It has been quite the off-season for some of Canada's top university football players.
Six have signed free-agent deals with NFL clubs, the two latest being Concordia linebacker Cory Greenwood (Kansas City Chiefs) and Regina receiver Jordan Sisco (Indianapolis Colts). They join offensive linemen Joel Reinders of Waterloo (Cleveland Browns) and Kristian Matte of Concordia (Houston Texans), Bishop's receiver Shawn Gore (Green Bay Packers) and Laurier defensive lineman Chima Ihekwoaba (Detroit Lions).
It's not uncommon for Canadian university stars to garner NFL contracts, although traditionally only a few sign deals. While the number of players to do so this year is surprising, Toronto Argonauts head coach Jim Barker says it reflects well on the calibre of play in Canadian University Sport.
"No question," said Barker, whose team owns the CFL rights to both Reinders and Greenwood after drafting them earlier this month. "It's a great thing for the CIS."
Cal Murphy, the former longtime CFL head coach and executive who is now a scout with the Indianapolis Colts, agrees.
"I think (CIS football) has improved tremendously," he said. "If you look at Quebec, I think there are more kids playing than ever before and I think you're getting that all across the country.
"You're getting a lot more players who want to play and will put the work in to do it."
The Argos made sure rookie offensive tackle Joe Eppele will attend training camp. The club signed the six-foot-eight, 309-pound Eppele, the second player taken in this year's draft, to a CFL deal Tuesday.
Reinders signed with Cleveland shortly after last month's NFL draft so Barker knew he'd have to wait for the six-foot-eight, 320-pound Reinders when he selected him in the fourth round of the CFL's Canadian college draft. But Barker admitted he was surprised to learn Greenwood -- whom the Argos selected third overall -- signed with Kansas City less than a month before the start of CFL training camps.
"Would we have liked to have Cory in and started to develop him as a pro football player? Of course," Barker said. "But I also understand anything can happen.
"Cory is good athlete and that's the nature of what we're dealing with these days. This is all a business about opportunity, about being in the right place at the right time and good for him."
For Ihekwoaba, the opportunity is showing what Canadian-born football players are capable of.
"Not only is it easier now for Canadian players to make it in the NFL, but it makes you more motivated," Ihekwoaba told the Detroit News. "Some guys opened up the door for us.
"I just want to come in and kick it down. We're just trying to show that up in Canada we can play football, too."
Money is also a huge motivator.
The NFL's minimum salary this year is US$325,000 and practice-roster players usually earn between $70,000 and $90,000. Compare that to a CFL first-round pick, who can expect a signing bonus between $5,000 and $10,000 and a salary around $45,000, depending on where he was selected.
The Colts have been one NFL team that hasn't shied away from signing Canadian university players, no coincidence considering Murphy's Canadian connection. In 2006, they signed Calgary defensive lineman Dan Federkeil and converted him into an offensive lineman. Federkeil spent four seasons in Indianapolis -- earning a Super Bowl ring -- before the club opted against signing him after the '09 campaign.
Indianapolis also signed Sherbrooke receiver Sam Giguere as an undrafted free agent two years ago, keeping him on their practice roster both seasons.
"The Colts want to hit the bushes," Murphy said. "That's one of the great advantages."
While having six Canadian players heading south is a feather in the CIS's cap, it's not good news for the CFL teams that draft them. Toronto and Montreal could potentially be the hardest hit with two draftees each having signed NFL deals -- the Als also drafted Matte and Ihekwoaba. The Saskatchewan Roughriders own Sisco's CFL rights while the B.C. Lions took Gore in the second round.
Ideally, CFL teams want their rookies to have the benefit of a full training camp to not only learn their schemes but also adjust quickly to the demands of pro football. With CFL camps being roughly three weeks long -- which is about half the length of those in the NFL -- first-year players literally face having to learn everything on the fly.
Often signing an NFL contract is a calculated gamble for a CIS player.
Many sign NFL deals with little to no money up front, meaning they must either make the active roster or practice squad to collect a paycheque. High CFL draft picks who miss camp and half the regular season while with an NFL squad risk losing more than $30,000 in bonus and game cheques as well as living allowances, money they never recover upon their return to Canada.
NFL training camps begin in July and run through late August so Canadians who go to the main camps and are released aren't likely to join their CFL teams near or at the midway point of the season in Canada. By then, the player has so much lost time to make up for that his contribution to the CFL squad is very limited. Essentially, his rookie season is a lost one.
"There are pros and cons to it. But the way I look at it is if the kid goes down (to NFL) and even makes the practice squad he's going to get more money.
"And he always has a chance of getting on the active roster . . . and earn a real paycheque."
Then again, there are no guarantees a CIS star signed by an NFL team will even make it to training camp. For example, Greenwood joined the Chiefs after the squad dropped another player from its roster.
This is the time of year NFL squads are constantly tinkering with their roster, releasing players to make room for signed draft picks, veterans who sign their free-agent tender offers or individuals picked up off waivers from other clubs.
But for Greenwood, it's a risk worth taking.
"I feel pretty lucky to get this opportunity this late in the free agent game," he said. "It's a shot at the NFL and how can you pass it up?
"I can lay everything out on the line here, and know that I'm going to be playing professional football, it's just a matter of in what country."