Bombers Deploy No-Huddle Offense to Rout Eskimos

To say the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense is feeling really good following a season-high 560 yards from scrimmage against the no. 1 defense in the CFL would be an extreme understatement.

With the entire offence leaping into the end-zone stands after major scores and QB Matt Nichols getting down with little touchdown dances of his own, it’s evident the Bombers are more confident than ever after knocking off the 7-0 Edmonton Eskimos with a 33-26 win on home turf. Andrew Harris, who racked up a ridiculous 225 yards from scrimmage on the night, had a very telling quote to reporters following the game, perfectly summing up how the offense was able to be so successful while simultaneously expressing a form of confidence the Bombers have earned the right to carry.

“We’re the best team in the league at the no-huddle. We put teams in the position where they have too many guys or the wrong personnel. We’re going to continue to expand that. It’s good to mix in throughout the game.”

Harris hit the nail on the head with that statement and explanation. The Bombers displayed one of the quickest, most efficient no-huddle offenses against Edmonton, consistently getting the ball snapped merely moments after the play is whistled in by the officials. As a result of this efficiency, the Bombers were able to consistently catch Edmonton before they were ready.

When watching this game, it’s clear Bombers’ offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice wanted to take advantage of Edmonton’s excessive defensive personnel substitutions by going no-huddle. Eskimos defensive coordinator Mike Benevides changes personnel groupings in-game more than any defensive coordinator in the league. In Thursday’s game against the Bombers, the Eskimos were constantly flipping between their base and nickel personnel (DB #42 Cauchy Muamba subs in at WILL linebacker) packages throughout the game, attempting to put faster, more natural cover players in space in passing situations.

Leading up to this huge week nine showdown, Lapolice and the Bombers’ staff clearly believed they could catch the Eskimos with either the wrong personnel on the field or without enough time to communicate everyone’s assignments after making personnel changes – and they were right. The Bombers had tremendous success with their no-huddle offence in this game.

It might sound hard to believe, but only 12 of the Bombers’ 73 offensive plays against Edmonton were actually ran from the no-huddle. It was the Bombers’ effectiveness on those 12 plays and the stress they put on the Eskimos, however, that made them seem to be more frequent.

The Bombers achieved a first down on a whopping 9 of those 12 no-huddle plays. They averaged 12.6 yards/attempt when passing the football with the no-huddle, which comes out to 15.8 yards-per-completion. The most mind-boggling statistic from this week nine game, however, is that the Eskimos took four illegal substitution penalties for having too many men on the field – all of which happened when the Bombers were in no-huddle.

The Bombers especially exploited Edmonton’s personnel groupings and substitutions by going no-huddle after explosion plays or big second-and-long conversions. On a 2nd-and-10 with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter, the Eskimos bring out their dime personnel to stop the pass, substituting linebackers Christophe Mulumba and Alex Hoffman-Ellis for defensive backs Cauchy Muamba and Chris Edwards. After gaining 14 yards on a slip screen to slot-back TJ Thorpe, however, the Bombers are able to gain a fresh set of downs and, knowing Edmonton is stuck with 8 defensive backs on the field on 1st-&-10, Lapolice is licking his chops up in the coach’s booth. The Bombers go no-huddle, giving Edmonton no time to substitute their linebackers back in the game, and pound the ball with Harris, gaining seven yards on the play. Benevides actually tried to rush his linebackers onto the field while Nichols aligned his offence, but it was too late. In fact, Edmonton was called for illegal substitution (too many men) to add salt to the wound, as Hoffman-Ellis couldn’t get back off the field in time after trying to sub back into the game.

Edmonton scrambling to make personnel changes while the Bombers go no-huddle after converting second-downs was a massive reason for Winnipeg’s success on first-and-10. After allowing Andrew Harris to be wide open down the seam for 20 yards on 2nd-&-10 in the second quarter, the Eskimos attempt to substitute out of their base defense and into their 43 nickel personnel package, while also substituting Canadian pass-rusher Kwaku Boateng into the game for international DE Mike Moore. Once again, the Bombers’ are too quick getting to the ball for Edmonton, and the Eskimos take an illegal substitution penalty for too many men while also giving up 17 yards in the air to Clarence Denmark. In the below GIF, you can see Moore still walking off the field as the Bombers get the snap off with :17 seconds left on the play-clock.

With Matt Nichols quickly communicating the play and getting the ball snapped 2-4 seconds after play is whistled in, Edmonton defenders were routinely late getting to their spots and rarely had time to observe what the Bombers were doing pre-snap, struggling just to get their own play-call communicated and called out.

On this second-and-7 in the fourth quarter, Lapolice puts his offence in no-huddle mode after a modest three-yard pickup on first down. With neither team making personnel changes, Edmonton should be able to get their play called and everyone properly aligned, but Nichols and Co. are simply too fast. The Bombers catch Edmonton off guard with a rare empty set in the backfield, and the Eskimos simply do not have time to adjust accordingly with the ball being snapped with :16 seconds still on the play-clock. Edmonton is late getting lined up and TJ Thorpe is left with a free first-down worth of real estate ahead of him.

The Bombers’ tempo offence is also a big reason for their success in short-yardage situations. Nichols scored on a QB Dive from 1 yard out in the third quarter to make the score 23-10 after the Bombers went no-huddle and gave the Eskimos no time to bring out their goal-line personnel. The Bombers gained 10 yards and an automatic first down again in the fourth quarter by hurrying to the ball in a short-yardage situation, creating all types of confusion and disorganization for the Eskimos.

Despite the officials taking the time to bring out the sticks and measure, Winnipeg is in no-huddle mode. Seeing as the game was stopped for the measurement, Edmonton is not expecting the Bombers to rush to the ball as soon as the play is whistled in. Rather, they’re expecting the Bombers to call a play in the huddle after finding out they didn’t have the first down, or to substitute in their short-yardage personnel. But the Bombers do neither, instead using no-huddle verbiage in almost a “pretend” huddle to catch the Eskimos in mediation, waiting for the Bombers to declare whether they’re bringing out their short-yardage team or not. Edmonton is stunned to see the Bombers rush to the ball, and are stuck between having their base personnel and short-yardage personnel on the field. The Eskimos not only align offside, but are flagged for their fourth illegal substitution penalty for too many men on the night.

On what will be seen as a catastrophic night for Mike Benevides and his unit whom, on top of taking four illegal substitution penalties, missed countless tackles as well, Lapolice and the Bombers’ offence deserve full remarks for their game-plan and execution. Nichols routinely had the offence ready to snap the ball before even the officials – let alone the opposing defense – was ready.

Coming off their best offensive performance of the season, look for the Bombers to expand their no-huddle offense, as Harris suggests. Considering the success the Bombers’ no-huddle offense had on such limited snaps against the no. 1 defense in the CFL, upcoming defensive coordinators should be having nightmares about having to face this up-tempo Lapolice attack.

Lapolice’s Creative Mind Shines With Inclusion of Flanders to Offense

Since Paul Lapolice took over as offensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense has become one of league’s most creative, innovative and efficient offenses in the league.

Having averaged 33.8 points-per-game over the first five games of the season, the Bombers’ offense had already been building on the success it had in its inaugural season in Lapolice’s system. Heading into week seven in Ottawa, however, Lapolice was able expand his weekly install with a new package out of his playbook, as third-year running back Timothy Flanders made his 2017 debut. Flanders took the Bombers’ fourth designated import roster spot from receiver/returner Ryan Lankford, who entered the starting lineup with Weston Dressler being place on the six-game injured list.

Knowing the talent and skill-set Flanders offers the Bombers when he’s able to get on the game-day roster, Lapolice has delved into 20 personnel groupings in the last two weeks to get Flanders and Andrew Harris on the field at the same time. This new personnel package certainly hasn’t slowed down the Bombers’ offense since making its debut; following a 33-30 win in Ottawa and a 39-12 thumping of Hamilton, the Bombers now boast the number one scoring offense in the league.

With Harris and Flanders combining for 83 yards rushing in week six and 127 yards rushing in week seven, the Bombers have had their best two rushing performances of the season since they added a second tail-back to the active roster. Lapolice’s 20 personnel package – i.e. two running backs and 4 receivers in the formation – has given the Bombers’ offense yet another way to be multiple and unpredictable.

At the core of Lapolice’s 20 personnel package is the inside split zone run out of the Gun Split formation. With Flanders and Harris on either side of Nichols, one running back will come across and “wham” block the backside defensive end, while the other takes the hand-off and runs A-Gap to A-Gap.

