Gearing up for CFL Week and Combine

March 1, 2018 - 9:00am

The dust has mostly settled from CFL free agency with a few interesting people remaining, but now the focus is shifting to the CFL Week in Winnipeg March 22-25 which will include the CFL Combine March 24-25.

I took in the initial CFL Week in Regina and it was a great experience for the old and new fan alike. The event is free, so CFL Fans in Winnipeg have no excuse not to take in the exhibits, player panels and then indulging their inner General Manager by watching the CFL Combine.

Players like Mike Reilly were likely taken aback by their reception in Regina and I hope the players have a similar response in Winnipeg. One of the more fascinating things was taking in the CFL Combine testing which can at times seem like watching paint dry (how many times can you watch sprinting) but the one on one drills are fascinating because you see these players in person and you get a sense of who can play and who might need more seasoning.

My understanding is the CFL Week will be rotated through the CFL giving all fans a chance to take in the event. It’s a great opportunity to market the league and one of the interesting things was running into parents of combine participants who were astonished to see the stands filled to take in the testing. It’s a great event and if you live in Winnipeg, or plan to be in the area, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Now that the relative dust from free agency has settled, the Riders signing of Canadians takes on greater significance considering the relative lack of draft choices this year. A majority of them went in trades and when you get a quarterback like Zach Collaros who may be the next thing (or maybe not), the trading of draft picks is also understandable.

Another factor is depending on the position, Canadian players may need as much as three to five years from being drafted to emerge as players. Part of that is due to lack of exposure to superior competiton, part of it is due to Canadian U Sports encouraging players to get their degrees first.

So the older the Canadian, the more likely they are to make a contribution. Consider Dariusz Bladek who stepped up on the Riders offensive line in a number of packages. By comparison, a player like Josiah St. John is entering his third year without making much of a contribution but hopefully has spent the last two years learning how to play.

That probably explains the Riders signing of Jake Harty, a former U of Calgary receiver who was drafted by Ottawa and who Rider fans will remember catching a pass on a fake punt in a game in Mosaic Stadium. Harty was behind some pretty good receivers and the Riders hiring his former receiving coach in Travis Moore probably helped bring Harty west.

The Riders are looking at their Canadian ratio and considering they have to start seven Canadians, the trick is figuring out who and where they will go. Starting at the offensive line, the Riders may want to go

with three Canadians with Brendon LaBatte, Dan Clark and either Peter Dyakowski or perhaps Josiah St. John finally taking the next step.

The signing of Jerome Messam will likely see Messam starting, spelled off by perhaps Johnny Augustine or Spencer Moore depending on the package. One receiver will be Canadian, with Rob Bagg and either Harty, Devon Bailey or Mitch Picton coming in various scenarios.

The return of Zach Evans has one Canadian spot on the defensive line, and if you think the Riders have a Canadian safety or middle linebacker in various packages, that should cover things and leave the team with enough depth to deal with injuries.

With free agency essentially done, the Riders will continue with their free agency camps leading up to their mini-camp in Bradenton Florida April 24-25. The camp shifts from Dodgertown to the IMG facility, probably a result of new quarterback coach Steve Walsh who was once an instructor there.

It’s been interesting to trace the camp from the first year Chris Jones took over, and which featured 100 some odd players, to an estimated 40 this year, including quarterbacks. Unlike 2016 where Jones was starting at ground zero, the Riders are looking for players in specific positions with left tackle being one of the big unknowns at this time.

Part of that is due to Bruce Campbell not yet coming to terms with the club. Campbell came out of retirement last year to continue playing and once he made the roster, helped solidify the offensive line. The problem is Campbell was busted for using personal enhancing drugs and has been suspended for two games, which means the Riders will need someone to fill in that position (assuming they sign Campbell) until Campbell comes back.

If Campbell still hasn’t signed, the issue is probably money and with Campbell suspended for two games, whatever contract he signs will have to be pro-rated. For the Riders, releasing Henoc Muamba for basically salary reasons, indicates they are skating around the edges of the salary cap, or perhaps keeping their powder dry for potential NFL returnees.

The Riders signed Travis Bond, formerly of the Bombers, so that might be a stop-gap response, but Bond seems perhaps more effective in a guard position. If the Riders are going to use Messam and a combination of Trent Richardson/Cameron Marshall and Marcus Thigpen to revive a running game, then having road graders on the offensive line is a must.

That being said, the Riders offensive line at times can be described as porus and protecting Collaros will have to be job one for the offensive line. The Riders may be hoping for their Canadian offensive linemen to step up, but in the meantime, if the Riders are going to try to make a serious run for the Grey Cup, they should cover all bases.

The Riders did sign a pair of American receivers in Shaq Evans and Jacoby Ford. Evans was picked by the New York Jets in the fourth round in 2014 and did time on the practice rosters of the Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaquars and New England Patriots since then. He is 6’1” and 210 pounds. Ford was on the

Rider practice squad towards the end of last season and was picked by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. Ford spent time with the New York Jets and Tennesse Titans since then.

