Last year around this time, I wrote a detailed article outlining the CFL's draft eligibility rules and those who read it may recall that the rules are…well…a little bit crazy. Here's how I'd fix them.
THE PROBLEM: In general, a player becomes eligible for the draft either four years after he begins his university career or the year after he turns 25, whichever comes first. If players attending American schools spend a year as redshirts or start college after age 21 then they'll still have eligibility remaining when they qualify for the CFL draft. When teams draft redshirt juniors and other players who become draft eligible with a year or more of U.S. college eligibility remaining, it can be a huge gamble because (a) the NFL stock of those players has yet to be established and (b) such players are at risk of suffering serious injuries while completing their college careers. As a result, teams are currently being forced to risk high picks on players whom they might never see.
SOLUTION: Make U.S. college players eligible for the CFL Draft upon completion of their NCAA or NAIA eligibility.
RATIONALE: It's no secret that quality Canadian talent is one of the key components of successful CFL franchises. With the salary cap now making it more difficult for a team to spend aggressively in free agency to make over its non-import talent base, the importance of successful drafting has never been greater. With that in mind, it doesn't make sense to have a rule that puts teams at risk of squandering high picks. If players qualified for the CFL Draft upon completion of U.S. college eligibility then the CFL clubs would know what the odds were of those players playing in the NFL and they wouldn't have to worry about prospects suffering serious football injuries after being drafted. In addition, the CFL Draft would become more fan friendly if every player drafted was turning pro in the same year that he was selected. Under the current rules, it can be difficult for fans to get excited about their team's first pick when they won't get to see him play for at least another year.
NOTE: I anticipate that the league will change this rule after the 2013 Draft. They can't change it before then because it is stipulated in the Expansion Agreement that the Ottawa franchise, slated to return in 2014, will participate in the 2013 Draft, selecting only redshirt juniors.
PROBLEM: Over the last decade, the CIS has significantly changed its eligibility rules at least twice without the CFL adjusting its draft eligibility rules accordingly. In a nutshell, it is now possible for a player to run out of CIS eligibility a full year before he qualifies for the CFL Draft. The result is that some prospects find themselves too old to play junior football and ineligible to play in either the CIS or CFL. It has affected players in the last two draft classes and, this year, at least two good prospects, Ryan White (OL, Bishop's) and Mike Benson (LS, Acadia), find themselves out in the cold waiting until they become eligible for the draft in 2013.
SOLUTION: Instead of having a draft eligibility stipulation based on age, have one that automatically enters a player in the CFL Draft if his CIS eligibility expires before he reaches his fourth year of school.
RATIONALE: A league that requires a minimum number of qualified Canadian players can't risk losing good prospects, especially at a time when the CFL would like to expand to nine or eventually ten teams. Having prospects sit out for a year at a critical time in their development creates the risk of the players' skills and conditioning declining and the possibility of injuries suffered while playing football elsewhere…quickly turning them into non-prospects.
NOTE: I had been expecting to see this rule changed by next year, as CFL teams don't want to see University of Regina's star DT Stefan Charles, a likely first round pick, forced to sit out the 2013 season as he waits to become eligible for the 2014 CFL Draft. However, as I was writing this article, I got word that it's likely to be changed in time for this year's draft, which would make the aforementioned Mike Benson and Ryan White eligible.
PROBLEM: Currently junior (CJFL and QJFL) players with junior eligibility remaining can only sign with the closest CFL team as "domiciled juniors". The issue is that there are regional discrepancies in the quality of junior football in this country so many of the best players move to play for better teams or in more competitive leagues. The end result is that Western teams, especially the B.C. Lions, have a much more impressive pool of junior prospects from which to choose than the Eastern teams have.
SOLUTION: Include CJFL and QJFL (Quebec Junior Football League) players in the draft process. I would propose a format based on how the Ontario Hockey League used to handle underage (15-year old) players. They allowed such players, including current Ottawa Senators star Jason Spezza, to play only for their hometown team until they were of age to enter the midget draft. At that point, they would be entered in the draft with their peers. Similarly, I would leave the current domiciled junior rules in place, thus allowing underage players to sign only with the closest CFL club. However, all junior players would qualify for the draft upon completion of their junior eligibility at age 22, including those who might have played in the CFL. I know that's a little quirky but it would eliminate the imbalance that currently exists while still allowing underage junior players worthy of playing in the CFL to do so.
NOTE: There are currently no less than twelve players listed on CFL rosters who entered the league directly from the junior ranks. Not a single one of them played junior football for a team based east of Manitoba. Although former junior players can change teams via trade or free agency over the course of their careers (like any other player), it's also worth noting that only one of the aforementioned twelve currently plays for a CFL team based east of Manitoba. That's Montreal kicker Sean Whyte, who cost the Alouettes a first round pick to pry away from B.C.
Now that I've solved the major issues, let's move on to some fine tuning.
SUGGESTION: Expand the CFL Draft to eight rounds.
RATIONALE: Currently at the conclusion of the draft, teams are allowed to add the names of two additional "non-counters" (players with remaining CIS eligibility) to their training camp rosters. These are generally either players who were passed over in the current draft or prospects who returned to school after attending the team's training camp the previous year. If they're going to add two players each from the current draft class then why not just give each team two more picks in the draft? I'm just sayin'...
SUGGESTION: Don't allow undrafted Canadians to be placed on negotiation lists.
RATIONALE: Negotiation lists operate on a first come, first served basis. It's a system that has proven to be effective in distributing the CFL playing rights of American players, as a draft would be unrealistic and allowing all import newcomers to be free agents would create the risk of bidding wars. However, for Canadian players, there is already a system in place to distribute their rights and avoid bidding wars…it's called the DRAFT. It has just never made sense to me that Canadian players can go through the draft and get passed over by all eight teams, just to ultimately still have one team control their rights. Undrafted non-imports should become free agents and be able to sign with the interested team of their choice. It's not like such a player would ever command the sort of rookie salary that would throw things out of whack.
SUGGESTION: Allow teams to maintain the playing rights to two players from each draft class, provided that they return to play CIS football after attending the CFL club's training camp.
RATIONALE: CFL regulations only allow teams to carry a certain number of players on the practice roster and other than that, there's no place for an organization to develop young non-import players. It's not like the NHL, where teams have minor league affiliates plus the option of returning eligible prospects to their junior teams. Currently, if draft choices are released to return to school, they become free agents, meaning that they can sign with another team before the following season. It would just be nice for teams to know that when they give a kid feedback upon releasing him at the end of camp that they'll benefit from what they've taught him rather than having it used against them a year later.
SUGGESTION: Make the Canadian Scouting Bureau completely independent from the league's eight teams.
RATIONALE: Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an analogy. Would Colonel Sanders be completely honest in sharing the names and precise amounts of his famous eleven herbs and spices with the owners of seven competing fried chicken establishments? No, he'd be honest about the obvious portions of his recipe…chicken…and that's about it. Well, as long as the CSB includes input from scouts from the eight CFL teams, its rankings will never really be accurate. Teams are honest about the guys who are obviously top prospects…and that's about it. Every team has an agenda to try to gain a competitive edge, even in scouting…and so they should. The CSB rankings are a brilliant initiative from league office but the time has come to generate them independently of the teams.