The CFL season is in full swing and teams are focused on maximizing their hopes of winning the 109th Grey Cup.
However, with university football just around the corner, the work has already begun behind the scenes on evaluating the next crop of Canadian players who could put your team over the top.
The 2022 CFL Draft was one of the weakest in recent memory, but players like Tre Ford, the Philpot twins, Samuel Emilus, Nathan Cherry and Tyrell Richards have already made meaningful impacts on their teams. The class of 2023 has the potential to be much stronger, with a deep crop of NCAA talent entering their senior season.
Of course, it is much too early to identify the best players in the 2023 CFL Draft. Some prospects are sure to emerge out of nowhere while others will fade into obscurity. Indeed, many of the prospects currently eligible may choose not to enter the draft this year as many NCAA seniors still possess an extra year of eligibility due to COVID and U Sports prospects are eligible to defer their status to 2024.
Nevertheless, it is worth looking ahead to the wealth of talent that could be on draft boards come May of next year. Here are the top 25 players on my 2023 draft radar.
*denotes player with option to defer
1. Matthew Bergeron, OL, Syracuse University (Victoriaville, Que.)*
The first player from tiny Division II Cégep de Thetford to ever receive an NCAA scholarship, Bergeron arrived on campus at Syracuse and became the first true freshman to start at tackle for the Orange since 2002. The six-foot-five, 315-pound blocker has only gotten better since making the switch to the blindside protector mid-way through his sophomore season.
Though the 22-year-old is still sloppy and raw at times, Bergeron’s quick feet in pass protection have already garnered NFL attention. The question is whether he’s strong enough to anchor against or knock back bigger defenders in the run game. That’s less of a concern in the CFL and some lucky team could get a ratio-breaking left tackle.
2. Nick Mardner, REC, University of Cincinnati (Mississauga, Ont.)*
After four years at the University of Hawaii, Nick Mardner is moving up in the college football world by transferring to Cincinnati. The six-foot-six, 190-pound pass-catcher figures to be a plug-and-play starter for the recent College Football Playoff contender after their top receiver from 2021, Alec Pierce, departed to the NFL.
What makes Mardner unique is his ability to stretch the field as a big-bodied target. Good for more than just jump balls, he racked up 913 yards and five touchdowns on just 46 catches last year — a 19.8 yards per catch average that was one of the best in all of college football. His combination of size and speed is a nightmare for defensive backs to handle, a fact that should have him on the NFL radar if he shows out with a marquee program.
3. Sidy Sow, OL, Eastern Michigan University (Bromont, Que.)
Entering his sixth year with the Eagles, you’d be hard-pressed to find an offensive lineman from a recent CFL Draft class with a college career as quietly excellent as Sow’s. After beginning his tenure as the team’s starting left tackle, he’s since found a home at left guard and has started a total of 42 games between the two spots, allowing an absurdly low 49 pressures on 1,571 career pass-blocking snaps.
At six-foot-five and 334 pounds, Sow has tremendous length for an interior lineman and uses it effectively. He’s been knocked for carrying bad weight and isn’t the dominant people-mover that the NFL often looks for in mid-major conference linemen, but Sow’s ability to consistently wall off defenders through his use of leverage is a trait shared by many elite CFL blockers.
4. Chase Brown, RB, University of Illinois (London, Ont.)*
After rushing for 1,005 yards and five touchdowns last season, it is safe to say that the torch of great Canadian NCAA running backs was passed from Chuba Hubbard to Chase Brown. The five-foot-10, 205-pound ball carrier took the Big Ten by storm, posting two 200-plus yard rushing performances against Penn State and Charlotte.
Brown has already entered the 2023 NFL Draft conversation but may not have the breakaway speed and all-world athletic traits to see him taken highly. What he does have is great vision in the hole and an energetic style of play that saw him force 44 missed tackles and average 4.14 yards after contact last year.
5. Kyle Hergel, OL, Texas State University (Toronto, Ont.)*
All you need to know about Kyle Hergel is what Texas State head coach Jake Spavital said in a press conference last year: he’s a program-changer. The transfer from North Dakota is an old-school football guy and weathered the jump in competition from the FCS to the FBS by becoming the highest-graded Canadian player in all of college football last year according to analytics firm ProFootballFocus, allowing just nine pressures in 12 games from his right guard spot.
