shologan was fairly solid in 2016. As a run-stopper, Shologan was a consistently gap-sound player that flashed a lot of veteran-savvy in his attempt to maintain position in defending his gap. He could anchor against double-teams and, as a defensive lineman in a one-gap system, took advantage of his freedom, if you will, to shoots gaps. He did leave some plays in the backfield due to tackling issues, but it did not appear as though age affected his run-stopping capabilities.

Thomas, meanwhile, struggles in this area. He’d be much better suited as a second-down pass-rusher in a 4-man rotation, but seeing as the Bombers only dressed three interior defensive linemen per game in 2016, Thomas needed to be an every down player.

Thomas lacks a lot of fundamentals in playing the run. Most notably, he struggles with getting his head up and locating the ball-carrier, and lacks some of the fundamental strength to withstand both down-blocks and double-teams. (In a three-man rotation, Thomas also had to play a some nose tackle, which naturally draws more double teams). He’s slow off the line, and is not able to routinely get in a position to stack blockers, locate the ball-carrier, shed the block and make the play. The below GIF is one of many examples of Thomas giving up ground as a run-defender. While it’s LB Khalil Bass who did not fill his gap responsibility – he got stuck on the outside shoulder of the left tackle – the result of Thomas, who’s responsible for the A-gap here, giving up ground widens the B-gap far too much, creating a monster hole for Ottawa RB Mossis Madu to run through for the easy score.

thomas-too-much-ground-gif

As a pass-rusher, Thomas has one move only: a funny looking, but extremely effective bull-rush. Walking the guard five steps into the backfield, Thomas is routinely able to create interior pressure on the quarterback. While it’s undeniably effective, the process of the making of this bull-rush if, well, unorthodox, to say the least.

Thomas seems to use his slow get-off to his advantage, creating a large distance between he and the guard, almost as a running start. He then closes quickly with short, quick steps. Thomas wins with excellent hand placement and uses tremendous leverage, keeping his feet moving through contact and the strength he does possess to power through. Because he gets out of stance, lowers his head and powers into the offensive lineman on rushes in passing-situations, Thomas doesn’t really see what’s happening in the backfield, which takes away clean-up sack opportunities. Having really only one pass-rush move is, of course, a huge disadvantage, but while the process is odd, Thomas’ bull-rush is, as mentioned, undeniably effective.

While a below-average pass-rushing nose tackle league-wide, Shologan is still better in this regard than Thomas, even if not by much. He can do a couple different things, but typically uses basic power moves to shed blocks in attempt to penetrate. Shologan pushes the pocket decently well, too.

His sack numbers, however, drastically dipped from seven in 2015 to merely two in 2016. This can likely be attributed to Shologan being moved along the line a lot more in Ottawa, whereas in Winnipeg, he only aligned as a three-tech approximately once every 9 snaps. Playing almost exclusively at nose tackle means Shologan rarely drew one-on-one match-ups, either being quickly chipped first or double-teamed altogether.

It’s clear the Bombers wanted less of a robot at nose tackle and more of a play-maker. O’Shea and defensive coordinator Richie Hall are probably willing to sacrifice some technique in the middle for an athlete with a larger pass-rushing repertoire, who’s able to pull off moves like Lions’ Mic’hael Brooks’ club move with some consistency.

brooks-club-gif

The Bombers got their guy in Nevis. Unfortunately, though, while they improved at nose tackle, the quality of Canadian interior defensive line play, which the Bombers have – and likely will continue to – rely on has steeply declined.

In losing Shologan and missing out on Westerman, the Bombers are now forced to choose between to rather unfavorable scenarios in deciding how they’ll meet the required amount of Canadian starters.

O’Shea and Walters have clearly placed a lot of eggs in Jake Thomas’ basket – I’d probably consider it a blind leap of faith – and will need surprising results to avoid criticism for a mid-February move of releasing Keith Shologan.

Burnett Offers Lions Good Value, Schematic Fit

In typical Wally Buono fashion, the BC Lions laid low in free agency, allowing other teams to overpay for big-name free agents. Instead, like he’s known for, Buono worked on re-signing his own players, bringing in some depth pieces for cheap, and picking through the second and third tiers of free agents.

