Drafting offensive linemen a key to CFL success

The CFL draft takes place in just over six weeks and, as is often the case in professional football, offensive linemen aren’t getting the attention they deserve. One of Oklahoma’s Josiah St. John and Laval’s Charles Vaillancourt is set to become the third straight offensive lineman selected first overall (Laval’s Pierre Lavertu, 2014; UConn’s Alex Mateas, 2015), while Simon Fraser’s Michael Couture, Laval’s Jason Lauzon-Seguin and Philippe Gagnon, Buffalo’s Dillon Guy, Grand Valley State’s Brandon Revenberg, and Concordia’s Roman Grozman round out an impressive class of big men. Unfortunately, many CFL fans complain when their favorite team uses its top pick on an offensive lineman.

This is bothersome because quality Canadian offensive linemen have long-since been paramount to the success of teams in the CFL. It’s rare to see all-Canadian offensive lines in today’s game — all-Canadian lines were a staple of the seventies and eighties — but finding seven talented national starters is difficult unless you can start at least three along the offensive line.

But can drafting offensive linemen really result in more victories? In a word – yes.

Below is a chart comparing the regular season win totals of eight league teams from 2008-2015 (discluding Ottawa, due to its intermittent non-existence) to the number of offensive linemen they drafted from 2007-2014.*

OL Drafted vs Wins

Correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation – selecting eight offensive linemen in a single draft, for example, would be unlikely to result in a perfect season — but there is a strong argument to be made for drafting hogs in volume.

Take Calgary, for instance — the CFL’s best team over the past eight years. In 2008, the Stamps took a pair of offensive linemen with the second and third overall picks of the draft: Weber State’s Dimitri Tsoumpas and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Jesse Newman.

Tsoumpas turned out to be a great pick. Despite his early retirement due to concussion issues, Tsoumpas was named a CFL all-star three times over his six-year career with the Stamps and now coaches the offensive line at the University of Calgary.

Newman, meanwhile, was a less successful pick – after just two seasons in Cowtown, Newman retired on the eve of training camp due to personal reasons. Newman’s rights were traded to BC twelve weeks later for second and fourth round picks in 2011 and 2012, respectively, at which time he signed with the Lions before retiring for good in 2012.

Calgary got just eight seasons of production out of their top two selections of the 2008 draft. Fortunately for Stamps fans, John Hufnagel and company used the club’s fifth round selection on a redshirt junior out of Boise State named Jon Gott. That’s right, Jon Gott – arguably the best of all three offensive linemen selected by the Stamps that year. After five productive seasons with Calgary from 2009-2013, Gott was traded to Ottawa for the first overall selection in the 2014 CFL draft, which, as mentioned above, the Stamps used on — you guessed it — another offensive lineman.

2008 wasn’t the only year that drafting a trio of offensive linemen paid off for the red and white.

In 2013, Calgary used the seventh, sixteenth, and forty-eighth selections of the draft on hogs.

The first, UTEP’s Brander Craighead, was dominant at guard when he joined the Stamps in 2014. Unfortunately, Craighead’s career would be cut painfully short after just three career starts with Calgary. Craighead, still just 25, retired from professional football this winter due to concussion issues.

The second hog drafted by the Stamps, Regina’s Brett Jones, was also effective as a rookie – too effective, in fact. Jones was named the CFL’s Most Oustanding Rookie for his excellent play at centre in 2013 and, a year later, was named the league’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman. Jones turned his CFL success into a contract with the NFL’s New York Giants in February of 2015 and, a year later, is still with the G-Men.

The final offensive lineman selected by the Stampeders in 2013 was Western’s Shane Bergman. Despite his tremendous strength, Bergman’s draft stock plummeted prior to the draft due to poor conditioning and mediocre footwork. After a rookie season of film study and hard work in the gym, Bergman became an effective starter for the Stampeders in 2014 and has been ever since. Bergman recently signed a long-term contract extension with Calgary.

As demonstrated by the league’s model franchise, drafting offensive linemen in bulk is the way to go. Some players won’t pan out and others will get hurt. The best counter against these inevitabilities is drafting offensive linemen in numbers when the opportunity arises.

Is it possible to achieve success in the CFL without drafting a ton of offensive linemen? Sure. Take Edmonton for example, the team that recorded the fourth-most wins from 2008-2015 despite drafting fewer hogs than any other club.

All four offensive linemen the Eskimos dressed in November’s Grey Cup were acquired through free agency (centre Justin Sorensen and left guard Andrew Jones) or via trade (left guard Chris Greaves and right guard Matt O’Donnell) and and helped Edmonton capture a championship, albeit on a defensively-oriented team. The problem with this process is that you end up paying more for less – teams rarely (if ever) allow their best offensive linemen to reach free agency and, when they do, they tend to come at an exorbitant price tag. For these reasons and more, it’s almost always best to draft and develop your own blockers.

Remember this when taking in the results of the CFL draft on May 10 when your favorite team (hopefully) drafts a handful of homegrown hogs.

Email: bluebombertalk@gmail.com

*these time periods were offset by one year to better reflect when drafted offensive linemen would have a substantial impact on team rosters, as few rookie offensive linemen receive substantial playing time

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.