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Burke Report: Why the Senior Bowl is important for CFL scouts, too

The CFL draft process is significantly different than the NFL draft, but as Chris Burke explains, that doesn't deter CFL scouts from attending the Senior Bowl to check out the players who may be on their radar in a few years.

MOBILE, Ala. — So you think the NFL draft process feels endless? Just imagine what the myriad CFL scouts and coaches who attend the Senior Bowl go through when scouting those players.

Not one of the players competing in Mobile is eligible for the 2016 CFL draft—a prospect must attend a Canadian college or have been born in Canada. So, the week’s representation from north of the border mostly was playing the long con when it came to sizing up potential prospects.

“We usually don’t get to see these guys for five years, if that,” said Hamilton Tiger Cats running back coach and former CFL player Corey Grant (not to be confused with the Jaguars’ RB of the same name). “They wait to see what happens with the NFL. But you never know.”

Last year, at least, there was a little more vested and immediate CFL interest, due to the participation of Yale running back Tyler Varga, who’s a Kitchener, Ontario native. After Varga went undrafted in the 2015 NFL draft, the Calgary Stampeders selected him atop Round 3 of the CFL’s event.

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But therein lies an example of why things can get tricky for a CFL front office: Varga opted to take part in training camp with the Colts and eventually won a spot on the roster, before landing on injured reserve. Calgary owns his CFL rights should he ever opt for that route, though it doesn’t look like it will happen soon. And the Stampeders watched a similar story unfold in 2014, drafting Quebec native Laurent Duvernay-Tardif after the Chiefs had taken him in Round 6 of the NFL draft. Duvernay-Tardif now counts himself a starter in Kansas City, all but eliminating any chance he circles back to the CFL.

Three players off this year’s Shrine Game rosters could pull the NFL-CFL double dip, as well: Calgary offensive lineman Sean McEwen, Laval offensive lineman Charles Vaillancourt and Manitoba DT Daniel Onyemata.

Vaillancourt landed at No. 6 on the CFL scouting bureau’s latest draft rankings, while Onyemata drew high marks for his Shrine Game showing. He “garnered a lot of attention for his play this week,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah wrote. “We’ve seen Canadian players vault up draft boards because of their performance at this game. He could be the next one.” Onyemata came in at No. 2 on the scouting bureau list, behind only Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith (hometown: Toronto).

It’s mostly a guessing game for CFL teams as they attempt to figure out which players would opt for their league over the NFL, given the choice. The odds have been a little better at quarterback.

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Southeastern Louisiana/Oregon product Bryan Bennett, a late add to the 2015 Senior Bowl roster, spent some time last year on Winnipeg’s practice squad. Meanwhile, two QBs off last year’s NFLPA Collegiate Bowl rosters—Rakeem Cato and Brandon Bridge—each wound up seeing time for the Montreal Alouettes as rookies. Cato, in fact, was among the CFL’s stars early in the season before injuries wreaked havoc.

This January, there has been some buzz about Oregon QB Vernon Adams’ CFL potential. He lit up the Shrine Game, throwing for 191 yards and three touchdowns. His size (6'0", 191 pounds) puts him in an uphill battle to reach the NFL.

"He’d be a very good CFL quarterback," said a CFL scout in Mobile.

But, again, he’s not eligible for the league’s draft. And making matters more difficult for any interested party, Adams’ CFL negotiation rights already belong to the British Columbia Lions, which would give them first crack at signing him should he head to Canada. According to CFL blog, B.C. also holds the rights to Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, while Toronto claimed Cody Kessler—two Senior Bowl participants. Those negotiation lists are meant to be confidential, and they require no commitment from the player to include him.

Rolling the dice at QB can pay off, though. So why is it that quarterbacks often are quicker to accept a CFL jump than players at other positions? Mostly because of the numbers game.

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“It could be because so many come out as juniors,” Drew Morris, a Winnipeg scout, said. “There are eight QBs here [at the Senior Bowl]. How many quarterbacks will get drafted by the NFL this year? Eight or 10?”

