"With the first overall choice in the 2011 CFL Canadian Draft, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are pleased to select..."
It's been a long time since a CFL draft of Canadian talent opened up with those words -- since 1975, to be exact -- when the Bombers selected Syracuse offensive tackle Steve Scully first overall. Now, the fact that Scully didn't morph into a star and the Bombers' inglorious draft history is a debate for another day, another time.
Back then, it's also worth noting, the CFL allowed for territorial exemptions, essentially giving every team a couple of picks from a region within their own backyard. So, technically, Scully wasn't the first player chosen.
But the point here is this: it's been eons since the Bombers could kick off a draft by taking the player they covet the most. And while they have fielded some phone calls from rivals inquiring about dealing the pick, GM Joe Mack has hinted they'll likely hang onto to No. 1 and grab a player they feel can become a difference maker -- at the very least a useful starter -- for years to come.
"We're in a unique spot because we can take who we want, we don't have to figure out what somebody else is doing," said Bomber head coach Paul LaPolice earlier this week. "I can tell you I know this club hasn't been in this position for a long, long time. People have called us about it and I'm sure Mr. Mack will listen, but it will allow us to fix an area that needs to be fixed."
With that in mind, many may wonder what kind of preparation goes into making this historic pick, how much homework has the club done already and what is left to be done before the proceedings on May 8?
First things first, let's begin by emphasizing the Bombers will hardly close their eyes and then blindly throw darts at a swack of names pinned up on a draft board.
The road to being prepared to make the first overall pick began last spring when Kyle Walters, the club's special-teams coach and Canadian Draft co-ordinator, began studying the 2011 prospects participating in the 2010 CIS East-West Game. It continued during the 2010 CFL/CIS season and was then cranked up in December when Walters sifted through the draft list provided by the league of every player who might be eligible for this spring's selection process.
And since then the cramming has only become that much more intense as Walters has spoken to every CIS coach about their draft-eligible players while Bomber staffers with contacts down south have worked on NCAA coaches with Canadians on their rosters. Just this Thursday, for example, LaPolice spoke with the offensive line coach at Rice University about top-rated prospect Scott Mitchell.
"We want to make sure that if we pass over somebody it's because we simply think he's not good enough, not because he slipped through the cracks or we didn't have enough information on him," Walters explained. "We have working files on everybody."
The Bombers, like all CFL teams, will have a specific ranking system for this draft -- although the leg work done by this current regime is likely the most detailed it's been since former assistant coach Bob Dyce handled much of the off-season research on prospects.
Each of the position coaches have rated and graded prospects on a specific scale, answering questions ranging from foot speed to toughness to character. The club will have at least 10 players rated at each position and is now close to taking the final step in a long and complicated process: ranking the players overall, regardless of where they line up on the field.
"That's the most difficult process: the overall ranking," Walters admitted. "We have to determine, for example, whether the third best offensive-lineman prospect is better than the second-best linebacker or the fourth receiver. Coming up with your master list can be a challenge, but it's critical. That way when it comes to the third round, it comes down to what we need, who is available and where do we rank him on the board and be firm with it and believe in it."
Even with all that, the CFL Canadian Draft provides other key challenges. This year's top prospect, for example, is Baylor O-lineman Phillip Blake. But Blake is going back to school next year and has already popped up on the NFL radar screen as a prospect for 2012, much the same way Danny Watkins -- also of Baylor and drafted fourth overall by the B.C. Lions last year -- has for this year's NFL draft. The consensus is that Watkins is so good he may never pull on a Lions jersey.
Mitchell, ranked second overall, has already had his name linked to the Bombers and the first overall pick. But Rice's NFL Pro Day is Monday and depending on how well the versatile lineman showcases his skills it could dramatically affect whether he hears his name called first in the CFL draft.
"That's definitely something we have to consider," said Walters. "Is there NFL interest? Are we ever going to see him? That's a unique part of the puzzle that has to be fit in when we sit down to discuss all this. Plus, there are five or six good junior players -- including Phillip Blake, Tyler Holmes (OL, Tulsa), Moe Petrus (OL, Connecticut), the kicker at Montana (Brody McKnight) -- you have to discuss but wait on for a year, maybe longer."
The Bombers, understandably, are keeping their draft cards clutched closely to their vest right now. The party line -- and it's a theme they'll repeat over and over again over the next month and a half -- is there are three or four players they have pegged as first overall candidates.
But while who will go No. 1 remains a mystery, what isn't is the team's desire to prove the CFL Canadian Draft need not be a the crapshoot so many have described it as in years past. Walters, LaPolice and Mack believe in a simple theory: the margin of error on draft day decreases significantly with more preparation.
"You can always find guys who succeeded that were drafted late and you can find guys who were first rounders who were busts in any sport and any draft," Walters explained. "But if you take this seriously, do your work and do your due diligence then your percentages increase that a bust is not going to happen.
"All you can ask for is to make a good sound decision based on the data you've compiled. We'll be ready and when we make our picks they'll be made with a great deal of belief in our process and the work we did."