March 24, 2023

First & 10: Combine Update

EDMONTON, ON - MARCH 21: Players participate in the 2023 CFL Combine at the Commonwealth Field House on Thursday, March 23 at Commonwealth Field House in Edmonton, Alberta.

It’s not complicated, nor have the Winnipeg Blue Bombers concocted some sort of magic potion or secret sauce when it comes to identifying and then drafting Canadian prospects.

They study film. They do some exhaustive homework and background checks. And when they conduct the one-on-one interviews during this week’s CFL Draft Combine in Edmonton, there is but one overriding goal: discover which players have a passion for the game.

And one more thing… no turds allowed.

“It’s just the way we’ve built this thing,” Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters told earlier this week. “We’ve just got such a good group of guys in our locker room who are all pulling in the same direction. That’s important from an evaluation standpoint.

“You’ll see it with the Americans coming up in training camp where we don’t have quite as good background information on them. But after a week or 10 days the guys that just don’t fit in tend to go to the bottom of the depth chart – regardless sometimes of the on-field stuff.”

The last few days at the CFL Combine and the remaining events through the weekend have given Blue Bombers brass assembled in Edmonton – Walters, along with head coach Mike O’Shea, Assistant GM/Director of Player Personnel Ted Goveia and offensive line coach Marty Costello – ample opportunity to study some of this country’s top prospects up close and personal on and off the field.

The interview process where each team is given a 13-minute window to chat with any prospect they chose, remains one of the most fascinating aspects of the week. Some teams are intent on making the session more an interrogation than an interview and there are still stories – now folklore at the Combine – of teams adding odd wrinkles. A few years back, for example, the Ottawa RedBlacks placed a box of donuts at the door of their interview room, offered each prospect to grab one and then quizzed them on their choice.

The Blue Bombers approach is much simpler – and it falls completely in line with their overall ‘FIFO’ concept.

“Really, it’s just about finding out whether they are good dudes,” Walters said. “Can we just sit in a room and chat about football? The way our roster has developed, they have to be able to sit in that locker room and fit in.

“We want the guys to come into the interview and then we can just get to know them a bit in that short amount of time and then say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good young man. That’s a good dude. He’ll fit into our locker room and get along just fine with what we’re doing. That’s as big now as much as anything we try to pull out of these 13 minutes.

“We obviously gather as much information as we can. And then, honestly, a lot of it is about finding out whether they love the game and do they have a passion for football.”

More on the Blue Bombers and this week’s CFL Combine in our latest edition of 1st & 10…

1. Every CFL prospect attending the Combine was asked to fill in a questionnaire that includes basic information along with a variety of questions, including:

‘What’s your fondest U Sports/NCAA football memory?’

‘What CFL player has inspired you to become a professional football player and why?

‘What, if any, obstacles have you overcome in your life as a football player?’

‘If you weren’t playing football, you would want to…’

We asked Walters which player interviews he remembers the most in his nine years prepping for the draft as the Blue Bombers GM. Three names jumped out for him.

“Sukh Chungh (2015, 2nd overall) was one from our early days,” he said. “The passion he had when talked about football and the intensity and his love for the game really jumped out. That’s one we always reference… ‘Are they coming across like Sukh did?’ because it was pretty evident he loved football and was intense. Plus, the way he played on the field with the intensity he had and the violence he brought certainly matched his personality.

“Tyrell Ford (2022, 13th overall) was a good one. He was quiet and softspoken. He was smart and confident in himself without being cocky and he played like that and developed as the year went on and played like that.

“And Shayne Gauthier (2016, 28th overall) was a guy who left his small town because it didn’t have football to find a place that did. He was living with family or friends – I can’t remember exactly because it was so long ago – but he loved football so much he left home to play.”

2. Tis the season for CFL mock drafts and league pundits across the land making their best guesses as to who will go where in the draft. Nobody asked me, but my best guess is the Blue Bombers will focus on the defensive side of the ball in the May 2nd CFL Draft.

A couple of reasons on that: At defensive back, Ford signed a reserve/futures contract with the Green Bay Packers in January and will get a good look down south due to his testing numbers. Two Canadian defensive backs that were on the club last year – Malcolm Thompson and Patrice Rene – were released in December, while Noah Hallett is working back from a second knee injury in as many years.

The Canadian linebacking corps features a pair of solid Canadians in Jesse Briggs (32) and Gauthier (31) returning, along with Tanner Cadwallader (25), while the D-Line has just homegrown tackles Jake Thomas and Cam Lawson.

3. Related to the above…

Many CFL teams traditionally focus on O-line prospects, especially early in the draft, as clubs often start a minimum of three homegrowns up front. But the Blue Bombers are loaded with Canadian OL talent, even with the departure of Michael Couture to the B.C. Lions and Drew Desjarlais opting to sign with the RedBlacks following a stint in the NFL.

Returning are CFL All-Star guard Pat Neufeld, along with Geoff Gray, Chris Kolankowski, Liam Dobson and Tui Eli (who opted not to play in 2022 but is back).