The Bombers ran this play with great success against both Ottawa and Hamilton. To keep defenses unable to predetermine which way the run was coming, Lapolice has called this play with Harris delivering the wham block and Flanders taking the hand-off, as well as vice versa. Success on the inside zone split opened up even more things for Lapolice out of the same look to keep defenses off balance even more.

In the below GIF, the Bombers give the Redblacks’ defense the same look as before – showing inside zone split with Flanders running inside zone right and Harris delivering the “wham” block – only instead of blocking the back-side defensive end, Harris has a “whiff” call, meaning he interferes with the ‘end and then leaks into the flat for an easy completion.

A third look the Bombers showed out of the Gun Split formation is a RPO (run-pass option) on the strong-side linebacker. On this play, the Bombers are running inside zone with one tail-back (Harris), while the other (Flanders) runs a swing route to the field-side. This play, however, did not seem to be executed properly the lone time Winnipeg ran it, as I question if Flanders was supposed to leave one or two counts before the snap to make it a pre-snap RPO on the strong-side linebacker. (If SAM chases the RB’s motion, give the inside zone; if he stays in the box, throw the swing – we have them outnumbered). Seeing as #6 Antoine Pruneau is aligned so far to the left, Nichols throws the swing pass regardless as the Bombers should, in theory, be able to out-flank the SAM ‘backer.

Of course, the Bombers can’t only just call run plays and play-actions/RPOs off the same looks every time Flanders checked into the game for 20 personnel. To keep the personnel package as multiple and unpredictable as passing, Flanders and Harris were heavily involved in the drop-back passing game. Flanders could be found aligning at tight tend, field wide receiver or motioning into the slot with Harris on any given passing play.

Lapolice could also be found motioning both running backs out of Gun Split in the backfield and into the slot, creating easy pre-snap coverage reads for Nichols while spacing out linebackers for easy completions over the middle.

In total, Lapolice has used 20 personnel, a package that was not even apart of the team’s gameplan for the first six weeks of the season, on exactly 20% (25/125) of offensive snaps over the past two weeks. Often reserved for 1st-&-10 scenarios, Lapolice has found a way to enhance his rushing attack while prolonging the effectiveness of 30-year-old Andrew Harris with the inclusion of 20 personnel.

Whether this package continues to be apart of the Lapolice’s weekly gameplan when Weston Dressler returns from injury remains to be seen. While the numbers clearly show an improvement to the team’s run game, using two running backs in the formation on drop-back passing plays has somewhat hindered their effectiveness – neither Harris or Flanders are much of route-runners.

Regardless, it’s a welcomed new wrinkle in the Bombers’ attack that has helped carry the offence while one of its top receivers nurses an injury on the six-game injured list. And, if nothing else, it has once again proven how a creative mind like that of coach Paul Lapolice can scheme a system to the strengths of his players.

Harris’ Yards-After-Catch Ability Saves Offense Against Alouettes

It was no secret entering week five that Andrew Harris was the heartbeat of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense, but in a match-up against a well-respected defense where the Bombers needed him most, Harris rose to the occasion and reminded the league of his value to the blue and gold.

Harris finished Thursday night’s contest as the Bombers’ leading receiver with nine catches for 93 yards, increasing his season receiving totals out of the backfield to 37 receptions for 298 yards (59.6 yards/game), with a whopping 249 of those yards coming after the catch.

Harris’ eye-popping receiving totals aren’t the result of anything extraordinary from offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice. He hasn’t been lining up as a slot-back in two tail-back personnel sets like he did in 2013 with the BC Lions in his younger, shiftier days. Rather, with the way defenses are defending Matt Nichols, Harris is being fed the ball on simple check-down throws. And with the consistency of which Harris is converting these check-downs into first downs, Nichols owes a lot of thanks to the 30-year-old local product.

Without Harris’ clutch yards-after-the-catch, the Bombers lose to Montreal and fall to 2-3 on the season. The Alouettes and defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe prepared the perfect game-plan for Nichols, and with the exception of a couple nice plays in the final minute such as his 15-yard scramble to set up the game-winning score, Nichols struggled mightily to solve Montreal’s vaunted defense.

Thorpe, who heavily reinvented his defensive system this off-season – which I believe is the reason behind Bear Woods’ release – played to Nichols’ achilles heal: his lack of decisiveness against deep-dropping linebackers as well as 8 and 9-man coverages. With four linebackers and three defensive linemen as their personnel grouping of choice, the Alouettes tempted Nichols into checking the ball down. With Harris slipping out of pocket, however, the Bombers had a fantastic option to lean on when their quarterback could not solve the coverage.

All night Nichols looked uncomfortable in the pocket, hesitating before releasing the football knowing the threshold for error against so many defenders in coverage and tight windows is very small. Excluding all hitch screens, RPO bubble screens and broken plays (2 resulted in sacks), Nichols’ passing numbers sans Harris – who’s numbers are separate on the right of the chart – and garbage time emphasize how anemic the Bombers’ passing offense would have been without the Winnipeg product generating excellent YAC on check-down throws.

Evidently, with Montreal sending zone-blitzes to create five-men pressure with three defensive linemen, dropping the remaining two or three linebackers (depending on if a defensive back was one of two blitzers) deep, Nichols struggled to find his targets downfield. With cornerbacks playing loose-lock press-bail with LB help underneath and help over the top from the halfback, the windows in between defenders were very small. The Alouettes did a great job disguising which linebackers were coming and which were dropping into coverage, too, making Nichols very anxious in the pocket, resulting in several errant throws on short passes.

Fortunately Nichols could rely on Harris to keep the offense on the field when he struggled to solve the defense. Late in the second half, Montreal’s linebackers no longer wanted to take on Harris in the open-field, engaging on the powerful ‘back with arm tackles.

In the end, Harris finished as the Bombers’ leading receiver on top of scoring the game-winning rushing touchdown with no time on the clock. With how productive Harris has been on converting check-down throws in first downs, it won’t be long until teams defenses start keying on Harris coming out of the backfield, opening up the coverage downfield for Nichols.

Evidently, his effect on the Blue Bombers’ offense is tremendous.

 

Bombers Defensive Backs Struggle to Defend Run Against Alouettes

If it weren’t for a miraculous comeback from Matt Nichols, Andrew Harris and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense, who scored 13 points in the final 75 seconds to lead the blue and gold to a 41-40 win over the Montreal Alouettes, the talk in town would be centered around the Alouettes pummeling the Bombers on the ground to the tune of 183 rushing yards.

The Bombers entered the game with one of the best run defenses in the CFL, but Montreal could do no wrong while handing the ball off to three different running backs. With under four minutes to play, and the Birds of Prey nursing a 5-point lead, everyone in the stadium knew Montreal was running the ball, and yet they drove 90 yards on six run plays for the seemingly game-sealing touchdown, a 31-yard scamper for Stefan Logan.

This wasn’t a fluke, though. Jacques Chapdelaine and Anthony Calvillo assembled a well-calculated game-plan to maintain the balance that their offense has established throughout the first five weeks of the season.

And how were the Alouettes able to exploit the no. 1 defense in yards-per-carry against, you may ask? By bringing in heavy personnel, inviting Winnipeg defenders into the box, and running towards the worst tacklers on any football team: the defensive backs.

Unlike the BC Lions, who deploy the same vanilla 3×2 formation without motion on most downs, the Alouettes utilized a ton of receiver motion, six offensive linemen sets, and 11 personnel (four receivers, one running back, one H-Back), which kept rookie SAM linebacker Brandon Alexander, who was starting in place of the injured Maurice Leggett, and often times the defensive halfbacks, in the box.

The above chart – which excludes plays from the goal-line – emphasizes just how heavy the Alouettes went to run the ball. For reference, though I don’t have the numbers tracked, the Bombers run with out of 10 personnel (5 receivers, 1 running back) with five blockers on probably 90% of their run plays. With game film on Brandon Alexander’s first career start at strong-side linebacker last week, it’s possible the Alouettes planned to exploit the Central Florida product by keeping him in the box as a true SAM.

On the above play, the Alouettes have a sixth offensive lineman in the game as Philippe Gagnon comes in as a tight end on the right side of the formation. Fullback JC Bealieu is also in the game as an H-Back, drawing Alexander to the short-side of the field. The mesh-point of QB Darian Durant and Brandon Rutley suggests an inside split zone play-call, with slot-back Eugene Lewis (#87) entering the box as the 8th blocker to come across the formation and make the wham-block on the backside DE. Although I don’t like LB Kyle Knox getting sealed inside by Gagnon, Alexander is late coming up-field in an obvious run-situation and misses the open-field tackle on Rutley.