One of the sneaky-good signings Buono made was bringing over former Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ weak-side linebacker Tony Burnett, who’ll help fill the void left by Adam Bighill, a new member of the New Orleans Saints. Burnett spent two seasons in Winnipeg, showing dominance on special-teams and some very enticing potential on defense in five starts last season. This earned him a pile of NFL try-outs as a strong safety earlier in the off-season.

From a salary cap perspective, this is a terrific deal for the Lions. Burnett, a soon-to-be third-year player, reportedly signed for between $85,000 to $90,000. It’s also good from a schematic stand-point, as Burnett was the only realistic option available this off-season that allows defensive coordinator Mark Washington to deploy his weak-side linebacker in the same, unprecedented way.

Bighill did a little bit of everything for the Lions last year. He rushed the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he covered running backs, he blitzed and he spot-dropped from WILL. He occasionally lined up at strong safety and he occasionally lined up at free safety. So, yes, he really did do everything.

Below is a GIF of Bighill rotating pre-snap to strong safety in 2-man under defense, a coverage that has two deep defenders splitting the field in half while the underneath defenders play man-coverage. You do not see inside linebackers in the CFL asked to do this. Period. They all lack the speed, quickness and fluidity, among many other reasons, to cover in space like this.

bighill-fa-gif

But here’s Burnett doing the same thing. The 6’1″, 205-pounder rotates to SS pre-snap and splits the deep part of the field in half with FS Taylor Loffler (not pictured) in 2-man under defense.

burnett-fa-gif

Burnett is an incredible athlete. He played cornerback in college for the University of Southern California Trojans, where he also a track star. Along with playing inside linebacker for the Bombers at WILL, Burnett played both gunner, tackle and guard on the punt team, and even returned some kicks in his first season. If he had to play nickel linebacker, he’s one of very, very few – if not the only – WILL linebackers that could make the transition. This is not at all to say Burnett is/will be as a good as Adam Bighill, but the fact that he’s a capable inside linebacker who’s versatility allows Washington to maintain a large part of his pass-defense concepts in his play-book is invaluable.

Despite being small in bulk, Burnett packs a punch when he hits. He has a great first-step, unprecedented closing speed and great twitch. He also shines as a traditional spot-dropping linebacker in coverage, reading eyes and breaking on routes, flashing his aforementioned impressive traits.

He’s still inexperienced as a linebacker, and must certainly work on his eyes as a run defender. At times, misdirection would put him out of sorts. He’s not very physical in the trenches and in the shedding of blocks, but he’s still very young and new to the position – remember, he was a corner in college.

Burnett has a bright future ahead of him in BC, and one can only imagine how much of a help Soloman Elimimian will be as a teammate.

There were dozens of signings announced on day one of free agency, and while Buono wasn’t a participant in all the lofty salaries being tossed around, he may have inked one of the best valued contracts in the signing of Burnett.

burnett-fa
Photo via John Woods/ THE CANADIAN PRESS. I do not own this image.

Bombers Lose Linebackers Bass, Burnett

Khalil Bass and Tony Burnett are moving on.

Bass has agreed to terms with the Ottawa REDBLACKS, who’ve subsequently released weak-side LB Damaso Munoz to make room for Bass. BC and Montreal were seen as possible destinations for the Bombers’ 2015 Most Outstanding Rookie, but Ottawa clearly saw Bass as a perfect scheme fit and went out of their way to grab him.

(Funny note: Ottawa could have signed Bass years ago. He attended two of their mini-camps and was never awarded an invitation to training camp).

The Bombers will likely have an open competition in training camp to fill Bass’ now-open middle linebacker spot. Kyle Knox, who was primarily a designated import playing on special-teams after missing all of camp with an injury, is the favorite at this point.

Burnett, who, seeing as the Bombers seem intent on keeping Ian Wild, wasn’t viewed as an option to replace Bass, as he’s not a MIKE, is going out west to Vancouver. The Lions are expected to give him every opportunity to replace Adam Bighill, and for approximately $90,000 per season, inking Burnett to a deal is one of the best signings of the day. Burnett, a tremendous athlete that played corner in college for the USC Trojans, is great in coverage and showed a really quick first-step at weak-side linebacker for the Bombers. From a schematic stand-point, Burnett was easily BC’s best available option on the market to replace Bighill.

The 26-year-old made five starts at weak-side linebacker in 2016 for the injured Ian Wild, and finished 6th in the CFL in special-teams tackles.

More to come on the departures of both these players soon.