While nothing further has come from or expected from Duron Carter’s two court appearances in Winnipeg and Saskatoon for marijuana possession, the Riders are not standing pat in their receiving corps, which is probably one of the strongest units on the team.

A former Rider Jerrell Freeman was released by the Chicago Bears after being busted for using performance enhancing drugs. Freeman has two more games to serve on his suspension and it is highly unlikely he will come back north, although he will be fondly remembered here for his recovery of a muffed punt in the 2010 westen final against Calgary

In the rest of the CFL, probably the biggest news was the return of Orlando Steinauer to Hamilton as assistant head coach. Steinhauer left Hamilton before last season to go to Fresno State of the NCAA and did a good job turning that team around in one year.

It was thought at the time Steinhauer had problems with then head coach Kent Austin and couldn’t see advancement in Hamilton, so Fresno State was a good option. However Austin stepping down for June Jones, who is 65, came in as a replacement coach and sparked Hamilton to a pretty good finish despite starting 0-8.

Jones has added Jerry Glanville, 76, who once upon a time came up with the Gritz Blitz, came in as the defensive coordinator, replacing Phil Lolley, was with Chris Jones in 2016 in Saskatchewan. In an interesting twist, Steinhauer will be offensive coordinator, considering his previous expertise has been on the defensive side, but this will be good to give him a more rounded resume when he presumably takes over as head coach.

Toronto’s assistant Marcus Brady left that team to take a position in Indianapolis and is expected to be replaced by Tommy Condell. None of this is surprising, although in Toronto, I would think Marc Trestman calls most of the shots on offense. Condell is a pretty good offensive mind who split from Kent Austin and I notice nothing has seemed to move yet with Cory Chamblin who announced he might not be back following the news of a death in the family. If Chamblin stays, Toronto is in very good shape to defend its Grey Cup.

In other Argo news, the team offered running back James Wilder Jr. a new contract with more money, but with the caveat he stay for an extra year. Wilder said he would sit out the 2018 season after he said the team would not let him out of his contract to pursue NFL opportunities. While the money in the CFL compared to the NFL does not compare, first year players in the CFL sign a two year contract. Players with an expiring contract are sometimes let out to explore NFL possibilities, but this isn’t the case for Wilder.

Kyries Hiebert went from Montreal to Ottawa, completing in some strange way a circle of life. Hiebert is the last remaining active Ottawa Renegade player and with Noel Thorpe now the defensive coordinator in Ottawa, Hiebert will be entering a defensive scheme where he should be able to contribute.

The BC Lions brought back Rolly Lumbala for another two years, providing leadership on the team. I remember when TSN had the cameras in the Lions locker room prior to their visit to Mosaic Stadium and Wally Buono sensed his teams head was not where it was supposed to be an asked Lumbala to say something to the team that might fire them up. Sad to say, it didn’t work, but it showed the importance of Lumbala to the Lions.

The Lions have also signed former Rider reciever Ricky Collins Jr. and Kieran Duncan who was in the Bomber camp last season. Collins was traded by the Riders to Hamilton because the Riders receiving corps was just too deep, and failed to make it into Hamilton’s lineup. Collins is a good receiver and probably better than Chris Williams who the Lions snagged last year in free agency.

With the release of the CFL negotiation lists, an interesting name was Canadian quarterback Brent Rypien. You may recall Rypien’s uncle, Mark, who won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins. Brent Rypien is starting at Boise State and although born in Washington State, had his father born in Calgary, therefore making him eligible for dual citizenship should he decide to go that route. With the role of the Canadian quarterback likely to be addressed in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, this is a wise investment by BC.

Edmonton nailed down Aaron Grymes in their defensive backfield for another season. Grymes tried his luck in the NFL only to return last season to Edmonton and it was open to discussion whether he would try his luck again in the NFL.

Finally we come to Hamilton where news of a CFL town meeting with CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie had people speculating the CFL would award the area a conditional franchise.

Well, they didn’t, although the methodical approach of the new CFL ownership group in not just a stadium, but a place where can work, have fun and live – like Ottawa’s development, may be the key in leveraging provincial and federal help for a new stadium.

What makes things interesting is the CFL is having discussions with ESPN about extending their contract and with ESPN looking for programing like CFL games, a potential $10 million windfall to the league looks pretty good and makes it pretty certain the league will move up the schedule with the season concluding say somewhere around Remembrance Day.

There are those who say starting the season early may cost fans more interested in the hockey playoffs, but unless you live in Winnipeg this year, your Canadian NHL team is not going deep and I haven’t paid attention to the NHL since I got out of the hockey draft.

So that was February in the CFL, and the fund stuff is getting closer.

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