Three plays earlier, out of 10 personnel this time, the Alouettes picked up 22 yards on a toss play to Alexander’s side after a holding call negated the rest of the run. The 23-year-old was late to read Z-WR George Johnson (#84) motioning down the line of scrimmage to crack DE Jackson Jeffcoat (#94) and was late to the supposed point of attack.

As a result of the Alouettes inviting defensive backs closer to the box with their receiver motions, six offensive linemen formations and personnel groupings with Beaulieu, Alexander wasn’t the only Bomber DB to struggle against the run.

TJ Heath gave up a huge 17-yard run on the Alouettes’ final drive of the game. With Gagnon back in the game as a tight end on the short-side of the field, Heath responsible for the big man in coverage – otherwise, he’s playing contain against the run. Beaulieu is aligned as an H-Back on the left side of the formation, so Alexander remained aligned to the wide-side. With three-tech Jake Thomas slanting inside to the A-Gap, Knox was responsible for the play-side B-Gap. Defensive coordinator Richie Hall often likes to align his linebackers out of gap to have them loop around and give the offensive line no chance to work their double-teams up to the second level. It worked to perfection here, too, as Knox entered the B-Gap in a one-on-one situation against Logan. The left guard had no chance to cut him off, and the right tackle is not aware of Knox looping around. But with Heath out of position – look at his head pop into the right side of the screen on the GIF below – Logan can explode out of the hole and around the corner.

Earlier in the game, Randle found himself making a similar mistake in a very similar situation, resulting in an 18-yard rush for Montreal. Randle was responsible for the sixth offensive lineman on the left side of the formation. Although DE Trent Corney (#44) was sealed far too easily by the LT alone, and although he may have been held, Alexander was slow to react, Randle took a bad initial angle and the run was bounced outside.

With defensive backs creeped up that close to the box, Montreal shouldn’t have been able to cut so many inside zone and inside split zone runs outside. While it seemed as though Montreal called a plethora of outside runs and could not be stopped – which isn’t false – the reality is that as a result of poor containment from defensive ends as well as defensive backs to playing the run as aggressively as needed, Rutley, Logan and even Bealieu were able to cut inside zone runs off-tackle on numerous occasions.

Fortunately, these are all correctable mental errors from a secondary that was missing Maurice Leggett, an excellent run defender at the strong-side linebacker position. At this point, Bomber fans should not worry about the run defense. With the exception of Sam Hurl being completely fooled by the ghost jet sweep motion on JC Beaulieu’s 41-yard romp, and Cory Johnson losing his gap on Logan’s 31-yard TD, the front-seven wasn’t too bad against the run.

The Bombers will turn on the film and correct some very basic mental errors made in the heat that hurt them in a big way against Montreal. With a trip to Ottawa next week, the Bombers’ run defense has a chance to get back on track against an inconsistent rushing attack.

How Lulay, BC Lions’ Offense Attacked Bombers’ Field-Side Secondary

After back-to-back 400-yard passing games in relief of starter Jonathon Jennings, it’s clear veteran QB Travis Lulay understands where his best match-ups lay on the football field.

One week after picking apart a young and inexperienced Hamilton Tiger-Cats secondary, Lulay again took it to a plethora of rookie defensive backs in week five on route to a 404-yard passing performance against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Friday’s game was unlike anything witnessed in awhile in the CFL, as an offense completely avoided a star-studded boundary and instead assaulted the opposite side of the field. It became quickly evident that Lulay and offensive coordinator Khari Jones had come prepared with a gameplan to take advantage of rookie field-side defensive backs Brandon Alexander, Roc Carmichael and Brian Walker.

And it worked.

Stud boundary defenders Chris Randle and TJ Heath were targeted merely a combined four times, which is a season-low for both the 2016 and 2017 seasons, by a team that attacks the short-side of the field more frequently than most offenses. Instead, Lulay and the offense took their shots at field-side halfback Roc Carmichael and field-side cornerback Brian Walker, who each had 7 a whopping seven targets, while strong-side linebacker Brandon Alexander was tested three times himself.

Despite defensive coordinator Richie Hall’s efforts to protect his first-year defenders, without Maurice Leggett’s veteran presence on the field to communicate and align his side of the secondary, the Bomber secondary’s inexperience was exploited. The Lions made big play after big play – they had five 20-plus-yard passing plays – and in the end it amounted to 45 points on the scoreboard. While Carmichael seems to be the consensus scapegoat for Bomber fans, it was actually Walker who made more crucial errors that Lulay was able to exploit.

Although he played the flats more often in the second-half as a halftime adjustment from Richie Hall to prohibit Lulay from throwing it out wide underneath the coverage for an easy 6-8 yards, as the field-cornerback Walker was often tasked with retreating into a deep-zone as part of a base cover-4 coverage. The Lions were able to flood Walker’s quarter-zone and exploit his inexperience for a number of big plays in the first half.

Brian Burnham’s second monster catch of the game came as a result of an error from the Central Florida product. Lulay caught Walker (#22) cheating too far inside towards a clear-out route and spotted the ball to Burnham’s corner-route.

On a second-&-8 from their own side of the field, BC had four receivers to the wide-side (quads formation) and the Bombers were in a cover-4 coverage with the boundary corner, boundary halfback, free safety and field corner dropping deep, while all three linebackers as well as the field halfback played underneath coverage. BC’s play-call wanted to expose the zone between Carmichael’s curl-to-flat and Walker’s deep-fourth.

Walker’s no. 1 job is to protect against the corner-route here, but because he failed to realize that with coverage rolling over, Loffler (#16) would have picked up F’s seam and Heath (#23) had Z’s post, he became too weary of F’s seam and was a half-second late to Burnham (Y) coming underneath.

Walked found himself making a similar error late in the second quarter when Lulay had a verticles concept to the wide-side and found Z-WR Danny Vandervoort alone by the sidelines for a 25-yard completion and the first catch of the McMaster product’s career.

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Again, Walker failed to realize he had inside help with Loffler and Heath. He came too far inside following F’s seam-route, allowing Vandervoort to simply sit down near the sidelines – far enough downfield so that he was over top Carmichael’s curl-to-flat zone – and haul in the rifle from Lulay.

In retrospect, Walker should have passed the F-SB to Loffler (#16) while Alexander (#21), who’s playing wall-off technique – i.e. picking up whichever receiver from the trips formation comes across the middle – takes the Y-SB’s route with help from Heath (#23). This coverage was executed nicely with the exception of Walker – and Lulay recognized this.

Walker isn’t solely to blame, however. Carmichael, who allowed three receptions for 63 yards – which could have been more if not for two key drops – struggled mightily in man-coverage, getting beat for a 10-yard TD from Emmanuel Arceneaux as well as a 45-yard gain down the seam from Burnham.

A lot of blame has been put on the shoulders of Richie Hall, but I saw Hall’s coverages evolve and adjust as the game flowed on. Hall sent pressures from different areas of the field, dabbled in man-coverage and played all types of zone defenses. Unfortunately, the Bombers’ rookie defensive backs made too many mental errors, while the Lions’ receivers also made several terrific receptions. Considering how dominant Randle and Heath have been in the boundary, though, the Bombers’ secondary should find its groove when Leggett returns to health at SAM linebacker and Bruce Johnson returns from the 6-game injured list at field halfback.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Friday’s game film for the Bombers’ rookies in the field-side. They have an opportunity next week against a mediocre offense in the Montreal Alouettes to put forth what they learned in an aerial assault from Travis Lulay and the BC Lions, and a bounce-back game will be needed.

2017 CFL West Division Preview: Bombers, Esks Close Gap to Stamps

No CFL team has won back-to-back Grey Cups since the Montreal Alouettes in 2009-2010.

But when was the last time someone correctly predicted the CFL standings correctly from top to bottom for two consecutive seasons? In the 2017 CFL season, I’m going for the repeat after nailing my predictions last season. While the East Division seems fairly predictable, the West is completely up in the air. And that’s where we start.

1. Calgary Stampeders
2016 record: 15-2-1
2017 projected record: 13-5

Despite once again losing several key players in the off-season, with reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell at the helm, the Stampeders are destined to once again overcome their losses. The Stamps have the best group of Canadian content in the league, and with players such as international receivers DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden and Marquay McDaniel, the Grey Cup runner ups have no shortage of offensive weapons.

