March 20, 2024

CFL Combine FYI

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.

There can be a certain element of information overload at every Canadian Football League National Combine.

The nine teams gathered here in Winnipeg this week to evaluate some of the best national and global talent for next month’s CFL and Global Drafts will be culling together snippets on every prospect, from height, and weight, to 40-yard times, vertical jumps, and one-on-one interviews.

And by the time the CFL Draft goes on April 30th, executives from across the league will know more about these prospects than some of the players already on their roster. That’s by design, of course, because there is an investment here that can determine the future of the player and, by association, the teams, coaches and GMs who select these prospects.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea met with the media via Zoom earlier this week and then each sat down with to help provide a bit of a teaser to the club’s approach heading into Thursday’s testing, followed by the on-field practices and skill sessions that run Friday through Sunday at the Winnipeg Soccer Federation North complex.

Here, then, is our CFL Combine FYI…

All eyes on deck…

The Blue Bombers will have seven football staff involved in the event, with Walters and O’Shea joined by assistant GM Ted Goveia, offensive coordinator Buck Pierce, offensive line coach Marty Costello and Director of Football Operations Matt Gulakow.

The larger Blue Bombers staff present – mostly because of the event being held here in Winnipeg – does allow Walters, O’Shea and Goveia to focus their attention on more talent or, on occasion, fixate on one particular position group knowing they have lots of help in their evaluation.

“Marty (Costello) will be running the O-line here, so I don’t know that I need to spend a ton of time watching the O-line – I’ll let the expert handle that,” said O’Shea. “He’ll have intimate knowledge from their meeting time and drill work. I’m not saying I’m not going to watch the O-line, but that might be a little redundant in terms of our time. It’s really good to have two sets of eyes on something so that you can compare notes.”

The Combine features 80+ national and global prospects and studying all of them in a short window is a near impossibility. Again, more hands on deck certainly can’t hurt.

“We’ve scaled it down. There are 100 people or so and that’s a lot of dudes running around,” said Walters. “We’ve done quite a bit of prep work coming in already to focus on the upper guys on each position. We’ll focus our attention on that.

“The reality of the CFL draft is you want to hit on your picks, particularly the early ones. We’ve got three picks in the Top 20. We’re thinking in blocks – so, this year it’s, ‘All right, who are our Top 20 guys?’ That’s most important for us right now, knowing that we’re going to get three guys from our Top 20. Then we’ll look at the next group – is it a developmental guy that may go back to school? Is there somebody with special teams film that just pops that we think can be a specialist?’

“My focus right now is on that top group we’ve identified to this point. From that we’ll hammer out who we like the best for when we put our Top 20 together.”

What positions might the Blue Bombers be studying most?

The club starts three Canadians on the interior of their offensive line in centre Chris Kolankowski, right guard Pat Neufeld and with either Tui Eli or Liam Dobson pegged to replace Geoff Gray – an unsigned free agent – at left guard. Kolankowski is 32 years old; Neufeld is 35 and that’s a factor, too.

Worth noting: the Blue Bombers did not select an offensive lineman in either the 2022 or 2023 draft and this year’s class is said to be deep at that position.

“The draft the last couple of years have not been O-line deep,” said Walters. “Everybody can always use a good young Canadian offensive lineman in their building. This year’s draft has just that much more opportunity for those players to go.”

The retirement of Miller – he’s now the special-teams coordinator – and the release of Damian Jackson last month also means the team does not have a fullback on their roster. That said, it’s not necessarily an urgent area of need. The Blue Bombers often use a sixth offensive lineman in short-yardage situations and could also feature a bigger-bodied receiver in fullback-type sets, too, if need be.

“I would believe that as a group – Buck and his group but also JY (Jordan Younger, defensive coordinator) and the defensive staff – they’re always able to fit the pieces together. Do you ‘need’ a fullback? I don’t know. Would you like one? Sure,” said O’Shea.

“We all have our philosophies on that,” added Walters. “If you dress a seventh O-lineman, is he athletic enough to handle that? Sure. Can a bigger receiver do that? Maybe. You don’t need to reach for a fullback that’s going to play eight snaps a game.

“But we obviously don’t have one on our roster and Marty and Buck would sure like to have one. We won’t just grab one at No. 8 (Winnipeg’s pick in the first round) because we don’t have one on the roster. It’s certainly a position group we’ll watch and there are some interesting guys here, two or three fullbacks here and a couple bigger tailbacks we’ve identified.”

Gathering intel…

Thursday’s events feature the bench press and vertical jump at the Fort Garry Hotel, followed by the 40-yard dash, 3-cone and short shuttle and broad jump.

The CFL’s website breaks down the basics of each drill here and key for the Blue Bombers – and all CFL teams – is weighing the results from this Combine to what they’ve seen from game film.

“Hopefully by the time the draft rolls around we have enough of these touches, these data points, that tell you who a guy really is,” said O’Shea. “It’s not based on just one moment in time. I hope I do a good job of helping these guys relax. They’re prepared, they just have to relax and do it.

“There has to be a certain standard of athleticism in order to step on this field with these pros. If you want to block Adam Bighill, you’ve got to be a certain type of athlete. There are obviously lots of intangibles too that you have to take into account. Hopefully we get enough of a picture by the time the draft rolls around. I’m sure we will. There’s tons of film. There’s talking to coaches and teammates. There’s interviewing the players, there’s watching them when they’re not competing. There’s all sorts of information you’re collecting that helps you make a good decision.

“The process after this Combine, after you’ve gathered the information and watched then you go back to the idea of ‘OK, how do we do the draft? Is it best available? Is it position of need?’ That can change from year to year. It’s always nice if the best available is a position of need. That would be awesome, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

How to stand out

There are a lot for prospects to deal with here, from the stress of testing and the interviews, to their every step being evaluated on the field. In any one moment a player could do something that helps him stand out to the evaluators.

“It could be anything,” Walters explained. “The easiest one for the skill position guys would be to test like crazy. Go run a 4.4, have a 40-inch vert, a 10-foot broad… if somebody does that, they get a ‘Whoa, that is an elite athlete.’ That gets someone noticed.

“In the interviews, certain teams are looking for certain things. For us it’s, ‘That’s a good dude. That’s an awesome guy we’d like to have on our team.’ It’s important, but if he doesn’t test very well and his film’s not very good, then whether he’s an awesome guy isn’t going to matter. Conversely, if a guy tests really well but we think he’s an a—hole, we probably won’t draft him because he’s just not our kind of guy. And a big one once the pads come on is do they compete? Do they just figure out a way to win? That’s what makes this so fun – players can jump out at any of these areas to get themselves noticed, which we hope they do.”

Following the Combine…

Again, these next few days are about information gathering. Then the rankings begin in full after this as the Blue Bombers loop in more of their position coaches and coordinators to weigh in on specific prospects.

Winnipeg has picks in each of the eight rounds in the draft, plus a bonus pick (20th overall) as one of the two teams – along with B.C. – to lead the league in national snaps and an extra fifth-round selection (40th overall) acquired in the trade that sent Dru Brown to Ottawa in January before he hit the free agent market.

“We’ll take a deep breath after this and then put it all together with all the film and all the reports and testing numbers,” Walters explained. “We’ll get the coaches involved.

“It’s an overwhelming amount of information that goes into that final draft ranking and then you just trust our process. We’ve been doing this awhile and we trust what we come up with at the end.”