In other news, the Bombers are bringing back Canadian linebacker Sam Hurl. Don’t be fooled, though – Hurl won’t be making six figures again on his second contract with the blue and gold. The ship has sailed already in terms of Hurl’s prospects of competing for a job as a starter at MIKE. Hurl, however, is a fairly effective special-teamer and, along with Jesse Briggs, is a welcome re-signing.

Bombers Ink Deals with Nevis, Coates

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have filled two holes in their roster, putting to pen to paper on contracts with NT Drake Nevis and Canadian WR Matt Coates.

Nevis, who TSN’s Gary Lawless will earn $125,000/year, is a terrific pickup for the Bombers, taking salary cap casualty Keith Shologan’s nose tackle position, but Euclid Cummings’ roster spot. He played largely 3-tech and 2i-tech in Hamilton’s 4-3 Over defense, but is, of course, a natural nose tackle.

Nevis, who’s in his physical prime at 27, is a special player, and his week three game against the Bombers was one of the best games from a nose tackle in 2017. Before signing Nevis, the blue and gold had no international nose tackle on their roster – rather two Canadians in Rupert Butcher and Brandon Tennant – and just one defensive tackle in Padric Scott.

The Coates signing is simply adding another body to an abysmal content of Canadian receivers. He seemed to be on the verge of a breakout in 2015, but Spencer Watt’s return from an injured achilles largely kept the 25-year-old on the sidelines in 2016. The Bombers will still likely select a receiver with the sixth-overall draft pick in the draft.

Riders, Argos Make a Splash: 2017 Free Agency Predictions

The CFL wanted free agency to keep fans engaged and intrigued in the off-season, giving fans optimism and encouragement to reserve season seats and purchase merchandise, while the players wanted to control their destiny a little bit more. With one-year contracts introduced in the latest CBA agreement back in 2014, both parties got what they wanted.

As a result, there’s a ridiculous amount of free agents available in 2017, as with an extremely hard-pressed salary cap, teams simply cannot afford the dollars many players are demanding after supposedly increasing their value following a one-year contract. But, as has been the motto for free agents this off-season, the grass ain’t always greener on the other side; the sheer over-saturation of free agents pushes down the dollar value of everyone.

Here’s a quick run-down of my 2017 free agent predictions.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders land a franchise cornerstone in Derek Dennis… Similarly to Stanley Bryant Jr. a couple off-seasons ago, this stout Calgary left tackle chases the money. Expect an intense bidding war between Saskatchewan, Montreal and Calgary for the services of a top-two offensive tackle, who was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 2016.

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-The Montreal Alouettes shock the league and sign Ernest Jackson… There’ll be a bidding war for the best available receiver available, likely consisting of Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. But the Alouettes don’t see newly-acquired QB Darian Durant as a bridge to next guy; Kavis Reed and co. wants to win now while the 34-year-old can still play at a high level.

-The Riders finally get their every-down Canadian nose tackle in Cleyon Laing… One year after missing out on Ted Laurent, Chris Jones makes no mistake signing a versatile interior defender in Laing. Laing’s passport is incredibly valuable in this situation because the Riders, who, along with a defensive lineman, still must find a Canadian free safety to start, will be struggling to field seven quality starting Canadians come June.

Abdul Kanneh cashes in with the talent-starving Toronto Argonauts… A top-two defensive back in the league, the Redblacks, Tiger-Cats and Eskimos simply cannot afford to offer Kanneh the type of coin the Argos can. The Argos’ secondary has been a huge weakness on the team for years now, and Kanneh offers elite potential at both halfback or cornerback, with the ability to cover the league’s best and stop the run like a nickel linebacker.

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Als figure one former Bomber defensive tackle isn’t enough, sign Euclid Cummings… Cummings’ price-tag will be driven down simply by the sheer overload of interior defensive lineman available on the market. Although he’s coming off a three-sack season, Cummings remains one of best pass-rushing three-techniques in the league.

Terrell Sinkfield returns to the Hammer… After re-signing Terrence Toliver, the Ti-Cats aren’t in the running to bring in a high-profile star such as Ernest Jackson, and while Sinkfield is not only the second or third best import pass-catcher available, he has familiarity with the Ti-Cats, amassing a 1,000-season in 2015 before spending training camp last season with Minnesota.

