First and Goal: Upcoming Draft

It has been the Canadian Football League’s shortest-ever offseason – a Grey Cup on December 12th tends to impact schedules, after all – and already the clock is ticking down to some significant dates.

Case in point: CFL rookie camps open on May 11th, main camp four days later. And just eight days after the curtain lifts on training camp the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be in Regina to face the Saskatchewan Roughriders in their first preseason game. Yet, even before all that teams will add to their Canadian and Global player pool with the CFL and Global Drafts both running on May 3rd.

To that end we caught up with Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters to check in on a slew of topics, including how the recent National Combine in Toronto might have impacted the club’s rankings board, with Winnipeg scheduled to select 9th, 18th, 38th, 47th, 56th, 65th and 74th in the eight-round CFL Draft.

“You do all the film work prior to the Combine and then you hope all the guys you like on film look good in person and check the boxes – height, weight, speed, and competitiveness,” Walters began.

“There were certain cases where maybe that didn’t happen, but then there were instances whether a guy you perhaps didn’t have a good vibe for on film really jumped out. Mike (O’Shea, head coach), Ted (Goveia, Assistant GM/Director of Player Personnel) and I had a big talk this week and spoke first about the low-end guys who maybe don’t make the grade based on film work and what we saw in person. The next phase is to meet with the coaches and talk about the high end of our positional rankings.”

The next step in the draft prospect analysis, Walters said, is to pull in the coaching staff for further evaluation. That’s not unlike other Canadian Footall League teams, but it is an intriguing part of the process.

“Now it’s about getting the coaches involved to see who they like. It’s ‘Marty (Costello, offensive line coach) and Buck (Pierce, offensive coordinator), give us your five best O-linemen and why.’ We always factor the coaches’ input into the top-end guys in particular.

“It’s good to get their input because from my standpoint after seeing these players so much on film and then seeing them in person it’s almost over-analysis at this point. So, at this point it’s, take a deep breath and have the offensive and defensive staff come in and offer a totally different point of view. Mike, Ted and myself will just listen and they’ll bring up some very interesting points of view about these players. Generally in years past they align closely, but it’s good to hear a position-specific coach about why they like or do not like a player.

“It’s the same reason I’ll send the test results to Danny (McManus, Assistant GM/Director of U.S. Scouting) – and he really has nothing to do with the Canadian Draft – and say, ‘Just look the numbers and tell me who you like.’ That way we get another totally unbiased look from his standpoint and a purely test results/analytical point of view. It’s just a really good exercise to bring them into the process and hear them talk about the top guys in the groups.”

More on the draft and other notes and quotes in this week’s edition of 1st & Goal…

1. The CFL Combine also featured meetings with all the movers and shakers in the league and included an annual discussion on methods to improve the game and other ideas.

Some of those points will come up in negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement but one proposal tossed out during the week would see teams be required to balance their starting Canadians between offence and defence rather than loading up on one side of the ball. It’s not in place for this season, but apparently was tabled for further discussion.

The Blue Bombers would be impacted significantly by that as they started six Canadians on offence last year – three O-lineman, two receivers and one running back – and rotated a Canadian along the defensive line.

“Who knows where that one goes?,” he said. “There were so many topics brought up. It was, ‘What do you think about this plan? Or how about this idea? Would this increase scoring? Would this help grow fan engagement?’ But I’m not sure if that one has legs. It’s virtually impossible to implement for this year.

“If it does go in that direction, it would have to be well before free agency so teams can adjust their thinking. The (Canadian) defensive players would be pumped for free agency.”

Walters was asked if that possible rule change might impact how they draft next month, perhaps with more of a focus on defence and finding future starters on that side of the ball.

“Not really,” he said. “So much of what we do now in this league is just year-to-year planning and there’s less big-picture and down the road planning. The season ends, it’s a fresh clean slate and ‘How do we win next year?’ That’s just the way the league has moved. Whether you think that’s good or bad, there’s just less future planning.”

2. TSN’s Dave Naylor reported this week that Coastal Carolina safety Enock Makonzo – a product of LaChine, Quebec – has opted to forego his last year of eligibility and turn pro. He was the third-ranked prospect on the CFL Scouting Bureau’s January rankings and his decision not to return to school could move him up even further. Makonzo, FYI, wasn’t at the National Combine.

“We’ve watched his film,” said Walters, “and I’ve suggested to his agent, ‘Can we do some sort of virtual Pro Day? What’s your plan?’ For all the circumstances surrounding him, and how we got to this point we don’t have any testing numbers or anything.

“He looks good. Athletic, runs around, plays in a good program against good competition. Good football player.”

3. One more on the National Combine… the Global prospects also tested and did one-on-ones at the same time as the Canadians and the consensus seems to say none of those prospects distinguished himself from the others.

“There’s a bunch of big, strong guys,” Walters said. “I guess you could have said the same thing the year Thiadric (Hansen) got drafted. Back then it was, ‘He hasn’t played a lot of football, but he’s a big strong guy and we’ll see what he looks like in a couple of years.’

“There were a few big strong Global men running around and competing.”

4. An update – sort of – on the Blue Bombers quest to bring some kicking candidates to camp to compete with Marc Liegghio and Ali Mourtada, knowing now that Sergio Castillo has left for the Edmonton Elks.

“We’ve got some names out there that we’ll kick the tires on,” Walters said. “The discussion is how many we would like to have at rookie camp and can we get eyes on guys prior to that, who’s interested and who’s not and are their Global prospects in the draft that might fit the mould. There are a lot of different options we’re discussing.”

5. And, finally, expect many more signings like this between now and rookie camp, but the Blue Bombers added an intriguing prospect earlier this week in receive Dalton Schoen.

Schoen signed as an undrafted free agent with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020 and has also had a look with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Football Team (now Commanders).

Schoen had an impressive career at Kansas State where he had 92 receptions for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns over 34 games from 2017-2019.

We’ve said it before, but the receiving group will be one of the interesting positions to study during camp, what with the departures of Kenny Lawler (Edmonton) and Darvin Adams (Ottawa) and the addition of Greg Ellingson (from Edmonton) that already includes starters Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey and Drew Wolitarsky. Also returning from last year are Americans Kelvin McKnight and Blake Jackson (who injured his Achilles during what had been an impressive camp) and Canadian Brendan O’Leary-Orange.

Add Schoen to a collection of newcomers that includes former University of Buffalo star Antonio Nunn and T.J. Simmons, who played at Alabama and West Virginia, with more names certain to follow.

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