Built like a stack of bricks at six-foot-two and 300 pounds, Hergel is a mean and nasty gap scheme guard who leads from the front. He blocks opponents like he hates them, a trait that will change the culture up front for a CFL franchise.
6. Sydney Brown, DB, University of Illinois (London, Ont.)
If the Philpots, Fords and Appolons last year left you sick and tired of talented identical twins, I have bad news for you. Much like his brother Chase, Sydney Brown is a standout for the Illini and will enter 2022 as the team’s starting strong safety for a remarkable fifth straight season.
A prolific tackler who often lines up in the box, the six-foot, 205-pound defensive back has a reputation for big hits over the middle. Though he’s athletic enough to play up high, Brown has not been quite as successful covering space in college and may translate better to linebacker in the CFL if he can add a little weight.
7. Dontae Bull, OL, Fresno State University (Victoria, B.C.)
At one point before he opted to return to school, Bull was the No. 1 ranked prospect in the 2022 CFL Draft class. However, I rank him much lower this year in part due to the flaws that made him gamble on a fourth season as a Division 1 starter in order to become a serious NFL prospect.
At six-foot-seven and 326 pounds, Bull was built in a lab to play left tackle but lacks the elite foot quickness to contend with speed off the edge. Penalties were an issue last year and his imposing physicality may be better suited to playing inside at the next level.
8. Jared Wayne, REC, University of Pittsburgh (Peterborough, Ont.)*
With Biletnikoff award winner Jordan Addison lured to USC by NIL money, the expectation is that Jared Wayne will step into the role of Pitt’s number one receiver next year. If he can rise to the occasion and develop chemistry with transfer QB Kedon Slovis, Wayne has the chance to go from relative unknown to serious pro prospect.
At six-foot-three and 210 pounds, Wayne has mostly operated in the same area of the field as his father — former CFL linebacker Patrick Wayne — once did, owning the short and intermediate middle. He’s a sure-handed and reliable target who wins with great route-running rather than breakaway speed.
9. Tavius Robinson, DE, University of Mississippi (Guelph, Ont.)
Once a promising U Sports sack artist, Robinson leveraged the 2020 cancelled season to transfer from Guelph to Ole Miss. He saw playing time immediately and is now entering his third season as a viable SEC outside linebacker/defensive end.
At six-foot-six and 265 pounds, Robinson’s ridiculous length is what caught NCAA coaches’ attention and it will continue to be that way with pro scouts. Despite occasional flashes as a pass rusher, he remains incredibly raw and lacking play strength. That means a massive leap forward will be needed this year if Robinson wishes to become an NFL draft pick like fellow U Sports transfer and Ole Miss teammate Deane Leonard.
10. Gabe Wallace, OL, University at Buffalo (Salmon Arm, B.C.)*
Once a promising young rugby player, Gabe Wallace has blossomed into a full-time starter for what has traditionally been a dominant Bulls offensive line. The six-foot-five, 305-pound big man began the 2022 season at right tackle before finding a home at left guard, versatility which will be coveted by CFL teams.
A bouncer who can toss opponents out of the club, Wallace has the build and bend to succeed inside at the next level. While lacking weight by NFL standards, he’ll knock his man back off the ball and has enough agility to effectively get to the second level.
11. Clark Barnes, REC, University of Guelph (Brampton, Ont.)*
The highest-ranked U Sports player on my list, Barnes was originally committed to the University of Maine before becoming a Gryphon. He began his collegiate career with explosive return touchdowns in three consecutive weeks and has since blossomed into a dangerous receiving threat.
At six-foot-one and 195 pounds, Barnes is among the fastest players in the country with explosive after-the-catch ability and an unparalleled second gear. He’d be the talk of U Sports with better quarterbacking and CFL teams will be wary of not making the same mistake that saw fellow Guelph receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker slip to round four.
12. Rusty Staats, OL, Western Kentucky University (Watertown, Tenn.)*
You’ll be forgiven if Rusty Staats hasn’t been on your radar given that he’s primarily US-trained, but the Staats family has roots in the Ottawa football community. Rusty spent several years north of the border as a child and his return home will be much anticipated by teams.
