The B.C. Lions were a bad football team the last time they stepped on the field.
No matter which way you slice it, there is no escaping that single, undeniable fact.
Over the course of two off-seasons and a cancelled 2020 campaign, the current team has been radically altered. There is a new head coach in place in Rick Campbell and former general manager Ed Hervey left the franchise late last year. That made the way for Campbell and long-time personnel man Neil McEvoy to take the reins when it comes to team-building.
The roster has seen a multitude of changes since the pair took over, but many fans were still taken aback on Tuesday when a team they view as in need of an immediate influx of talent decided to look to the future during the first two rounds of the 2021 CFL Draft.
Selecting fourth overall, the Lions went with NC State defensive end Daniel Joseph, a player who has committed to returning to school in 2021 thanks to eligibility extensions granted by the NCAA. In the second round, 15th overall, the team flipped to the offensive side of the ball and took Iowa tackle Alaric Jackson, who recently signed as an undrafted NFL free agent with the Los Angeles Rams.
Neither player will be in training camp whenever the 2021 CFL season begins and the wait for each to arrive in the CFL could be longer, but Campbell is secure in his first selections as co-general manager in B.C.
“It’s a little bit of a bold strategy, but we want to think big picture,” the Grey Cup-winning coach told reporters.
“I think for us to be where we want to be as a really strong organization and really build this team, we’ve got to see the big picture and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The big picture, at least according to his counterpart McEvoy, is that acquiring NFL-type talent like Joseph and Jackson has the chance to make the Lions contenders for years to come. With a roster already full thanks to a complete draft class in 2020, now was the time to make those gambles.
“If you looked at our draft board before the whole event started, we picked four and we had those guys in our top four, both of them. The fact we were able to get them with the picks we had was just very exciting for us,” McEvoy explained.
“We felt that because of the way this draft had worked out, we had the ability to take a chance on some guys and get real good value.”
When it comes to upside, there is little point debating the Lions selections. A former four star recruit to Penn State, Joseph broke out in 2020 after transferring to NC State and led his team with 6.5 sacks. Jackson started 42 games at left tackle over four seasons at Iowa, holding down the other end across from Super Bowl LV champion and NFL Combine stand-out, Tristan Wirfs.
Campbell places a high value on players who have done it before and his first two picks since taking on double duty for the Lions have shown that in spades. Both have skillsets that will merit NFL considerations — Jackson has already received a $20,000 signing bonus from the Rams and has a strong shot at making the team — but the Lions believe they will be in Vancouver sometime soon.
“Daniel is going to play one more year at NC State but we thought it was worth it. We think when he shows up, he’s going to be an impact player,” Campbell said.
“Alaric Jackson played a lot of really good football for Iowa and signed as an NFL free agent. We might’ve thought a little bit differently if he had been drafted, but that he wasn’t drafted, we’re playing the odds that we will see him at some point. We’ll wish those guys the best with this season and look forward to seeing them in the future.”
That’s the luxury that Campbell believes his team has because of the quality of their Canadian depth. The team has at least two starting Canadian receivers in Lemar Durant and Shaq Johnson, with a third still possible to return in opt-out Jevon Cottoy. Talent at linebacker will lend itself to two national starters as well, likely including 2020 first overall pick Jordan Williams, and the team remains comfortable along the offensive line.
“I like how we’re building our Canadian talent,” Campbell insisted. “The way you win in the CFL is you have good quarterbacking and you have really good Canadian players and Canadian depth.”
Because their Canadian talent is already strong, the Lions have invested in the future to ensure it will stay that way down the road. When players like Joseph and Jackson do arrive, they have the potential to alter the balance of power in the CFL.
“You’ve got to be able to have guys with that type of calibre to make you a better football team so you can compete in the upper echelon of this league with nine teams where every game’s competitive, every team is competitive,” McEvoy explained.
“You need to rebuild your roster with some real top notch players or you’re just going to fall behind.”
The Lions think the moves they’ve already made have pulled them into contention in 2021. So long as their gamble pays off, drafting for the future will keep them from falling back to the league basement anytime soon.