Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A conversation with Kent Ridley on the 2011 CFL draft

With the 2011 CFL draft coming up this Sunday (12:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN), there's plenty of discussion around as to who's going to be selected where. Will Rice tackle Scott Mitchell's top ranking in the latest CFL list lead to Winnipeg taking him first overall, or will they go for a CIS player like Calgary slotback Anthony Parker (pictured above stiff-arming Queen's linebacker Chris Smith during the 2009 Vanier Cup) or St. FX linebacker Henoc Muamba? Will there be first-round trades? How will teams balance the potential of NCAA underclassmen with the chances of losing them to the NFL the way the B.C. Lions lost Danny Watkins this year? Where will Western's Vaughn Martin, currently with the NFL's San Diego Chargers, be drafted? Will anyone take Western linebacker and documentary superstar John Surla? One of the best resources for making sense of the draft is Ridley Scouting's 2011 Draft Guide. For some information on what's going on with this year's version and what this year's draft crop looks like, I spoke to head scout Kent Ridley, who's previously filled us in on the CIS/NCAA divide, scouting and recruiting. Here's what he had to say:

A.B.: How long have you been doing the Draft Guide for? Why'd you decide to take this on?

K.R.: This is our second crack at it. Last year took it on and this year we took it to the next level, from 13 pages to 53.. As to why, well, it's just a result of a serious lack of information out there. Every spring we all look forward to the articles from Duane Forde, but the rest of the media tends to leave the draft alone until we get to May.

A.B.: How much time did it take to pull this year's edition together? What was the toughest part?

K.R.: I like to joke that what you see is the result of 200 hours. It is a big project and trying to gather information on several hundred players before cutting it down to the top 100 takes a lot of time. The toughest aspect was putting together the career stats. Schools report things in very different ways.

A.B.: What do you think of this year's crop of draft prospects in general: strong or weak, top-heavy or deep?

K.R.: The strength is there if you look for it. I guess you could call it position strong, but overall, it's more like a slightly above average draft class. It's perhaps not the deepest draft we've had recently, but I think you could put together a really strong team out of the players available.

A.B.: Are any positions particularly strong this year? Any particularly weak?

K.R.: Kickers are very strong with [Laval's] Chris Milo, [Alberta's] Hugh O'Neill and [Montana's] Brody McKnight all solid placekickers; there's also [Adrian College's] Kevin Allaer as a directional punter out of the NCAA Division III. The running backs drop off after [Calgary's] Matt Walter, but that's not to say we can't get a couple of solid fullbacks/blocking backs out of this class. The receivers are particularly interesting to me and include some good stories; take [Saskatchewan's] Jade Etienne. He had a great season last year, but I'm not sure if he has the overall production that will place him high in the draft. On the other hand, [Harvard's] Marco Iannuzzi doesn't have a lot of overall production either, but his skill as a kick returner could put him in demand. [Concordia's] Liam Mahoney is a great story with a CIS career playing three positions.

A.B.: Something that struck me as interesting with this year's draft is the three top prospects from the University of Calgary (Walter, Parker and Nathan Coehoorn), all players you rank pretty highly. Have you ever seen this kind of talent come out of one school in a draft year? Any thoughts on what Calgary's doing right from a recruiting or talent-development perspective?

K.R.: Just the other day I was looking at the draft from 1986 in which Simon Fraser had 10 players picked (8 round draft with 9 teams - 72 picks, Calgary also had 8 picked that year too). The two more recent examples include 2005, where Laval had 5 players taken in the first 17 picks, and 2000, where UBC had players go first and second overall.

A.B.: As you remark in the guide, quarterback is "the most controversial position in the CFL". Do you think any quarterbacks in this year's crop are worth drafting? Are Canadian quarterbacks getting better? Is there still more that has to be done before we see them catching on at the CFL level?

K.R.: [Ottawa's] Brad Sinopoli should be taken, likely a 3rd or 4th round selection, and there is potential for [Regina's] Marc Mueller to also be taken. Between the CIS running more pro-tyle offenses and the CFL creating their QB intern program, you will see the growth there. What will really be a telltale sign will show up with the 2013 Draft when there are a trio of Canadians playing QB in the NCAA.

A.B.: Speaking of Canadian talent in general, it seems that a lot of Canadian guys are still drafted/used for their special-teams abilities and then as fullbacks or third or fourth receivers instead of featured skill-position guys. Is that a function of talent or training relative to Americans? Do you think that's changing, or are Canadian draft picks still generally limited to certain roles?

K.R.: The major difference as I see it is just with the football mentality that is so different from Canada to the US. It's the reverse of the hockey mentality we carry. The Americans just play more games which leads to more practicing, game planning and generally speaking more time on the field. Going down to Mobile, Alabama and seeing them tailgate for three full days before a college All Star Game (Senior Bowl) really solidifies that. Our schools don't tailgate three hours before a game, let alone drive the RVs into the parking lot a full 90 hours before a game.

A.B.: What's the NCAA/CIS divide looking like for this draft as compared to previous ones? How have the numbers of prospects from each league changed, and what about the numbers of top prospects?

K.R.: We've really watched the CIS count go up in recent years. I would expect to see roughly 32 to 34 CIS players get drafted.

A.B.: You talk about a few theories of drafting in the guide, including team need, best player available and team overall value drafting. Any thoughts on what strategies most CFL teams are most likely to use this year? Are they shifting more to one approach?

K.R.: It will be a mix for most teams throughout the draft. For being a short six-round draft, there are a lot of unique situations that come into play. I expect to see the top five picks to be best player available, followed by a serious section of picks based on team need and finishing the draft with value picks to gain depth.

A.B.: What's the overall state of the draft? Is it becoming more important for teams, or is it still a small part of the offseason?

K.R.: Every team approaches the draft in a different way, but where the draft is really gaining strength is with the fans. I don't feel that the fans are happy to just shut down on a cold afternoon in November and then leave their football love dormant until things get rolling in May or June anymore. They want details, answers, and the chance to speculate during the break. The success the NFL is having with their Path to the Draft shows will eventually roll over into the CFL too. On the other hand as the fans become more knowledgeable the teams will be held accountable a little more for drafting guys that don't perform well at camp, or retire to take a desk job in their field of study. It's not the old days of drafting a dead guy.

Ridley Scouting's 2011 draft guide is available as an instant download in PDF form for just $4.99. Check it out here. You can also follow Kent on Twitter.

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