They’ve watched enough film to make their eyeballs bleed. They’ve travelled across North America to watch countless games and practices in front of capacity crowds and near-empty stadiums.
And in the last week – and the days ahead – the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football brain trust will get another up-close-and-personal look at some of the top Canadian Football League draft prospects.
In the last in a series, the league will hold a Western Regional Combine and then a National Combine for some, not all, of the top 2017 draft-eligible players at Evraz Place in Regina next weekend as part of CFL Week.
The Bombers hold the first and sixth-overall picks – including four in the top 23 and seven in total – providing an opportunity to further stock their Canadian content. With all that in mind, bluebombers.com sat down recently with GM Kyle Walters and fired some draft/combine related questions his way.
Q: How does having the first-overall selection change your approach to the draft?
Walters: “It’s nice to know we can do whatever we want. Often the first-overall pick comes with the question, ‘Is the kid going to show up?’ That’s always the struggle in our league. But at least with the first pick we know we don’t have to rely or wait on anyone else’s thought process. We can get whatever guy we want.”
Q: What does having two picks in the first round do to your draft plans?
Walters: “It allows you to have a little bit of strategy. We haven’t gone through this with a one and a six (first and sixth-overall picks). Obviously, it’s a good thing and I predict as we get closer teams will want to start talking trades, particularly with the new regimes in Montreal and Toronto and those teams not having first-round draft picks. B.C. has got two first-rounders (picks) as well.
“There are talks every year, it’s just a matter of whether it comes together or not. We’ll sit and listen. That stuff won’t likely come until draft night.”
Q: Does having two first-round picks mean you might be more tempted to take a ‘futures’ player, i.e. a guy who may be drafted in the NFL or gets an invitation to an NFL camp?
Walters: “We wouldn’t plan on taking a futures. But Andy Mulumba (drafted second overall by the Bombers in 2013 but signed as an undrafted free agent by the Green Bay Packers and in the NFL since) was an interesting one. The thought was he wasn’t going to stick in the NFL for that long. (The Packers) have a rash of injuries at his position and he sticks around… that’s all it takes.
“That makes things hard to predict. You can do all your research… that’s the tough part of our draft. Not only are you evaluating whether they are good enough to play in our league, you are also then evaluating whether they are going to come, what their interest is, and when are you going to see them.
“You see it all the time where you draft a kid and he never plays a down for you.”
Q: Have you got it in your mind who the club will take with the first-overall pick yet?
Walters: “No. We’ve done a lot of legwork, but we’ve got a lot more to go. We’ll get the coaches involved after the combines and evaluation camps to come in and look at the Top 5 at each position. They’ll come in and give their two cents on the top guys.”
Q: Have you got your mind made up on what position you might draft at No. 1, then?
Walters: “No, again. Not even close. We’re in the position with our roster where we’re pretty solid from a Canadian standpoint. We’re not at the point where we are saying ‘We have to draft at this position because we need this player to play.’ It’s, ‘let’s find the best football player.’
“Obviously, like every team, we need some depth across the board. You always need O-line depth, receiver depth, we’ve got three Canadian running backs. On the D-line we’ve got a lot of (Canadian) guys, but not a lot of proven guys. We’ve got a good core of special teams guys and are a little thin at the back end (secondary).
“But I like all of our top-end guys.”
Q: The Bomber staff now heads into the final two combines this coming week. How much stock do you put into the testing and the drills at the combine vs. what you’ve seen on film?
Walters: “A lot. This is not like the NFL where you’ve got a regional scout going to every SEC game played in a whole season for four years or something like that. It’s not like that in CFL. You’re on the road and you get out and see the kids when you can, but the reality is the combines in our league are far more important than in the NFL.
“It’s tons of work. It starts throughout the CIS season when you’re at games and making notes. Since December I’ve been plugging away at this. It takes a helluva lot of time watching three-four games each of 120 players or so. It’s about digging up as much information as you can; the scouts are digging up information.
“You have the month of April to take a deep breath, dig up medical records of the kids you like. Then you gauge the NFL interest before making our final draft rankings. We’ll talk weekly about final grades and master grades and things like that. All of this is part of that.”
Q: What do you learn, or what do you want to find out from the individual one-on-one meetings you have with prospects at the combine?
Walters: “It’s all part of the big picture and that’s a piece in the puzzle. You watch their film and have a debate based on their film work. You talk to coaches at that end, you see them at pro days or at combines and you add that in. And then you have the interview process. It’s all part of the decision you make as to their final grade.
“We want to interview, obviously, the guys we are interested in or don’t know a lot about. We know the CIS guys, but not as much the players from Henderson State (defensive back Dondre Wright) or Fordham (defensive lineman Justin Vaughn), or Idaho (offensive lineman Mason Woods).
“You want to see if the kid loves football. (Head coach) Mike (O’Shea) and I are the same way on that. We want to know, does this kid have a passion for playing football? You go over their academic situation… are they going back to school? We ask, ‘If you get drafted would you stay on the practice roster or not?’ You get that taken care of and then you ask what they know about Winnipeg or about living away from home.
“You only get 15 minutes so with each of them and so you want to find out quickly if he loves the game or if he’s a ‘Meh, I could take it or leave it.’ We want the guys who love, who breathe, who sleep and eat football, who want to play football whether it’s in Vancouver, Montreal or any place in between.
“I remember Sukh (Chungh’s) interview. We knew he was a tough kid. And then when we put some film on, his eyes lit up. It was – BOOM! – he loved talking football. For us that’s the most important thing. We don’t need to go too deep into the psychological thing.”
Q: What are the most important tests for you at the combines, or are they all relatively the same?
Walters: “When I go to these things I just sit at the long-jump pit because no one else is there. I just like to look at the kids, say hello and put a name to a face. Everyone’s watching the 40s or the bench press, but you get all the scores and results provided to you. I’ll see every kid pass through that station. I’m not overly concerned about the test results.
“There’s still got to be a base of athleticism. The tough ones are when you really love a kid and he works hard, but he’s a little undersized. It’s like a DB who is 5-10 and runs a 4.9. You may like him but he’s a long, long, long shot strictly based on his physical attributes, not with anything you see on film.
“We all have our strengths for something like the combine. (Assistant GM/Director of Player Personnel) Ted (Goveia), for example, is more about the quantifiable data and the scouting end. That’s his voice. Ted and (National Scout) Craig (Smith) are the scouting minds and they help keep us in check.
“The one-on-ones are revealing from a competition standpoint. But the defensive backs vs. receivers battles are biased toward one position group (receivers). Most of all, we want to see who’s tough and willing to compete.
“A lot of that stuff comes down to this: in the scouting report you may write ‘I like him as a football player; let’s see how he looks in person.’ If the testing results are adequate and you really like how the kid competes on the field then you factor that in.
“You’re also going to see guys who don’t look good on film, maybe they look lazy or don’t execute well but man do they look the part in person.”