It's been a good couple of weeks for CIS football. After a strong showing by CIS prospects in the CFL draft, including first-overall pick Shomari Williams (who I interviewed before the draft), six CIS players appear in good shape to catch on with NFL teams. The Detroit Lions signed [Sean Yuille, Pride Of Detroit] Laurier defensive end Chima Ihekwoaba after their rookie minicamp [Tom Kowalski, Mlive.com via Ron Balaskovitz], and Concordia linebacker Cory Greenwood signed with [Mark Masters, National Post] the Kansas City Chiefs today. Waterloo offensive lineman Joel Reinders has signed with Cleveland [David Naylor, The Globe and Mail, Concordia offensive lineman Kristian Matte has inked a deal with Houston [Herb Zurkowsky, The Gazette], Bishop's wide receiver Shawn Gore reached an agreement with Green Bay [Dave Heller, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel] and Regina wide receiver Jordan Sisco signed with the Indianapolis Colts [Ian Hamilton, Regina Leader-Post].
This does seem to represent a significant change. CIS players like Israel Idonije and Dan Federkeil have headed straight to the NFL out of CIS schools before, but most of the Canadians in the NFL have come from American schools, like Nate Burleson. Having so many players from CIS schools sign with NFL clubs is certainly surprising, especially when several of those players weren't even ranked among the top CFL prospects [Kirk Penton, Toronto Sun].
Christine Rivet of the Waterloo Record had an interesting piece on this, interviewing New York Jets' scout Brock Sunderland, a former director of scouting for the Montreal Alouettes. Sunderland said the gap between CIS-trained and NCAA-trained players is closing, and the fourth-round selection of Western defensive end Vaughn Martin by San Diego last year has convinced more NFL teams to take CIS football seriously.
"I think the Vaughn Martin thing really opened up the eyes to the CIS athlete – that maybe this might be a real opportunity more than just a (fantasy)," Sunderland said. "It opens up the belief it can happen."
What's also interesting about this is that NFL teams are looking at CIS wide receivers and linebackers. Previously, many of the CIS guys taken have been offensive linemen, and some have made the argument that those guys have been seen as projects, chosen based on physical attributes and in spite of the quality of their competition, rather than because of it. Physical attributes are obviously important at receiver and linebacker too, but the amount of guys heading south and the diversity in their positions suggests to me that NFL teams are developing more of a respect for the quality of play in CIS.
The loser in all of this may be the CFL, though. The CFL draft has always been difficult because you have to balance a player's talent against the likelihood that they'll suit up for you; as Masters pointed out in this piece, the more talented players obviously have a higher risk of sticking around in the NFL. Sometimes, top talents will bounce around the NFL for a year or two before heading back north, like Jamall Lee; in other cases, they'll make their reputation up north and then head to the NFL, like Ricky Foley. In other cases, high CFL draft picks like Samuel Giguere, Federkeil and Idonije stick in the NFL and never see the field up north.
It's a delicate balancing act, and we won't be able to properly evaluate it for a few years, but it's important to keep in mind that most of these players went pretty high in this year's CFL draft. The big loser could be the Montreal Alouettes, who used their first two picks on Matte (seventh overall) and Ihekwoaba (14th overall). However, the reigning Grey Cup champions have less immediate needs than other teams and may be able to afford to wait a few years in hopes that those guys will come up north. The Toronto Argonauts have more immediate problems; they traded down from first overall to third, passing on Williams and picking Greenwood, who now seems unlikely to suit up for them next year. They also chose Reinders 26th overall, which seems like reasonable value given that he was rated as the 11th-best prospect by the CFL's scouting bureau, but that could hurt them if he sticks in the NFL. Sisco went eighth overall to Saskatchewan, and the Riders can probably afford to wait for him, given the depth of their Canadian receiving corps. Gore went 10th overall to B.C., and that may hurt more, as the Lions could use some more Canadian pass-catching talent. The eventual effects of this trend on the CFL can't be fully analyzed until we see where these players wind up in a few years, though.
In the end, this seems to me to be a bit of a reflection on how CIS football is changing. I wrote about the effects of increased athletic scholarships and national recruiting a while back, and this may tie into that. There's more competition than ever to attract recruits, and many schools have looked to do that by improving their athletic facilities, adding full-time coaches and offering more advanced strength and conditioning programs. We've also seen a rise in out-of-conference exhibition games among the bigger programs, which has helped to increase their national profiles. More CIS schools seem to be taking football seriously, and high-school recruits, CFL scouts and NFL scouts are all noticing that. To me, that's a good thing.
[Cross-posted to Sporting Madness]