The most concerning area on Calgary’s roster is the depth behind Mitchell at QB. Rooting interest aside, it’s hard to imagine the Stamps’ offense not falling off with Andrew Buckley or Ricky Stanzi at quarterback, as it often did with veteran Drew Tate at the controls. The Stamps have avoided long-term injury to Mitchell in his three years as their starter, but that can – and hopefully does not – change in one play. With All-Star LT Derek Dennis now in Saskatchewan, Calgary’s potentially All-Canadian offensive line needs to keep Mitchell off the turf as much as possible.

Versatile swing-man Spencer Wilson will likely fill Dennis’ void at left tackle, pushing fourth-year veteran Brad Erdos into the starting lineup at right guard. Even after losing 2015 first-round pick Karl Lavoie to off-season retirement, Calgary still boasts solid offensive line depth. Look for Cam Thorn to start the season as the sixth-man, while Canadians Wilson, Erdos, Shane Bergman, Pierre Lavertu and Dan Federkeil make up the starting five. That’s a good group of Canadians.

Defensively, Calgary’s entire secondary is returning. After having all off-season drug charges dropped, sophomore Tommie Campbell will resume his post at boundary corner and maintain one of the league’s top CB duo with Ciante Evans, who had a breakout 2016 season. Veterans Jamar Wall and Brandon Smith, meanwhile, are still two of the league’s top halfbacks, while FS Josh Bell and SAM LB Joe Burnett are among the league’s best at their respective positions. Supplying the pass-rush for this secondary, look for DE Ja’Gared Davis to have a monster sophomore year with Cordarro Law done for the season with a broken ankle.

Bottom Line: Calgary has the elite quarterback, Canadian content and defense to get back to the Grey Cup, but they’ll be in trouble if Mitchell goes down. The West Division continues to get better, which would drop the Stamps’ win total down from 15 to 13, but they’re still the top-dogs of the CFL.

2. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
2016 record: 10-8
2017 projected record: 12-6

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols passes during first half western semifinal CFL football action against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver on Sunday, November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Matt Nichols started his first and only playoff game in 2016, going 26/40 for 390 yards, two TDs and 0 interceptions. Clearly, the Bombers have something good in the 30-year-old quarterback. If Nichols proves to be the field-general he looked to be in the 2016 West Semi-Final, it’s going to be a great year for the Bombers.

The Bombers enter the season will tremendous continuity on their roster. Offensively, receiver Ryan Lankord, who beat out veteran Kenny Stafford in training camp, is the lone new face in the starting lineup. DE Tristan Okpalaugo, DT Drake Nevis and CB Brian Alexander, meanwhile, are the lone newcomers in the defensive lineup. Alexander, a 23-year-old CB out of a great college program in UCF, is the only rookie starter on the entire roster when everyone is healthy.

Nichols has all the pieces in place to shatter what is left of the game-manager label on his forehead. Darvin Adams is ready to explode if he stays healthy – the Auburn product had 690 yards and 6 touchdowns in only 8 games last season – while RB Andrew Harris looks to be extending the prime of his career into his 30s. Offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice should still be expected to operate a run-heavy offense despite an aerial attack that oozes with potential. Along with All-Star rookie Travis Bond at left guard, the Bombers have two of the best young and physical interior Canadian offensive linemen in Mathias Goossen and Sukh Chungh to run behind. Andrew Harris will be a happy ball-carrier in his 8th season.

Defensively, while Winnipeg’s second preseason had fans stressing over their pass defense, there’s reason for Bomber fans to have faith in the secondary. With an improved pass-rush thanks to the additions of Drake Nevis and Tristan Okpalaugo, Winnipeg’s ever-talented secondary might not need to rely on the turnover to cover up egregious amounts of passing yards surrendered. Chris Randle, who I believe was the Bombers’ top defender in 2016, TJ Heath, Maurice Leggett, Taylor Loffler, Bruce Johnson and Kevin Fogg – that’s a good group of veterans.

Bottom Line: The Bombers are an experienced team that underwent very little turnover. They have a decent schedule – the Bombers’ play BC and Saskatchewan three times each, so it could be a lot worse – and a quarterback who wants to prove the rest of the league wrong in his first full season as a starter, but some questions remain: can they stop the run with Canadians Jake Thomas and Sam Hurl getting a second lease on starter life in the CFL? Can Taylor Loffler avoid a sophomore slump after a nearly too-good-to-be-true rookie campaign? Can the defense succeed without forcing ridiculous turnover numbers?

3. Edmonton Eskimos
2016 record: 10-8
2017 projected record: 11-7

Edmonton’s slow start to the 2016 season was completely inevitable – they lost their entire coaching staff and half a dozen of their best players, such as HB Aaron Grymes, DE Willie Jefferson and LB Dexter McCoil. In year two of the post-Chris Jones regime, however, the Edmonton Eskimos should continue the momentum they built near the end of the season and start 2017 on the right foot.

Edmonton has the best quarterback room in the CFL. Despite losing Derel Walker to the NFL, Mike Reilly should be in the MOP race all year, while James Franklin is clearly ready to lead a team on his own to success.

The Eskimos picked up a couple former Redblacks this off-season that could be difference-makers in the City of Champions. RT Colin Kelly, who spent the 2016 season in the NFL after starting all 18 games for Ottawa in 2015, solidifies Edmonton’s pass-protection, replacing D’Anthony Batiste in the starting lineup. Forrest Hightower, meanwhile, emerged as one of the CFL’s top halfbacks in 2016 and will form a terrific duo with his former teammate, Brandyn Thompson. And if boundary CB Johnny Adams can return to his old-self, Edmonton’s secondary will be something to reckon.

The Eskimos should have the West Divisions’ best pass-rush in 2017. After cutting national Eddie Steele and replacing him with Euclid Cummings, the Eskimos are going all-american along the defensive line. Cummings, who had 8 sacks in 2015 playing alongside Cleyon Laing in Toronto, should have a bounce-back season playing beside another elite nose tackle in Almondo Sewell.

Bottom Line: Jason Maas is no longer a rookie head coach. The Eskimos have already driven over the speed bumps associated with flipping an entire organisation upside-down over one off-season. Along with Adarius Bowman, Mike Reilly has some intriguing young play-makers in D’haquille Williams and Bryant Mitchell, not to mention newcomer Vidal Hazelton and sophomore pass-catcher Brandon Zylstra. It could take some time to gell, but Edmonton’s secondary is promising and their defensive line should be dominant. Having to play Calgary and BC three times each will slightly drop their record. Eskimos finish third in the West.

4. BC Lions
2016 record: 12-6
2017 projected record: 9-9

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck (I do not own this photo)

Last year, my bold prediction in the West was the Lions flipping a disappointing one-year stint under Jeff Tedford into a top-2 finish in the West with Wally Buono back on the sidelines and Jonathon Jennings in his second season. This year, although Buono is still head coach and Jennings should only continue to build on each passing season, I see the Lions slightly regressing due to the losses suffered on defense and their lack of Canadian talent.

The Lions could have one of the worst defensive lines in the league. After losing Alex Bazzie to the NFL in the off-season, the Lions are without a dynamic edge-rusher. Canadian David Menard will likely be thrusted into the starting lineup as the Lions scrounge to find seven Canadian starters. Mic’hael Brooks is a dominant force at nose tackle, but Bryant Turner Jr.’s prime is long in the past, and Craig Roh likely has a ceiling of 7-10 annual sacks. As for the rest of front seven, the loss of Adam Bighill cannot be understanding. Free agent signing Tony Burnett, who’ll start the season as Bighill’s successor, brings similar athleticism to the Lions’ linebacker crops, but too often does he get lost as a run defender. Keep mind, Burnett played corner and safety in college for the USC Trojans.

The Lions’ offense is going to be prolific. Although I have my doubts with Hunter Steward moving back outside to play tackle with Jovon Olafioye now in Montreal, Jonathon Jennings is going to flourish with Emmanuel Arceneaux, Chris Williams and Bryan Burnhan running downfield. For ratio implications, the Lions will likely have start two Canadians at receiver many times in the season, but the aforementioned trio of weapons will overwhelm many defenses in 2017.