As well, the club has asked Cole Adamson – a defensive tackle from the Manitoba Bisons drafted in the fourth round a year ago – to switch to the other side of the ball. That’s an interesting development, especially given the OL class is considered thin as some prospects have deferred their draft year until next season.

“He’s got the build and he’s carrying 295,” Walters said of Adamson. “We talked to him and said that for the longevity of his career we think this is a really good move to buy into. He’s going to give it a go and see what happens.”

4. The CFL Combine can be an interesting process for managers and coaches watching closely. The rankings of players can move up or down after testing and the on-field sessions, but teams occasionally need to double-back on prospects depending on what they see in person.

“We’ve done all the tape,” Walters explained. “The question sometimes is if a player tests off the charts and then you go watch the film and it’s, ‘hmmm.’ Sometimes you say, ‘Well, he’s got the numbers to play in the CFL, let’s go back and re-evaluate some of his film. Maybe we were a little hard on him or expecting a little bit more. That’s when you scratch your head and then circle back.

“You love it when the players you like on film meet the height, weight speed requirements and away you go. It’s the ones that don’t match up that you go back and look at again.”

5. One last note from Walters, and it came in his media availability Tuesday with O’Shea.

Walters was asking about the process of making an evaluation on a player based on everything – height, weight, speed, film, etc. – when he offered a funny dig/salute to Blue Bombers President & CEO Wade Miller.

“There is generally a height, weight and speed requirement that – with the exception of our president – most CFL players have met for their careers.”

Miller, FYI, was a fourth-round pick, 37th overall, by the Blue Bombers in 1995. He was listed as 5-9, 210 pounds in the club’s media guide that year and defied odds to be named the Blue Bombers Most Outstanding Canadian in 1999 and morph into one of the greatest special-teams players in league history.

6. O’Shea has always had a deep appreciation for Blue Bombers history and some of the legends of this franchise – including the iconic Bud Grant, who passed away earlier this month.

Interestingly, O’Shea may one day pass Grant as the winningest coach in Blue Bombers history – Grant left for the Minnesota Vikings in 1967 with 102 wins. Cal Murphy who, like Grant, is immortalized with a statue outside of IG Field, ranks second with 86 and O’Shea is third at 82.

O’Shea was asked earlier in the week about Grant and his brief dealings with the legend.

“As with a lot of people in life when they deal with someone that’s passed, there’s often regret,” O’Shea said. “I think mine would be I didn’t nearly tap into that resource as much as I should have. And when it’s gone – besides obviously the man and what that loss would mean to his family and two big football communities – it’s what a lost resource. He was just a brilliant leader, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I should have with him.”

7. FYI: The Blue Bombers, kicking situation, as expected will be one of the most-compelling storylines in training camp and on Saturday the club announced the signing of American placekicker Chandler Staton. Now, 24, Staton had a stint with Green Bay last year after going undrafted. He was a star at Appalachian State, where he connected on a stellar 20 of 21 of his field-goal attempts in 2021 — a school record —  while being named a First-team All-Sun Belt Conference, a Pro Football Network First-Team All-American and a semi-finalist for the Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. He left App State as the school’s career leader in points (464), field goals (64), and field-goal percentage (79.0)… Fist bump to our staff and players who continue to head out all over the province doing good things…

Congrats to Winnipeg Rifles receiver Luke McMillan – a prospect who got a lot of work last year while on the Blue Bombers practice roster – for taking his next step at Acadia University… Interesting to see former Blue Bombers kicker Justin Palardy still nailing field goals some eight years after his last game.

Palardy played for the club from 2010-13 before the arrival of Lirim Hajrullahu and still holds one of the best field goal percentages in club history – Justin Medlock – 85.5 (195 of 228), Palardy – 82.0 (114 of 139), Hajrullahu – 79.5 (62 of 78), Marc Legghio – 78.7 (37 of 47). Walters has indicated the club will have kickers in camp to challenge Legghio.

8. This week’s good reads from around the CFL.

Chris O’Leary of has a wonderful story on Japanese sumo wrestler/footballer Hidetora Hanada.

And an interesting take from TSN’s Dave Naylor on the challenges CFL teams are finding in signing players from the U.S. given the arrival of the XFL, USFL and expanded NFL practice rosters.

9. The Blue Bombers will hold their first free agent camp this weekend in Tampa, followed by sessions in Tulsa, Dallas and Atlanta in April. They can be important mining grounds for talent for the club with players like Brandon Alexander and Rasheed Bailey, for example, earning their way to the big club.

Assistant GM/Director of U.S. Scouting Danny McManus oversees most of the camps along with Goveia – currently in Edmonton at the CFL Combine. As McManus indicates here, the club is still looking to sign 35 players over the next few months.


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10. And, finally, if you haven’t yet had the chance Blue Bomber fans, take a peek at the stuff the team’s U.S. scout Cyril Penn and his ‘Tales from the Scouting Trail’ series. The latest is on prospect Abu Daramy-Swaray. Penn has been offering an inside look at life as a scout and will continue to be writing featuring on some of the prospects who will be in training camp in May.

His other features:

Finding the Hidden Gem

The Senior Bowl

The Hula Bowl