B.C. Lions ignored media ‘snowball,’ focused on film with surprise first-round CFL Draft pick Nathan Cherry

Photo courtesy: University of Saskatchewan Athletics

If draft day is the dessert to finish the four-course meal that is the CFL offseason, than it is rather fitting that the B.C. Lions put a Cherry on top.

Nevertheless, many fans were surprised to see the Leos order off the menu with their third overall selection in the 2022 CFL Draft, taking University of Saskatchewan defensive tackle Nathan Cherry with their first-round pick.

The prevailing theory among prognosticators for months was that the team would covet one of the local Philpot twins at receiver or grab the top offensive lineman available. Cherry rarely entered into the first-round conversation, ranked behind highly-touted Western Mustang product Deionte Knight according to most media boards.

Knight seemed to have it all, a J.P. Metras Trophy winner as the country’s top university lineman, a Vanier Cup ring won against Cherry’s Huskies, an invite to the prestigious East-West Shrine Bowl and accompanying NFL interest. But if prospects are pastries, those accolades are simply garnishes and it was Cherry who had the better ingredients on tape.

“I don’t know what all the other teams thought about him. I know things in the draft tend to snowball in one direction with the media. Not knocking the media, but people start talking about a few guys and then all of a sudden it just keeps snowballing in one direction,” Lions’ head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell explained of the Cherry selection post-draft.

“There’s always these surprise guys that come up, whether it’s us or another team, and so we want to rely heavily number one on the game film, on what the guy does and how he plays, and then number two, how he was in the interview and meeting room. You could tell this guy lives and breathes football. If he shows the way he does, there’s no reason he can’t come in here and compete right away.”

The ability to contribute on day one was a deciding factor in the Lions’ draft strategy. At times last season, they had dressed six or more American defensive linemen to be able to have a functional pass-rush rotation, hamstringing their special teams unit.

Now with Canadians David Menard and Mathieu Betts expected to make defensive end a ratio spot, they were in desperate need of more depth. Most importantly, they needed a capable national defensive tackle to rotate in so as not to waste a designated import spot on a player with limited ability to contribute elsewhere.

When it came time to evaluate the contenders for that role, the film told the story few were publicly saying out-loud. Cherry was simply the best player at the position, violent with his hands and pro-ready in terms of his approach.

“He’s very active, a good trait for any defensive lineman is they’re disruptive and they play in the back field — he definitely fits that bill,” Campbell noted. “He’s quick off the ball, uses his hands really well, has quick feet and he’s got a really good motor. He’s going a hundred miles an hour all the time, he really gives great effort and that’s what we liked about him.”

“He’s obviously going to have to earn his spot in training camp, nothing’s given to anyone but the way we’re built right now ratio-wise, he’s going to have every opportunity. I think if he comes in here and plays the way that he does, he could be able to get in a rotation right away and that would be a good thing for our football team.”

Cherry won’t be the only one from this draft class likely to contribute early, as the Lions came back in round two and snagged his university teammate, offensive lineman Noah Zerr with pick number 12.

Regarded as the most pro-ready offensive line prospect available, some thought Zerr would be the Lions’ target in the first round. Instead, they got both prospects they coveted exactly where they wanted them.

“I think at the end of the day, we thought if we walked out of the first two picks with a d-lineman and an o-lineman that we wanted, it would be a big win for us,” Campbell said. “We were able to pull that off.”

Across the board, B.C. got faster, longer and more physical in the draft, loading up on once non-existent defensive line talent. Cherry’s addition is the sweetest treat by far, but many could carve out roles early, including a third Saskatchewan product in fifth-round pick Riley Pickett. The Hardy Cup champions all bring an edge and effort level the Lions sometimes lacked in 2021.

“Saskatoon to Kamloops will be a full flight,” Campbell laughed.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.