Morris diligently took notes as we spoke, on players from Clemson WR Charone Peake to Alabama DL Jarran Reed. The former could be a CFL option down the road, if he can’t latch on with an NFL team; the latter is headed toward being a first-round NFL selection, meaning the CFL likely will never see him.

Par for the course. The majority of this week’s Senior Bowl prospects will never even entertain the thought of a career up north. The CFL coaches all came out to watch anyway, just in case.

Four-Man Front

Here are four players I’ll be keeping a close watch on at Saturday's Senior Bowl …

1. Tyler Ervin, RB, San Jose State: Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon was the best running back during practices from Tuesday to Thursday. Ervin was among the Senior Bowl’s most exciting all-around threats. He showed some giddy-up running the football, but he excelled far more noticeably in pass-catching routes.

The matchups weren’t even really fair for some of the linebackers asked to cover him. To wit: On one snap Wednesday, he left Temple’s Tyler Matakevich—the Bednarik Award winner this season—grasping at air as he uncorked a nifty out-and-up route to the end zone for a touchdown.

Ervin was electrifying during his final two San Jose State seasons. He has to be among the most likely candidates to bust a huge play Saturday.

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2. Deion Jones, LB, LSU: I thought Jones turned in an extremely strong week of practice. The sheer logistics of Senior Bowl practices limits how many players you can watch at any given time, but whenever my focus turned to the linebackers, Jones made himself visible with his smooth athleticism.

Even when the linebackers were practicing coverage footwork without any QBs or receivers present, Jones’s quickness was obvious. He would turn his hips, get to a spot and square back up before others taking part in the drill even made it 2/3 of the way through that progression. Expect him to be active against both the run and pass for the South team.

3. Ed Eagan, WR, Northwestern State: If I told you I knew much about Eagan before he showed up as an injury replacement Thursday, I’d be lying. (Both Leontee Carroo and Tajae Sharpe exited the North team early.) But it didn’t take him long to stand out a bit. 

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Among my favorite moments from the week was this one: As the QBs and WRs went through routine pitch-and-catch drills, Eagan leaped to haul in a slightly high toss. As he did, one of the players from a middle school team sitting behind me in the Ladd-Peebles Stadium stands offered this scouting nugget: “Oooooooh, white boy can jump!” 

Eagan made a one-handed grab a little while later that drew another audible reaction from the crowd. Cowboys special teams coach Keith O’Quinn also singled him out as looking like a natural return man—no surprise given Eagan’s standing as Northwestern State’s all-time leader in career kick-return and all-purpose yards.

4. Matt Ioannidis, DT, Temple: Several defensive linemen stepped up during the practice week, perhaps as expected in a deep D-line draft. Ioannidis may have been the most consistent force when it came to one-on-one drills against the North's offensive line. 

Both the North and South offensive fronts strengthened as the week went on (as usually happens), and teams are prohibited from blitzing during the game. In other words, the defensive linemen will be on their own to create a push, pitted against an elite crop of players opposite them. Can Ioannidis carry his strong efforts over into the game? If he does, count on the versatile Temple product climbing a few draft boards. 

Mock Draft Watch

This space was reserved during the regular season for a mini-mock draft covering the top five picks. The shifting standings at the time allowed for such an endeavor. With picks 1-29 set in stone (barring trade), though, I probably will not have seismic mock draft changes week-to-week.

That is, unless I force them myself. So, with that in mind, our Mock Draft Watch will try to vary the scenarios up top a bit, thereby leaving a little room to play with what could happen next. Consider it an exercise in hypotheticals.

This week: What if the Browns trade up to No. 1?

This topic came about because’s Mary Kay Cabot wrote the following in a mailbag last week: “If the Browns determine that Cal quarterback Jared Goff is their man, they should definitely trade up to No. 1 to get him. The Titans, who have Marcus Mariota, have said they’re willing to deal the pick, and the Browns should not let someone leapfrog them and snatch him away.”

I’m not sure there is any guarantee Goff would be the quarterback of choice should the Browns go chasing, but he’d obviously be in the mix. New Cleveland VP of football operations Sashi Brown told, “Go up? That would be shocking. I think we’re happy where we are at the No. 2 pick. If anything, we’d probably move back.”