Bottom Line: Loucheiz Purifoy is one of the best young players in the league, while Soloman Elimimian is a two-time defensive player of the year and one-time Most Outstanding Player. BC has a solid secondary and an electric receiving corps, but their defensive line and Canadian content is quite concerning. Adam Bighill is irreplaceable, too. The Lions have talent on paper, but in a gut feeling, I think the Eskimos surpass the Eskimos in 2017.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders
2016 record: 5-13
2017 projected record: 6-12

Plain and simple, the Riders don’t have a quarterback. Kevin Glenn – bless his soul – can only get you so far. Brandon Bridge is promising, but he’s not there yet. The Riders, although they’ve made some tremendous improvements on their roster during this rebuild, still boast the fifth-best QB stable in a 5-team division.

Naaman Roosevelt, Duron Carter, Caleb Holley, Ricky Collins Jr., Bakari Grant and Chad Owens – the Riders have a tremendously talented receiving corps. It was a no-brainer to add the league’s top left tackle, Derek Dennis, in free agency. Willie Jefferson is one of the CFL’s best pass-rushers, while Eddie Steele, who the Riders scooped up after Edmonton cut ties with the veteran Canadian, is a serviceable three-technique. The Riders have talent at some key positions.

But where the Riders lack talent, they are serious question marks. I like Kacy Rodgers at cornerback, and Ed Gainey really broke out at boundary HB in 2016, but there are serious questions at the wide-side of the defensive backfield, including at the strong-side linebacker position. Zach Minter, meanwhile, doesn’t inspire at ton of confidence at nose tackle, and along with Peter Dyakowski at right guard and Mike Edem at free safety, can be considered below-average at his respective position. The Riders have yet to prove they have a legitimate edge-rush threat opposite Willie Jefferson, while Cam Marshall seems to a mediocre option at running back after his sample size from Winnipeg.

Bottom Line: The Riders have some nice pieces in place such as Roosevelt, Carter, Dennis, Jefferson, Muamba and Gainey, but there are too many question marks and a severe lack of depth across their roster. And they still don’t have an elite quarterback at the moment, which is required to knock off the Bo Levi Mitchell’s and Mike Reilly’s of the division. They’re on the rise, and should be competitive this season, but still lack that quarterback. 2017 will show us if Brandon Bridge is the guy.

CFL Draft 2017: Big Board Version 2.0 (Top-30 Prospects)

I’ve long expressed my uneasiness towards the Winnipeg Blue Bombers possibly making Iowa nose tackle Faith Ekakitie the first overall pick in tonight’s draft. Most mock drafts around the CFL-realm, however, have Ekakitie going number one, and based on reports that Ekakitie and the Bombers have begun contract negotiations, I’d have to say the consensus belief among pundits is likely spot-on.

This doesn’t mean I agree with taking Ekakitie with the first overall pick, though. And that’s where the big board comes in.

Here are my top-30 prospects ahead of the 2017 CFL Draft.

RANK

PLAYER POS SCHOOL

1.

Justin Senior OT Mississippi State
2. Eli Ankou NT

UCLA

3. Geoff Gray OG

Manitoba

4.

Antony Auclair TE

Laval

5.

Mason Woods OG

Idaho

6.

Danny Vandervoort SB

McMaster

7.

Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga LB

Maine

8. Dondre Wright DB

Henderson State

9.

Nate Behar WR Carleton

10.

Braden Schram OG Calgary
11. Robert Woodson FS

Calgary

12.

Jordan Herdman LB

Simon Fraser

13.

Faith Ekakitie NT

Iowa

14.

Kwaku Boateng DE

Wilfred Laurier

15.

Qadr Spooner OG

McGill

16.

Dariusz Bladek OG

Bethune-Cookman

17.

Junior Luke DT

Montreal

18.

Randy Colling NT

Gannon

19.

Kay Okafor DT

St. Francis Xavier

20.

Cameron Judge LB

UCLA

21.

Johnny Augustine RB

Guelph

22.

Connor McGough DE

Calgary

23.

Mitchell Picton WR

Regina

24.

Evan Johnson OL Regina
25. Justin Vaughn DT

Fordham

26.

Nate Hamlin FS

Carleton

27.

Fabian Foote DT

McMaster

28.

Jean-Simon Roy OG

Laval

29.

Tunde Adeleke FS Carleton
30. Nakas Onyeka LB

Wilfred Laurier

2017 CFL Draft: Mock Draft Version 2.0

With the CFL combine in the rear-view mirror, we’re officially in the home-stretch of the journey towards the 2017 CFL Draft.

Here’s my second mock draft of the 2017 class.

Round One

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

Photo Credit: Steve Cheng

Ranked no. 4 on my big board, Ankou is arguably the best player available sans serious NFL interest. Kyle Walters will likely heavily consider University of Manitoba product Geoff Gray here – the Bombers have two first round picks, and can afford to wait a year while Gray tests his luck down south – but Ankou’s talents may be too good to pass on. A two-gap nose tackle in UCLA’s 3-4 defense, Ankou also fills a positional need for the Bombers. Despite releasing Keith Shologan to save money, Kyle Walters has built a roster that requires a Canadian defensive tackle to enter the starting lineup if an injury to a national starter elsewhere occurs. The Bombers need to have a quality defensive tackle ready, and I’m not sure Jake Thomas can consistently be that guy.

Being a fringe starter in his early years is not all Ankou offers, of course. Ankou has all the traits to develop into an elite Canadian gap-plugger. Coming from the scheme that UCLA ran, Ankou is going to need time to develop his pass-rushing skills, but he already possesses the needed first-step, hand speed and pad level to excel. As a run defender, Ankou has excellent vision of the backfield and, with 91 tackles in 22 games as 0-tech who is responsible for stacking guards and reacting to the running back, he’s proven to have the upper-body strength and the technique to shed linemen and make a play on the ball. He’s going to be a good one for the blue and gold.

READ MORE: Eli Ankou Scouting Report

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

Photo credit: Idaho athletics

The Riders have plenty of holes to fill in terms of Canadian content, but none more pressing than along the offensive line following the retirement of Chris Best. Veteran guard Brendan LaBatte, meanwhile, has also been rumored to have recently contemplated retirement. Longtime backup Matt Vonk would start at guard if the season started today, with last year’s first-overall pick, Josiah St. John, as all the Riders really have for depth.

Second overall is a slight reach for a player of Mason Woods’ caliber, but he fills a huge positional need for the Riders and has less NFL interest than Manitoba’s Geoff Gray. At 6’9″ and 324-lbs, Woods is a mountain of a man with decent movement skills as well as strong arms and hands. He has obvious issues in the bending of his waist and reliance on reach. Though his bench press numbers don’t show it because of his long arms, Woods has excellent upper-body strength. Woods’ technical issues are largely coachable, and as a mountain for a man with above-average athleticism, the Idaho product has a large ceiling.

READ MORE: Mason Woods Scouting Report

1:3 – BC Lions: LB Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga, Maine

With WR Shawn Gore nearing retirement due to concussion issues, BC will likely consider McMaster’s Danny Vandervoort here. The potential that Mulumba Tshimanga offers the Lions, however, could be too much to pass up. With David Foucalt and and Brett Blaszko in the pipeline, the Lions can afford to pass on an offensive lineman, and there’s no defensive tackle that warrants a top-3 pick with Ankou off the board. With Adam Bighill now in the NFL, there’s a long-term opening at weak-side linebacker for the Lions.

Mulumba Tshimanga has the traits to develop into a starting linebacker. Despite weighing in at 237-lbs, the Montreal native put up some impressive numbers at his pro day, including a 4.77 40-yard dash and 9’9″ broad jump. He’s an incredibly instinctive linebacker, reading the offensive backfield at high speed and reacting on time. Mulumba Tshimanga is one of the more pro-ready players in the class, and will dominate on special-teams in his first season.

READ MORE: Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga Scouting Report

1:4 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats: SB Danny Vandervoort, McMaster

The Ti-Cats will jump for joy if Vandervoort is still available when they are on the clock at fourth-overall. He’s a top-tier talent, a local kid and makes the most sense from a positional stand-point for Hamilton in the first round. Hamilton, who’s in the same class as Calgary when it comes to Canadian content, are without one pressing need, but let Matt Coates walk in free agency and have still not re-signed Andy Fantuz.

Vandervoort compensates for a lack of blazing speed with refined route-running skills and reliable hands. He uses the density of his 6’1″, 203-lb frame to out-leverage defensive backs on in-breaking route and will dominate at the catch point. Vandervoort would be a home-run pick for the Ti-Cats.