The six-foot-three, 310-pound Canadian ex-pat seized the starting centre job last year and the stability he provided was a major component in quarterback Bailey Zappe’s NCAA record-breaking season. Coming from such a pass-heavy system, Staats has the agility and intelligence to succeed early in the CFL.
13. Jonathan Sutherland, LB, Pennsylvania State University (Ottawa, Ont.)
A former four-star recruit at safety, Sutherland has yet to carve out a full-time defensive role in five years in Happy Valley. While that might be a red flag to some, the Ottawa native has set himself apart in other areas, becoming the first three-time captain in school history alongside quarterback Sean Clifford — both of whom are likely to receive the “C” for a record fourth time this year.
When Sutherland has been on the field for packages, he’s played extremely well and is expected to get more looks at linebacker in 2022 after bulking up his five-foot-11 and 210-pound frame. He could become a modern pass-covering weak-side linebacker in the CFL and should dominate on special teams, where he’s excelled with 14 career tackles in college.
14. Lwal Uguak, DT, Texas Christian University (Edmonton, Alta.)
Uguak went right from Harry Ainlay High School to a starting role at the University of Connecticut and posted three productive seasons with the Huskies. He has now transferred to TCU for his final college season and will have a chance to prove he can consistently stand out against better competition.
At six-foot-five and 280 pounds, Uguak is long-armed and explosive enough to have inside/ outside versatility. He struggles at times to hold ground and has had issues with missed tackles in the past, but flashes the quick penetrating ability to be an impact performer in the CFL.
15. Francis Bemiy Jr., DE, Southern Utah University (Montreal, Que.)
Expected to be the key cog of the Southern Utah defence in his final season, Bemiy has already established himself as a difference maker with eight sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in his last 17 games.
Despite flashes as a pass rusher, he’s excelled most against the run and often picks and chooses the moment to pin his ears back. The six-foot-four, 270-pound defensive end needs to show himself to be more consistently dynamic to raise his draft stock, but has a high floor and a pro-ready frame.
16. Elliot Beamer, OL, Western University (Bowen Island, B.C.)
The Mustangs’ dominant rushing attack has been a team effort up front but the man in the middle of it all deserves more than an equal share of the credit. A first-team All-Canadian at centre, Beamer is everything you want in the position.
Checking in at six-foot-two and 279 pounds, Beamer will need to add weight to be successful at the next level but has proven to be an explosive finisher in the OUA. With elite lateral agility for a big man, he can get position on defenders of any alignment and routinely creates major displacement.
17. Giovanni Manu, OL, University of British Columbia (Pitt Meadows, B.C.)*
Standing at over six-foot-seven and 356 pounds with nearly 35-inch arms, Giovanni Manu was born to play tackle and moves incredibly well for his size. The kid once called “Baby Shaq” during his days playing high school basketball in B.C. posted a ridiculous 32.5-inch vertical at the East-West Bowl — numbers usually reserved for NFL first-round picks like Tristan Wirfs and Evan Neal.
Despite winning the genetic lottery, Manu is still working towards being a consistently dominant player and can struggle against speed. If he puts it all together this year, don’t be surprised if UBC head coach Blake Nill is getting calls from scouts south of the border.
18. Geoffrey Cantin-Arku, LB, University of Memphis (Lévis, Que.)*
One of a number of Quebecers to find success at Syracuse, Cantin-Arku was the starting middle linebacker for the Orange in 2020 before seeing his role reduced last season and electing to transfer to Memphis for his remaining eligibility.
The six-foot-four, 220-pound backer lacks the bulk of a four-down prototype in the middle and has been known to get overpowered or lose position against the run. Cantin-Arku makes up for those deficiencies by being a sideline-to-sideline athlete with the ability to change games as a blitzer and possesses huge special teams upside.
19. Jake Taylor, DB, University of Alberta (Beaumont, Alta.)*
With All-Canadian Jayden Dalke at safety and President’s Trophy winner Josiah Schakel at strong-side linebacker, halfback Jake Taylor flew under the radar on the Golden Bears’ defence. With both of those players now in the CFL, his talent will be hidden no longer.
