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Naylor: Issues with losing the best Canadian talent to NFL

Dave Naylor
4/27/2012 2:25:54 PM
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There's a long tradition of Canadian Football League coaches and general managers bemoaning the lack of quality Canadians to fill out their rosters, a complaint that grows louder each season as injuries mount.

Which is why, despite its relative lack of star power, the upcoming CFL Draft (Thursday at 3pm et/Noon pt on TSN and TSN.ca) is such a critical part of building a winner in three-down football.

But these days, CFL teams must deal with something which their predecessors a generation ago rarely, if ever, had to be concerned about: losing the best Canadian talent to the National Football League.

Back when the Edmonton Eskimos were in the midst of their Grey Cup dynasty in the last 1970s, there was one Canadian – Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Roy Gerela – playing in the NFL. Among those who'd played high school football in Canada there were none; Gerela had played his in Hawaii before moving on to New Mexico State.

Which means that Gerela aside, all of the very best Canadian football players played in the CFL.

Period.

Compare that to today where, after the drafting of Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford (Windsor, ON) and Baylor centre Philip Blake (Toronto) there are likely to be at least 15 Canadians on NFL active and practice rosters by the start of the 2012 season, and possibly more.

That's like removing an entire team of elite Canadian players from the CFL and asking teams to backfill with marginal prospects who need years of development to become pro-ready.

There are several reasons why Canadians in the NFL are no longer such a rarity.

Until the mid-1980s, the salary disparity between the CFL and NFL was often insignificant. And in fact, because of the value of homegrown talent to CFL teams, Canadian players could often make more money starting in the CFL than they could as backups in the NFL (By comparison, the NFL rookie minimum salary today is $390,000 and even players on NFL practice rosters take home $97,000, far more than any Canadian CFL rookie will make).

But the degree of Canadian talent and the chance to make far more money in the NFL means that for two consecutive seasons, the outstanding Canadian in the CFL – Andy Fantuz a year ago and Jerome Messam this season – has signed in the NFL (Fantuz was cut after a short stay with Chicago, returned to Saskatchewan, and recently signed a free agent contract with Hamilton).

Another factor is that a lot of young Canadians grow up these days focused on making the NFL, going to great lengths to close the gap between themselves and young American players, with extra coaching and training, playing summer-league football or attending camps south of the border.

And then there's technology. A generation ago, a Canadian university player would have to be spectacular to attract the attention of NFL scouts. But today, with physical testing stats and video available everywhere via the internet, teams south of the border have a quick way to investigate Canadian prospects without ever leaving home.

NFL scouts aren't allowed to attend the CFL's Evaluation Camp where the best Canadian university players parade their talents. But they can all check out the results via the web.

Which is part of why there were a record six Canadian university players who signed NFL contracts in 2010.

The challenges this presents for CFL teams at this time of year are well documented. GM's are leery of wasting draft picks on players whose opportunities to make it in the NFL mean they may never play professionally in Canada (Danny Watkins, O.J. Atogwe, Israel Idonije and Nick Kaczur were all high draft picks of CFL teams that went to waste).

But it's a problem that only figures to get worse for CFL teams in the future, thanks to a small but significant change the NFL passed on Monday when it expanded its off-season rosters from 80 to 90 players per team.

While the size of NFL rosters remains the same (teams can carry 53 players and dress 45 on game days), there are now 320 more opportunities for players to sign south of the border.

That's likely to have a significant effect on players from the Canadian university level who sometimes have the physical assets to play in the NFL but lack the training and development to compete at that level right away. With 10 more invitations for training camp, teams can afford to take a flyer on those kinds of players.

Which means that trying to determine which Canadians will end up in the NFL just got a little bit tougher for CFL teams. And the chances they will have to wait on a particular draft pick for a minimum of 1-3 years just increased.

The growing number of Canadians earning a living in the NFL isn't a bad thing for Canadian football in general and certainly not for Canadian players who seek the kind of financial compensation available only in the NFL.

And it's something worth keeping in mind the next time you hear how hard it is in the CFL to find good Canadians.



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