1:5 – Edmonton Eskimos: OG Geoff Gray, Manitoba

Photo via Bison Athletics

The Eskimos can afford to wait a year for Gray, who’s easily the best player available here, as veteran guard Simeon Rottier likely has one more season in him – even as just a backup – before hanging ’em up. The Eskimos have Danny Groulx waiting in the wings, but will need to add another top-end prospect to their cupboard for when Rottier departs.

There’s no denying Gray’s evident elite-level strength and athleticism – he’s an Olympic lifter and posted some eye-opening testing numbers at his pro day. He does, however, have some glaring technical issues, particularly in regards to his pad level and hand usage, but has elite athleticism as a base for coaches to work with. Henderson State’s Dondre Wright makes sense from a positional stand-point, but Gray is absolutely worth the risk, and the Esks may be able to pickup Calgary’s Robert Woodson in round two.

READ MORE: Geoff Gray Scouting Report

1:6 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers: WR Nate Behar, Carleton

Ashley Fraser/Postmedia News

The Bombers once again reach for positional need at six, but Behar is a first-round talent who offers a long-term solution for the blue and gold at Z-receiver. The Bombers’ biggest hole in their Canadian content comes at receiver, where after years of mediocrity with the likes of Rory Kohlert and Julian Feoli-Gudino, the Bombers still lack a starting-caliber national pass-catcher.

Behar is a high character, well-rounded receiver who could dominate on special-teams early in his career. At 5’11.3″ and 204-lbs, Behar is built nicely and has 4.61 speed. Behar has the potential to be the wide-side deep-threat the Bombers hoped Addison Richards would become.

1:7 – BC Lions: DE Kwaku Boateng, Wilfred Laurier

Kha Vo/Laurier Athletics

This pick makes all kinds of sense for Wally Buono and the BC Lions. In my first mock, I had the Lions taking Boateng at three, but there’s now a possibility they’re able to snatch him off the board at six. The Lions have a massive need for Canadians along the defensive line, and with David Menard penciled in to start at defensive end for the Lions to meet ratio requirements, they especially need depth at rush-end. The Lions are evidently still mourning the loss of 2015 first-round pick Ese Mrabure-Ajufo.

Boateng’s stock took a hit at the combine when he weighed in undersized at just 233-lbs, but the Wilfred Laurier is still a pass-rushing specialist who can bend and possesses a broad repertoire of pass-rush moves. Boateng could be a slight liability against the run early in his career, but could contribute as a pass-rusher in BC’s second-and-long personnel grouping a la Trent Corney early in his career.

READ MORE: Ranking, Evaluating the 2017 Defensive Ends

1:8 – Calgary Stampeders: FS Dondre Wright, Henderson State

photo via CFL.ca

The only hole in Calgary’s Canadian content comes at defensive back. Every year the Stamps allow a Canadian defensive back to walk in free agency – Adam Berger was the most recent – and while they brought in Chris Rwawakumba and re-signed Matt Bucknor, both players feel like temporary place-holders.

Wright would be an excellent selection for the Stamps. He’s equipped to come downhill against the run as a free safety on defense, and is one of the smartest, most instinctive defenders in the class. He inexperienced as a true center-fielder – Wright played in the box as a strong safety or at nickel corner for the Reddies – but will be given the time to develop and the elite-level coaching to acquire the needed knowledge to play free safety in the professional ranks. He’ll be a dominant special-teamer in the meantime.

READ MORE: Ranking, Evaluating the 2017 Defensive Backs

1:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: LB Jordan Herdman, Simon Fraser

Herdman’s fall to the bottom of the first round has much to do with both his NFL interest and his testing results. Although NFL teams will be grossly turned off by his 5.16 40-yard dash, the combination of his Senior Bowl performance and his game tape – that of which suggests no issues with his testing numbers – should result in Herdman getting an opportunity down south as an undrafted free agent.

For Ottawa, while a plethora of defensive tackles and offensive linemen remain available, they saw strong seasons from Connor Williams and Ettore Lattanzio in 2016, while Zack Evans has became a menace in the middle. Based on the players still available versus Ottawa’s team needs, they’re in a position to invest in a player like Herdman. Regardless of his testing numbers, Herdman will one day be a starting inside linebacker in this league.

Round Two

2:1 – Toronto Argonauts: DT Junior Luke, Montreal

Adding Luke would form a nice Canadian duo inside for the Argos with Daryl Waud. The Argos could go offensive line here – it was not, after all, this regime who shockingly spent early-round picks on DJ Sackey and Jamal Campbell less than a year ago – but recently added J’Michael Deane to solidify the Argos’ interior. Luke requires a ton of coaching on gap discipline and technique, but boasts an exceptional first-step and raw athleticism. He’s a high risk, high reward player at tenth overall.

2:2 – Saskatchewan Roughriders: DT Justin Vaughn, Fordham

Image result for justin vaughn fordham

In comparison to Luke, Vaughn is currently more pro-ready but has a lower ceiling than the Argos’ second-round pick. Vaughn has the ideal build for a three-tech at 6’5″, 276-lbs and is a fairly flexible athlete, but has a slow first step that could hurt his effectiveness gaining leverage against the run. He does, however, slot in nicely behind Eddie Steele in Saskatchewan as a pass-rusher. Vaughn had a productive career at Fordham, amassing four sacks and 11 tackles-for-loss in his senior season. He’ll likely become a rotational pass-rusher early in his career if he ends up in the RiderVille.

With Woods and Vaughn, Chris Jones will have addressed his two biggest needs early in the draft.

2:3 – Montreal Alouettes: OG Qadr Spooner, McGill

For his first ever draft pick as a general manager, don’t expect Kavis Reed to stray from the consensus of investing early-round picks in local offensive linemen. Furthermore, the Alouettes will soon be without 34-year-old Luc Brodeur-Jourdain, who’ll likely serve as their fifth offensive lineman in 2017. Spooner comes with a mean-streak and a massively strong upper-body – he recorded 31 bench press reps – and tends to “finish” his blocks. Spooner has a perfect build guard build at 6’3″, 312-lbs, and comes with well-refined interior pass-block footwork.

2:4 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats: OG Braden Schram, Calgary

With the unexpected retirement of Mathieu Girard, expect the Ti-Cats to look at offensive linemen early in the draft to fill one of very few holes on their roster. Kent Austin has recently displayed a tendency of prioritizing the especially athletic offensive linemen, such as Ryan Bomben, Brandon Revenberg and Jeremy Lewis. Schram fits the bill. Schram, who played right tackle for the Dinos, is quick out of his stance and rolls his hips underneath him to drive through defenders. He strikes quickly with his hands and consistently arrives on time in pass-protection. Schram has excellent size at 6’3″, 306-lbs and warrants a top-15 pick. He’s my third-ranked offensive lineman in the class, sitting behind just Geoff Gray and Mason Woods.

2:5 – Edmonton Eskimos: FS Robert Woodson, Calgary

Free safety has long been a position of issue for the Eskimos. Neil King settled into the role last year, but the 28-year-old didn’t show anything special in his first real starting opportunity. Edmonton would be foolish to pass on Woodson here, as he’d fill a positional need and has the potential to be a long-term, above-average starter on defense, whether that’s at free safety or field corner. Woodson is the best cover-half coming out of Canadian university ball I’ve seen in awhile, and has the best feet of any defensive back in the class, translating into spectacular change-of-direction skills. Woodson couples this with above-average ball skills and refined technique. He has a future at both field corner and free safety in the CFL.

2:6 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers: C Dariusz Bladek, Bethune-Cookman

Having released National starter Keith Shologan, the Bombers will likely have to resort back to starting three Canadian offensive linemen in 2017. With Patrick Neufeld back in the starting lineup, that leaves Michael Couture, the Bombers’ second-round pick in 2016 who struggled mightily as a freshman, as all they have for depth. Bladek’s fall to being the fifth offensive lineman off the board has to do with his lack of foot speed, a trait that dropped Laval offensive linemen Charles Vaillancourt to being the fourth hog off the board last year. Although Bladek also doesn’t have the strongest of hands, he’s otherwise a strong, top-heavy interior offensive lineman with good vision.

