GM Shawn Burke loads up on ‘local’ talent in first CFL Draft with the Redblacks

Screengrab courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks

In the first CFL Draft of the Shawn Burke era, the new general manager’s opening picks probably would have brought a smile to the old general manager’s face.

Marcel Desjardins was notorious for selecting offensive linemen early and often, and funny enough that’s exactly what Burke did too. But after reinforcing the trenches in the first two rounds, Burke added depth to various positional groups, selecting a running back, a fullback/long snapper, a receiver, and three linebackers.

Some of those selected will contribute immediately on special teams and some are projects that will need a season or two of development before they potentially see the field on a regular basis. That shouldn’t be an issue though, as Burke has already done a solid job of restocking the team’s Canadian talent. Keeping an eye towards the future might be an approach that pays off wonderfully down the road.

All but one of Ottawa’s selections were from U Sports programs. Seven of the nine draftees were already living in Ontario, Quebec or Nova Scotia at the time of their selection. Furthermore, although Woodly Appolon is living in Alabama, he’s a Montreal native.

After being burned in previous years by high draft picks playing out their rookie deals before choosing to move closer to home, see Evan Johnson and Mark Korte as recent examples, it’s clear that as an organization, the Redblacks prioritized players from the eastern part of the country.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the picks and try to gauge where they fit.

First round, second overall: OL Zack Pelehos, Ottawa 

Despite being 3DownNation’s top ranked offensive lineman, nobody expected the six-foot-six, 304-pound Gananoque native to be taken second overall.

Not because he’s not talented — his upside is off the charts — but rather due to the fact that the 2021 first-team OUA all-star and the Ottawa Gee-Gees’ team MVP will take time to hone his technique. Simply put, Pelehos hasn’t played much. In 2019 academic ineligibility kept him off the field and COVID wiped out the 2020 U Sports season.

With that said, as the film demonstrates, Pelehos is a strong, punishing blocker with excellent mobility for a man of his stature. He also crushed combine testing, finishing first among offensive linemen in the shuttle, vertical jump, broad jump, and forty-yard dash.

Although he anchored the Gee-Gees’ line at right tackle, Pelehos likely kicks inside and plays guard in the CFL. That immediately puts him in the mix with other young, developing Canadians on the Redblacks, such as Jakub Szott, Ketel Asse and Connor Berglof.

Second round, 11th overall: OL Cyrille Hogan-Saindon, Laval

Much like Pelehos, Hogan-Saindon is a big, strong presence who revels in the physicality of the trenches. His nasty attitude combined with his quick feet should make the transition to the pros relatively seamless.

Hogan-Saindon is just the latest offensive lineman from the Laval pipeline to join the Redblacks; the others being Hugo Desmarais, Jason Lauzon-Seguin, and Assé.

At the combine, he managed 26 reps of the 225-pound bar on the bench press, tied for most amongst all offensive linemen.

In somewhat of an odd note, the 24-year-old went four years without playing a game. Despite being on the Rouge et Or’s roster from 2017 to 2019, he never dressed on game days — and COVID wiped out the 2020 season.

When he finally did get an opportunity at centre in 2021, Hogan-Saindon dominated and was named a 2021 first team Quebec Conference all-star.

The six-foot-four, 300-pounder immediately provides depth behind Darius Ciraco and will likely be in the mix for the backup centre role with Berglof and Andrew Pickett.

Here’s nearly five glorious minutes of the big man dishing out pancakes:

Second round, 20th overall: LB Jesse Luketa, Penn State (territorial pick)

Not many players can boast they were drafted twice in a week, but the St. Patrick’s High School alum can.

Given that this pick was a territorial one, the Redblacks had limited options with who they could choose, and although Luketa likely won’t be back in his hometown any time soon — he was selected in the seventh round by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2022 NFL Draft — the Redblacks will be glad they own his rights should the six-foot-three, 257-pound defender ever make his way north.

In four seasons at Penn State, Luketa racked up 151 tackles, one interception, half a sack and scored a defensive touchdown. Although he played linebacker for a time in college, in the CFL he has the size and physicality to play defensive end, depending on what scheme the team were to use.

Given that territorial picks are freebies, taking a flier on a popular Ottawa native makes sense.

Third round, 22nd overall: REC Keaton Bruggeling, Carleton 

Don’t let Bruggeling’s limited university production fool you. The six-foot-three, 213-pounder is fast, explosive and will immediately contribute on special teams.

