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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Draft Notebook: Shrine Game Recap and Geoff Gray Scouting Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via Bison Athletics
Photo via Bison Athletics

Three Downs

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

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

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

Scouting Report

RG Geoff Gray, University of Manitoba

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

Positives

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

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

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

Negatives

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

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

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

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

Two Names to Note

1. RG Dariusz Bladek, Bethune-Cookman

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

2. HB Robert Woodson, Calgary

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

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

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

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

Measurables

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

Agility/Quickness

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

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

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

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

Hands

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

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Senior’s strong hands lock on DE #4

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

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Senior times his punch well and nicely places his hands on the outside linebacker’s numbers.

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

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Hips

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

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

Strength

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

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

Pass block technique

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

Run block technique

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

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

Vision

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

Analysis

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

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

Photo credit USA Today Sports
Photo credit USA Today Sports