2:7 – BC Lions: NT Faith Ekakitie, Iowa

Although I have a very hard time believing Ekakitie is a top-15 prospect, there seems to be a lot of buzz surrounding the Iowa product’s name, and the Lions are currently without a single national defensive tackle under contract. Even with two American defensive tackles, it’s important to have a Canadian to rotate in. Ekakitie, who never really settled into a starting role at Iowa, certainly shouldn’t be expected to enter that role early in his career, though. The Brampton, ON native has plenty of technical issues, such as stopping his feet when playing the run and leaning into the block or double team. Ekakitie must learn to keep his feet churning against contact and locate the ball-carrier in the backfield. I’ve also noted a lack of active hands and inconsistent pad level. On the other hand, Ekakitie is relatively quick and flexible, while also possessing a solid get-off. He has experience against top-flight competition and could be molded into a decent rotational nose tackle with development.

2:8 – Calgary Stampeders: OT Justin Senior, Mississippi State

Senior’s draft stock took a huge hit at the 2017 Senior Bowl, as he is now projected to go undrafted after initially being expected to be a 6th-round pick in early January. The Stamps would be wise to invest in a future’s pick that could be worth significant value in a couple years. Senior, with an NFL-tackle frame and excellent movement skills, would quickly become a CFL All-Star tackle.

READ MORE: Justin Senior Scouting Report

2:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: WR Mitchell Picton, Regina

With J’Michael Deane now in Toronto, the Redblacks will be looking to invest an early-to-mid-round pick in an offensive lineman to add to their cupboard. They may consider Johnny Augustine here as a replacement for Kienan LaFrance, who landed in Saskatchewan in free agency, but recently brought in Pascal Lochard and also have Brendan Gillanders under contract. Instead Marcel Desjardins and co. would be wise to bring in more competition for third-year pass-catcher Jake Harty, who, with that being said, has come along nicely himself. Picton is quite raw but was extremely productive for the Rams in 2016, amassing 58 receptions for 834 yards and 11 TDs in just 8 games. Though his route-running needs a ton of development, Picton is a quietly crafty route-runner, using subtle head and shoulder fakes to open up defensive backs. He projects as a 2014/2015 Rory Kohlert clone, sitting in zones on the wide-side of the field, but it’ll be several years until he’s ready to contribute.

Round three

3:1 – Toronto Argonauts: RB Johnny Augustine, Guelph

Jim Popp has a history of drafting running backs early after a great combine performance, as he spent a first-round pick on McMaster RB Wayne Moore last year who, identically to Augustine, dominated the receiving and pass-blocking one-on-ones. Augustine has a higher ceiling than Moore – the latter having clocked a 4.92 40 time – but still projects as special-teamer. Having parted ways with linebackers Thomas Miles and Chris Greenwood, the Argos are in need of bigger special-teamers.

3:2 – SASKATCHEWAN PICK FORFEITED

3:3 – Montreal Alouettes: DE Connor McGough, Calgary

With Mike Klassen and Don Oramasionwu, the Alouettes already have solid depth behind starting Canadian defensive tackles Keith Shologan and Jabar Westerman. The Als could instead use another big-bodied special-teamer, which is exactly how University of Calgary defensive end Connor McGough will make his money in the CFL. At 247-lbs, McGough ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at the Combine, and served as Calgary’s up-back on their punt team, a role often reserved for running backs and linebackers. McGough’s an athletic specimen that could contribute as a rotational pass-rusher in the future.

3:4 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats: DT Kay Okafor, St. Francis Xavier

With Evan Gill’s status still somewhat in the air, Hamilton wouldn’t be wrong to add another national defensive tackle to the group. Okafor is built perfectly for a three-tech at 6’3″, 273-lbs, and possesses the explosiveness and bend that often translates well to the CFL. Okafor is still quite raw but will be brought along slowly behind Ted Laurent, Michael Atkinson and Evan Gill.

3:5 – Edmonton Eskimos: DT Fabion Foote, McMaster

By letting Don Oramasionwu walk in free agency and then releasing Eddie Steele, it’s clear the Eskimos intend on playing with an all-american defensive line. It’s still important to have a Canadian to rotate in, though, and especially one that comes for cheap. Foote is an exceptionally athletic defensive tackle, posting a 9’11” broad jump and 34.5″ vertical jump at the national combine.

3:6 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers: FS Nate Hamlin, Carleton

With Brendan Morgan and Derek Jones entering contract years, the Bombers would be wise to bring in reinforcements behind Taylor Loffler at free safety. Hamlin is a high-character guy with a hard-hitting streak. He showed excellent range and instincts at boundary corner for the Ravens, projecting as a solid depth piece at free safety in the CFL. He’d be an upgrade over Brendan Morgan on special-teams almost immediately for the blue and gold.

3:7 – BC Lions: OG Jean-Simon Roy, Laval

The Lions have a nice core of Canadian offensive linemen in Hunter Steward, Charles Vaillancourt, Kirby Fabien and Cody Husband, but won’t be able to keep all four interior linemen forever. With David Foucault and Brett Blaszko in the pipeline, it wouldn’t the Lions to bring in a depth piece that has experience at tackle to step in if need be. In the meantime, Roy must add weight to his 287-pound frame. He has a lot of good traits, but as teams saw with Michael Couture in his rookie season, its very tough to contribute at below 295-lbs.

3:8 – Calgary Stampeders: LB Nakas Onyeka, Wilfred Laurier

I don’t know if Onyeka is an inside linebacker, SAM or free safety, but it’s not really important – he’s going to be an effective special-teams player. The 2016 OUA defensive player of the year has an uncanny nose for the football, and that will continue on special-teams in the professional ranks. The Stamps have shown in the past that they still value undersized Canadian linebackers that play like wrecking-balls.

3:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: FS Tunde Adeleke, Carleton

Similarly to Ottawa’s second-round pick in 2015, Jake Harty, Adeleke was a dynamic returner in university who possesses the required athleticism to carve out a fringe starting role, too. Adeleke, who ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the combine, comes downhill hard and hits with a purpose, which should translate well as a gunner on special-teams. Ottawa would be wise to keep this local product in town.

Round Four

4:1 – Toronto Argonauts: DE Mark Mackie, McMaster

With Ricky Foley now gone, Cam Walker remains as the Argos’ only Canadian defensive end on the roster. Mackie, meanwhile, has a low center of gravity and is the most explosive defensive end in the class. For reference, he recorded a 9’5.75″ broad jump at the Toronto regional combine at 255-lbs. Mackie should find a role a role on special-teams with the Argos.

4:2 – Calgary Stampeders: OG Evan Johnson, Saskatchewan

No matter how well-stocked they are on paper, it would be so unlike the Stampeders to not take an offensive lineman in the first 30 picks. (Excluding Justin Senior, that is, who’s NFL-bound at the moment). Johnson is an athletic 300-pounder, leaping a whopping 31″ in the vertical jump. He has some nice development traits as a guard.

4:3 – Montreal Alouettes: WR Malcolm Carter, Ottawa (CJFL)

Carter enters with a low floor but when a 22-year-old pass-catcher is 6’6″ and can jump 40″, he’s worthy of an early fourth-round pick. The Alouettes will need someone to replace Sam Giguere in the coming years, and while Carter is years away from contributing, the former Carleton Raven is loaded on potential.

4:4 – Saskatchewan Roughriders: RB Sean Thomas-Erlington, Montreal

Whether or not Saskatchewan proceeds with a Canadian backfield, running backs with special-teams upside are typically good value picks in the middle rounds.

4:5 – Edmonton Eskimos: TE Antony Auclair, Laval

Auclair will shoot up draft boards if he goes undrafted down south, but at the moment he’s projected to go in the seventh-round despite being apart of an extremely deep tight end class in the NFL. If Auclair does ever come south, though, the Eskimos will have a unique player on their hands to work with.

4:6 – Saskatchewan Roughriders: FS Jordan Hoover, Waterloo

Saskatchewan only has Jeff Hecht behind Marc-Olivier Brouillette at free safety, and need to add some athletic prospects to develop. Hoover fits the bill.

4:7 – BC Lions: OG Jeremy Zver, Regina

Zver is an easy mover with heavy hands and good hand placement. A highly-touted university basketball player, Zver has many of the desired athletic traits in a tall guard prospect.

4:8 – Calgary Stampeders: WR Alex Morrison, UBC

Morrison will likely return to UBC for his fifth season – he missed almost all of 2016 with an arm injury suffered in week two, while the Stamps are already absolutely loaded at receiver – but at 6’4″, Morrison’s size and smoothness as a route runner would make him worthy of an investment in the fourth-round, even for the receiver-heavy Stampeders.

4:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: OG Jordan Filippelli, Calgary

It’s possible the Redblacks go four rounds without picking an offensive lineman, but picking up a developmental prospect to take J’Michael Deane’s roster spot wouldn’t hurt. With poor movement skills, Filippelli has a low ceiling but has some traits to work with, such as quick hands that deliver a strong punch. Filippelli shows a strong torso on film to relocate defensive linemen to open running lanes but struggled with inside moves as a left tackle.

READ MORE: Jordan Filippelli Scouting Report

2017 CFL Draft: Big Board Version 1.0 (Top-30 Prospects)

Fans are routinely reminded that mock drafts are largely constructed around the basis that the picks are made based on how the draft analyst believes each general manager and coaching staff will approach their picks, and not what the draft analyst would do if they were making the calls.

Big boards – otherwise known as player rankings – are where one can share their true evaluation of the draft. My upcoming mock drafts will not mirror my big board due to the extreme subjectiveness of this process. Here, however, we get a look at how I’d approach the draft as a general manager.

Overall, the 2017 draft features the best prospect class in years. It’s a deep offensive line class, and unlike most years, there’s more than one blue-chip prospect in every position group, even when excluding those with NFL interest. Ranking the middle-tier of offensive linemen – Laval’s Jean-Simon Roy, Bethune-Cookman’s Dariusz Bladek, McGill’s Qadr Spooner and Calgary’s Braden Schram – created the toughest decisions when forming the list, while finding an appropriate placement for prospects such as Kwaku Boateng (weight) and Justin Herdman (times), both of whom have great film but poor measurables, also caused headaches.

It’s certainly a flawed process, as is the draft in general, and expect my next big board to look drastically different. Look for a top-50 in 7-10 days, with my second mock draft in between.

1. Justin Senior OT  Mississippi State
2. Jordan Herdman LB Simon Fraser
3. Antony Auclair TE Laval
4. Eli Ankou NT UCLA
5. Danny Vandervoort SB McMaster
6. Geoff Gray OG Manitoba
7. Christophe Mulumba Tshimanga LB Maine
8. Mason Woods OG Idaho
9. Kwaku Boateng DE Wilfred Laurier
10. Justin Vaughn DT Fordham
11. Nate Behar WR Carleton
12. Dondre Wright DB Henderson State
13. Junior Luke DT Montreal
14. Braden Schram OG Calgary
15. Robert Woodson CB/FS Calgary
16. Qadr Spooner OG McGill
17. Jean-Simon Roy OG Laval
18. Mitchell Picton WR Regina
19. Dariusz Bladek C/OG Bethune-Cookman
20. Connor McGough DE Calgary
21. Kay Okafor DT St. Francis Xavier
22. Fabion Foote DT McMaster
23. Johnny Augustine RB Guelph
24. Malcolm Carter WR Ottawa (CJFL)
25. Nate Hamlin FS Carleton
26. Faith Ekakitie NT Iowa
27. Justin Herdman LB Simon Fraser
28. Nakas Onyeka LB Wilfred Laurier
 29. Tunde Adeleke FS Carleton
30. Jeremy Zver OG Regina

CFL Draft 2017: Ranking, Evaluating the Defensive Backs

With the combine now in the rear view mirror, CFL talent evaluators can now begin to come to conclusions with their prospect rankings.

It’s a solid year for defensive backs in the CFL draft. There are at least two likely future starters, three solid special-teamers and one underrated wildcard.

With that in mind, here are the top-8 defensive back prospects in the 2017 CFL Draft.

1. FS Dondre Wright, Henderson State

Height: 5’10.2″
Weight: 199-lbs
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): N/R
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): N/R

Wright is the best run defender out of all the defensive backs in the 2017 class. He’s rather physical at the point of attack, and has the tools and vision to set the edge by stacking blockers, forcing the play back-inside. He has the strength to get off the block and make a play on the ball-carrier when the opportunity presents itself. Wright is a smart, instinctive player who reads his run defense keys well and understands leverage in pass-coverage. He has the change-of-direction skills and hard-hitting prowess to make plays while reading and reacting.

The Ajax, ON native’s biggest negative is his ball-skills. He has good hands, but routinely fails to get his head around to locate the ball in the air. As a free safety, this can result in a lot of missed interceptions, and can also lead to countless pass-interference penalties for running through the receiver. Wright can also get grabby at the top of routes in man-coverage, and has limited experience as a true center-fielder – he mostly played in or around the box as a strong safety and nickel corner while at Henderson State. As he develops into a starter, Wright will dominate on special-teams for the first couple seasons of his career.

2. CB/FS Robert Woodson, Calgary

Height: 5’10.2″
Weight: 191-lbs
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): 12
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): 17

Woodson, who’s easily the top raw cover-man in the class, is just a hair behind Wright for the top spot; in fact, I almost think he’s the safer pick between the two. Based on Woodson’s current traits, I’m fairly confident he has what it takes to develop into a starting field corner. But if a team wants to maximize his talent, he could also be developed into a free safety. His lack of zone instincts and ability to come down-hill and support the run are worrisome from a free safety standpoint, but there’s no denying he has the feet, hips and ball-skills to compensate.

Woodson has the best feet in the class. His change-of-direction skills to break on routes and under-cut throws are second-to-none. He’s extremely twitchy, and has loose hips to speed turn or turn and run with receivers. His ball-skills, meanwhile, are well documented – Woodson has 7 interceptions in his last two seasons despite offenses routinely game-planning to minimize his opportunities in 2016. Teams often isolated one receiver in the boundary against Calgary, rotating Woodson to safety and away from one-on-one with their top receivers, a true testament to the respect Woodson earned in his junior season, when he was named the Canada West’s defensive player of the year.

3. FS Nate Hamlin, Carleton

Height: 6’0″
Weight: 195-lbs
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): N/R
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): N/R

Hamlin is easily projected as a free safety, as although he displayed excellent range and change of direction skills as a zone corner with Carleton, he lacks the functional twitch to be a man-coverage player at the next level. Hamlin’s a hard hitter that reads what’s in front of him well and breaks on the ball with bad intentions. Hamlin possesses good closing speed and above-average ball skills.

A player whose built nicely at 6’0″, 195-lbs that runs well, takes good angles and tackles with force, Hamlin projects nicely as a special-teams player in the CFL. His lack of twitch hurts his potential as a free safety, but he has several other starter traits and should at least develop into a solid backup.

4. FS Tunde Adeleke, Carleton

Image result for nate hamlin carleton

Height: 5’9.7″
Weight: 190
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): N/R
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): N/R

Adeleke possesses the needed twitch that his teammate, Hamlin, needs. He has solid ball skills and can run with anyone on the field. Adeleke, a star returner for the Ravens, clocked a 4.58 40-yard dash to lead all defensive backs at the combine. He’s another hard-hitter that is rarely late to the spot, reacting on time. Adeleke has intriguing potential on special-teams, with the abilities of a gunner and kick-returner.

5. FS Jordan Hoover, Waterloo

Height: 6’0.5″
Weight: 194
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): N/R
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): N/R

Hoover is an exceptional athlete, which often projects special-teams abilities. His combine numbers for the broad jump, 3-cone and shuttle lead all defensive backs, while he was a close second behind Adeleke for the top 40-time with a 4.601. Hoover lacks fundamental cover skills, projecting strictly as a special-teamer.

6. CB Adam Laurensse, Calgary

Height: 6’0.3″
Weight: 187-lbs
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): N/R
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): N/R

In terms of coverage abilities, Laurensse is easily a top-3 defensive back in the class. He stays square and confident in his back-pedal until the last second, and can open his hips nicely. He possesses good change of direction skills and does a good job locating the ball in the air. With that being said, its exceptionally risky to draft a Canadian defensive back early when he doesn’t project well as a special-teamer, regardless of his talents as a cover man. Laurensse is underweight and doesn’t run particularly well – he recorded the worst 40-yard dash of all defensive backs with a 4.75-second time. He has the traits to possibly see time as a field corner, but with below-average special-teams abilities, Laurensse’s stock will suffer.

7. FS Harland Hastings, Waterloo

Height: 5’10.7″
Weight: 189
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): N/R
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): N/R

Hastings is a fairly gifted athlete but lacks size and overall coverage abilities. He runs well and is an explosive athlete, certainly displaying some special-teams potential.

8. FS Richard Gillespie, Toronto

Height: 5’8.5″
Weight: 189
Scouting Bureau ranking (September): N/R
Scouting Bureau ranking (December): N/R

Gillespie is clean in coverage with good instincts and excellent ball skills, but is a limited athlete with a lack of size.