The St. Catherines native was only a starter for the 2021 season — in which he caught 17 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns — but those numbers are a bit deceiving as he was somewhat limited by the play of those throwing him the ball.

At the combine, the Carleton product tested extremely well, posting a 4.55 forty-yard dash and 37.5-inch vertical jump.

Bruggeling is the latest Canadian in a receiving corps that already includes Shaq Johnson, Nate Behar, Llevi Noel, Marco Dubois and Will Corby. Depending on who makes the final roster coming out of training camp, Ottawa will potentially have enough nationals to start two Canadians at receiver.

Fourth round, 31st overall: DB Daniel Valente, Western 

For whatever Valente lacks in size, measuring in at five-foot-ten and 175 pounds, he more than makes up for in brains. The 2021 Vanier Cup winner and U Sports first-team All-Canadian is a cerebral safety, routinely baiting quarterbacks into bad throws while also helping organize others in the secondary.

In 2021 the 22-year-old London native made 27 tackles, notched one sack, snagged two interceptions and forced two fumbles.

Given his speed, Valente figures to start his pro career on Bob Dyce’s special teams units, but will also join a deep group of Canadians, Antoine Pruneau, Justin Howell, Treshaun Abrahams-Webster, Jordan Beaulieu and Ty Cranston at the Redblacks’ safety position.

Fifth round, 40th overall: LB Woodly Appolon, Tuskegee

The six-foot-four, 220-pound Montreal native is a classic special teams pick. Appolon is tough against the run, but also has solid coverage skills in space, which is a must at the linebacker position in the CFL.

In 2021, the 25-year-old made 79 tackles, had two sacks, deflected a pair of passes and forced a fumble in 11 games with the Golden Tigers.

For 2022, Appolon will return to school to complete his senior year.

Sixth round, 49th overall: LB Subomi Oyesoro, Calgary 

The lone Western Canadian selected by Ottawa, Oyesoro recorded 33 tackles with the Dinos in 2021.

The six-foot-one, 215-pound linebacker has a quick first step and is excellent at filling gaps against the run. The Calgary native will need to continue to develop his coverage skills in order to stick at the next level.

Seventh round, 58th overall: TE/FB/LS Connor Ross, St. Francis Xavier

Although listed as a tight end, in reality the six-foot-one, 250-pound Coldbrook native is a fullback. Over the course of 30 career U Sports games, the 23-year old caught 24 passes for 207 yards.

Not only will his blocking be an asset, but the fact that Ross is capable of stepping in as a long snapper is huge. Louis-Philippe Bourassa has been as good as anyone in the league, but should he be forced to miss games for any reason, Ross gives the Redblacks someone who can seamlessly slide in, without wasting another roster spot on a pure long snapper.

When not snapping for kicks or bullying defenders, Ross likes to paint.

Eighth round, 67th overall: RB Luca Perrier, Laval

Born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the six-foot, 200-pound back averaged 9.8 yards per carry in 2021, turning 29 touches into 284 yards and three touchdowns.

A physical, downhill runner, if Perrier doesn’t return to school, he has one year of eligibility remaining, he would round out a trio of Canadian backs on Ottawa’s roster, behind Brendan Gillanders and Jackson Bennett.

Even if it’s highly unlikely the Redblacks choose to start a Canadian at running back, with three on the roster, it would be a legitimate option for head coach Paul LaPolice. Perhaps his previous experience with Andrew Harris doesn’t make the idea as improbable as it seems.

Global Draft picks:

Finally, it’s worth briefly reviewing the players selected by the Redblacks in the CFL Global Draft.

With the eighth overall pick, Ottawa selected offensive lineman Hector Zepeda from Mexico. Zepeda participated in the NFL’s International Player Pathway program where he displayed quick feet and a willingness to finish blocks. As far as R-Nation is concerned, he can’t be any worse than Christopher Ferguson, last year’s Global offensive lineman.

With the 11th overall pick, the Redblacks chose French defensive back Edris Jean-Alphonse. The Laval product played sparingly during his U Sports career, but had the fastest 40-yard dash time and second best vertical at the Global Combine.

Finally, with the 26th pick in the Global draft, the Redblacks selected Mexican kicker Gabriel Ballinas. Given that Ottawa already boasts two of the league’s best special teamers in kicker Lewis Ward and punter Richie Leone, Ballinas only sees the field if disaster strikes. R-Nation will be actively rooting to never become familiar with his name.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).