CFL DRAFT PREVIEW SERIES: Lions look to avoid rolling dice

It’s called a lottery, a crapshoot. But for the B.C. Lions, it was something entirely different with respect to their opening pick in the CFL’s Canadian college draft last year, Ese Mrabure-Ajufo.    It all depends on your choice of words.

Ranked as the 18th best prospect by TSN, the Lions turned the draft upside down when they took the 22-year-old defensive lineman fifth overall. At the time general manager Wally Buono insisted the peculiar choice was made because that’s where he was rated on their draft board, and the Lions had to fill a specific need rounding out their defensive line depth. But consider what has happened since.

The smallish Mrabure-Ajufo rarely made it onto the roster even to play special teams and a year later Buono now admits he gambled on the pick, saying his prized pupil lost roster status when the Lions had to correct another mistake starting Chris Rwabukamba at safety by signing Eric Fraser early last season.

“I really don’t think we’ve given Ese a proper opportunity,” Lions director of player personnel Neil McEvoy said.

Call what the Lions did a reversal draft, as in reversal of words. If the Wilfrid Laurier lineman doesn’t progress in training camp this year, he could surpass another Lions flyer from the past, 2007 first-round receiving flameout Adam Nicholson, as the biggest bust of the Buono era.

The draft is, as is often said, an inexact science, not one assessed easily either, which is why the Lions will dispute TSN’s ranking of their haul last year of eighth among nine teams.

Either way, the Lions can’t afford a similar roll of the dice at the top end of the draft, even if they insist ranking is irrelevant when the assembled talent all reaches the locker room, and that few others in the first round last year made a significant impact as a rookie.

No team has had more first-round picks since 2001 than B.C., yet it is more than fair to suggest they are looking up at several rivals possessing better non-import talent. It is why the Lions will quite likely travel a safer route this time and choose to bolster their offensive line once more.

Both Buono and McEvoy admit there’s enough line talent ranked near the top of their draft board for the Lions to consider using the first pick to uncover the next Matt Norman, a 2012 third-rounder who showed initial promise at centre but succumbed to knee problems last year.


Projected starters

Buono didn’t just decide to shake up the Lions’ Canadian ratio last year after taking over from Jeff Tedford but grabbed the depth chart with both hands to shake out Andrew Harris.

The player responsible for 30 per-cent of the Lions offence got no love whatsoever prior to becoming a free agent during the off-season and was gleefully scooped up by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“He (Harris) needed a change,” said Buono. Apparently, so did the Lions.

Tedford went somewhat rogue with the ratio last year when he started an import centre, Jason Foster, but with Harris punted the new/old coach has made a more traditional change, acquiring centre Tim O’Neill of Victoria from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

He’ll be flanked in the interior of the offensive line by Hunter Steward, who moves this year to guard, and Kirby Fabien (see depth chart). Most of the other starters are also set. B.C. will go with two Canadian receivers, having lost their flexibility with the retirement of Austin Collie. They also have no trouble starting Canadians at safety and on the defensive line, though missed out on playing a pair of Canucks as hoped when they failed to land Justin Capicciotti in free agency.

The x-factor for B.C.’s ratio continues to be Abbotsford’s Bo Lokombo, a 2013 third-round pick who now ranks as a steal in a manner similar to defensive lineman David Menard, taken in 2014 in the fourth round.

B.C. loves Lokombo’s versatility and will devise packages to get him on the field, but don’t like him to the point of making him a nickelback, also partly because backup candidate Adrian Clarke is best suited for special teams work and two other linebackers who aren’t going anywhere, Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill.

That might change if B.C. makes a low-round draft play for Victoria’s Terrell Davis, who switched to linebacker at UBC after tearing up high school ranks at Mt. Douglas as a running back. But offensive line comes first.

Recent drafts and philosophy

Make no mistake, Buono is a draft gambler, as the Mrabure-Ajufo pick proved. Last year’s Lions class was also good for the Philadelphia Eagles, who still have OL Brett Boyko, and Houston Texans, who played DL Christian Covington in an NFL playoff game. Both were taken by the Lions as futures last draft. Nobody around the Lions also needs to be reminded about Danny Watkins or O.J. Atogwe either. So it’ll be no shock if the Lions select a player or two who is attending an NFL minicamp this weekend either.

Draft position, needs and possible solutions

The 2015 supplemental draft selection by Winnipeg is good news for the Lions, who move up to third overall but will pick fourth in most other rounds. Buono recently let it slip he’d be fine picking up an additional pick to drop in the first round, though he has had few nibbles, suggesting at least one team above the Lions might be interested in doing the same.

At 36, O’Neill is only a short-term solution at best in the middle of the offensive line, and just about all of the available candidates for the Lions first pick have been vetted for their ability to be groomed at centre. Returning offensive line guru Dan Dorazio will almost certainly be given a new big body to mould.

With at least four draft eligible players already signing NFL deals this week, the Lions’ options could be reduced among offensive linemen. 3Downnation draft guru Justin Dunk has the Lions picking Laval’s Charles Vaillancourt when it’s their turn and SFU coach Kelly Bates is pushing hard for Burnaby native Michael Couture, unless Buono gets another sudden urge to go rogue one more time.

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.