Checking in at six-foot-one and 210 pounds, Taylor was the darling of the East-West Bowl testing with some insane numbers — 38-inch vertical, 10-foot, 8 1/2-inch broad, 4.67 forty, 4.12 shuttle, and 6.88 three-cone — in less than ideal conditions. He’s a combination of fast, physical and explosive rarely seen in the CFL draft process.
20. Theo Benedet, OL, University of British Columbia (North Vancouver, B.C.)*
At nearly six-foot-seven and 288 pounds, Benedet doesn’t have one-in-a-million girth like his UBC teammate Manu but he may be the more polished player right now. His silky smooth feet remind me of another Thunderbird right tackle that rose from obscurity to the top of draft boards: Dakoda Shepley.
Benedet is also a top-level shot-putter — always a good sign for offensive line prospects — and broad jumped an absurd nine-foot, 4 3/4-inches at East-West. Don’t be shocked if he becomes the offensive line darling of next year’s draft class with traits like that.
21. Siriman Harrison Bagayogo, DB, University of Guelph (Bois-Des-Filion, Que.)*
The premier lockdown cornerback in U Sports last season, Bagayogo allowed just five catches in 2021 and took receivers out of games with his impressive man coverage ability.
The six-foot-two, 197-pound defender is exceedingly low in his pedal but rarely missteps, with the hip flexibility and initial burst to stay in his man’s hip pocket all throughout the route. While others will flash more raw physicality, it’s hard not to love Bagayogo’s feet.
22. Lake Korte-Moore, DE, University of British Columbia (Ottawa, Ont.)
The third Thunderbird to make this list is yet another freak athlete with a pro frame — no surprise given Blake Nill’s recruiting prowess since taking over at UBC in 2015.
Playing primarily as a stand-up rush end, the six-foot-three, 255-pound Korte-Moore oozes power and explosiveness on the line with the ability to drop and play off-ball as well. He’ll attract attention for his surprising bend as a rusher, but it will be his status as a matchup nightmare on special teams and ability to chip in as a long snapper that will make teams really fall in love.
23. Daniel Johnson, OL, Purdue University (London, Ont.)*
The brother of former Alouettes’ receiver George Johnson, Daniel used to be a pass-catcher in his own right and converted from tight end to offensive tackle while attending Kent State. He briefly found success in the starting lineup for the Flashes as a redshirt freshman but has struggled to stay on the field since.
That hasn’t prevented Johnson from moving up in the college football world by transferring to Purdue this year, where his stock could rise dramatically if he sees significant playing time. At six-foot-five and 307 pounds, he has elite movement skills for a big man.
24. Kojo Odoom, DB, Western University (Surrey, B.C.)*
The OUA Rookie of the Year in 2019, Odoom took another step forward last season but found himself somewhat overshadowed in a deep Vanier Cup-winning secondary.
A modern corner with a skillset taken straight from the seven-on-seven circuit, Odoom set himself apart at East-West Bowl with his twitchy athleticism. The five-foot-11, 186-pound cover man plays with a brash edge and the suddenness to break on the ball for the big plays you need to win in today’s CFL.
25. Quintin Seguin, DL, Charleston Southern University (Windsor, Ont.)
A reliable lunch-pail rotational player for four seasons at North Dakota, Seguin’s style of play has been less than glamorous throughout his college career.
With just five career sacks, he isn’t an elite pass rusher but at six-foot-three and 260 pounds, Seguin has the inside/outside versatility that teams desire. A strong final season after transferring to Charleston Southern could see his stock rise, though he’s likely to be a high floor, low ceiling type of prospect.
Other names to watch (listed alphabetically): Tyshon Blackburn, DB, Alberta* | D.K. Bonhomme, LB, South Alabama* | Anim Dankwah, OL, Howard* | Kail Dava, DT, Tennessee Tech* | Matt Dean, LB, York | Reece Martin, DT, Mount Allison | Jeremy Murphy, REC, Concordia* | Christy Nkanu, OL, Southern Utah* | Samuel Obiang, DT, Texas State | Edouard Paradis, OL, Houston Baptist* | James Peter, LB, Ottawa | Charlie Ringland, DB, Saskatchewan | Justin Sambu, DL, Maine* | Xavier Thibault, DT, Montreal | Josh White, LB, Regina