Khalil Bass re-ups with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers… As great as Bass is, there simply isn’t a big need for American starting linebackers in free agency. Wally Buono typically shies away from spending egregious amounts of money on top-tier free agents, while the Alouettes are best to continue to invest in a player they’re familiar with in pending free-agent Winston Venable.

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Esks’ re-sign a rising star (John Ojo), add a seasoned veteran (Jovon Johnson) to their secondary… Jovon Johnson has proven in the last two seasons that, while surprising after his final two years in Winnipeg, he can still play at a high level, and would offer a veteran presence at field corner, as Pat Watkins’ tenure in Edmonton is done. Ojo, meanwhile, will come for fairly cheap after missing the 2016 season with a torn achilles.

Kenny Shaw and Diontae Spencer return to the Double Blue… The Argos can offer Shaw what no other team can: a no. 1 receiver role. Considering the Argos are absolutely starved for talent at receiver – Devon Wylie is seriously their best pass-catcher currently under contract – it’d be an eye-opening move to not retain Diontae Spencer for what will be fairly cheap.

-TiCats pick up AJ Jefferson from Southern Ontario rivals… Kent Austin and Co. dip into the second-tier of defensive backs available and come to terms with Jefferson, an experienced cornerback that brings needed competition to a secondary that really struggled in 2016.

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-Wally Buono’s BC Lions make a sneaky-good signing in Tony Burnett… Burnett is ready to compete for a starting job, and can be used in a very similar way as Adam Bighill was. For reference, Bighill and Burnett were the only two weak-side LBs in the league tasked with occasionally rotating back to safety pre-snap to cover a deep half in 2-man under defense (cover-2 man-coverage). Burnett’s an incredibly athlete with tremendous potential.

Bombers bring Kienan LaFrance to home to establish a mind-blowing All-Winnipeg backfield… Two words: public relations.

Argos shore up the trenches, re-upping Greg Van Roten and bringing in J’Michael Deane… Although an international, Van Roten can play all three interior offensive line positions and has even shown well at tackle. Deane, meanwhile, has been serviceable for Ottawa, and would immediately replace 37-year-old guard Wayne Smith and former 1st-round pick Corey Watman, both of which would compete to start at right guard if the season started today.

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-The Boatmen continue shoring up the trenches, bringing in Alan-Michael Cash on the defensive side of the ball… Bryan Hall, an effective player in Hamilton’s 4-3 even alignment, wasn’t a schematic fit for the Argos as a defensive tackle in a nose tackles body. A staple as the 0-tech in Montreal’s 4-3 over, Cash is one of the league’s most underrated players, and one of the few that can truly eat blocks to free up the linebackers.

Hamilton brings back Andy Fantuz despite knee injury… The 33-year-old national was having his best season in the Black and Gold before tearing up his knee late in the season. Expect a two-year deal heavy on play-time incentives in year one.

Mike Klassen stays in La Belle Province… Montreal, who’ll have zero Canadian defensive linemen under contract once free agency opens, will need Canadian defensive tackle depth to roll with Keith Shologan at nose tackle in 2017.

Jabar Westerman joins his older brother in Winnipeg… While I’d love to see Drake Nevis in Blue & Gold, the Bombers need Westerman’s passport. Assuming their Canadian starters consist of RB-WR-C-RG-DE-FS, they’ll need to replace Keith Shologan with another Canadian. The Bombers already have good Canadian depth for Westerman at 3-tech with Jake Thomas.

-Drake Nevis instead sports Black & Gold once again in 2017… A criminally underrated interior defender, Nevis would be a huge re-signing for the Cats. He’s a perfect schematic fit, as like Ted Laurent, he’s a true nose tackle with unprecedented pass-rushing capabilities – very rare in the CFL. He’ll again form the best defensive tackle duo with Laurent in 2017.

Shakir Bell reunites with Chris Jones in Riderville… This is a slam-dunk, right?

Chris Williams returns to the Nation’s capital for another ride… There’s no other receiver in the league that can separate like Chris Williams, let alone one that poses a bigger threat to go deep. He won’t be ready for week one, but considering the extremely strong rapport Williams developed with QB Trevor Harris early in 2016, he needs to be re-signed.

Philip Hunt stays put in Green & Gold… BC may be interested in the veteran pass-rusher, but the Eskimos really need an established rotational pass-rusher with Odell Willis and Markus Howard on the wrong side of 30.

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