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So ... well, we're going to see what happens here anyway:

1. Cleveland Browns (from Tennessee): Jared Goff, QB, Cal. 

For as much as I personally like Goff and have long had him as the draft’s No. 1 quarterback, I think there is just as much chance that Paxton Lynch or Carson Wentz winds up as the first quarterback taken come April. I’m even more convinced of the possibility after spending the week in Mobile, surrounded by NFL personnel. 

Regardless, if the Browns are panicked about getting the guy they want and do make the move up here—in the process surrendering valuable picks later—it has to be for a quarterback.

2. Tennessee Titans (from Cleveland): Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss.

This should be the dream for the Titans, really: to have one or two of these 2016 quarterbacks emerge so a team like Cleveland or Dallas or San Francisco feels compelled to climb the ladder. If the Titans did trade down from No. 1, don’t automatically assume that they would stay put at their no spot. They could try to pull the same trick here, too, attempting to convince another QB-needy team that it has to get in before it’s too late. 

Picking at 1, 2 or, say, 4 won’t necessarily alter Tennessee’s plans all that much. It might get the guy it wants (be it Tunsil or someone else), plus add multiple early- to mid-round picks. Perfect.

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3. San Diego Chargers: Jalen Ramsey, CB/S, Florida State.

Have mentioned this before, but the NFL usually does not work in simple enough fashion to say things like, “Just plug in Ramsey for Eric Weddle.” For one, Weddle has long been an elite safety in the league, so that would be placing unfair expectations on Ramsey. Two, Ramsey can be a different type of piece than Weddle was—more movable into the cornerback slots against the pass, probably less impactful vs. the run and as an overall tackler.

But the Chargers need playmakers on defense, including help in the secondary. Ramsey checks off both boxes. 

4. Dallas Cowboys: Myles Jack, LB, UCLA.

The reason that the Cowboys could consider a quarterback here ultimately is why I think they pass on one: They have a limited window with Tony Romo. Yes, they have to find a QB to develop, either as their backup or No. 3 guy next season. But they’re also banking on Romo coming back healthy for 2016, which puts them back in the NFC East mix ... and possibly more, depending on what else they add. Adopting the “plan for tomorrow” philosophy overlooks how much Dallas believes it can win right now.

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The focus, then, should be on bolstering the roster wherever possible under the assumption that Romo has a 2014-esque season and not a repeat of 2015’s injury mess. Laquon Treadwell and Joey Bosa each would make for a terrific selection—Treadwell as the Dez Bryant complement so missing right now; Bosa as a potentially dominant edge force to team with 2014 second-rounder Demarcus Lawrence and 2015 second-rounder Randy Gregory.

Option No. 3 is Jack, a dynamo at linebacker. He and Sean Lee together could eat up the middle of the field, helping to cover any issues up front and giving the secondary more freedom to roam. 

5. Jacksonville Jaguars: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State.

This is where Bosa fell in our last mini-mock scenario. I cannot imagine him getting much beyond here, if he even lasts this long. His power-based dominance up front is too special, even in a class chock full of talented defensive lineman. Bosa could carry the load off the edge early, buying the Jaguars a little more time to get Dante Fowler ready to come back from his knee injury. 

Poll Games

Each week, I’ll take to Twitter to take the readers’ pulse on a pressing NFL issue.

Not included among the choices (only four options allowed by Twitter) were Jake Coker, Kevin Hogan, Jeff Driskel and Carson Wentz. I left Wentz off because he’s head and shoulders above the other Senior Bowl QBs right now. Feel free to make a case for one of the Coker/Hogan/Driskel group in the comments and/or by yelling at me on Twitter.

Prescott is a strong selection by the fans. He made significant strides as a passer this season, plus is the most mobile of the Senior Bowl class. The Jaguars’ coaches even pulled out the zone read a few times during practices this week. 

I did think Brissett would get more votes, and also that he deserves more. He probably shouldn’t see the field for at least a couple of years, but there is enough to go on in several departments—size, mentality, athleticism, arm strength—to see him sticking around the league, maybe even as a starter.