When it comes to managing draft capital, football teams live by two simple rules: more picks are better and the higher the pick, the more valuable it is.
Like most rules, Chris Jones is happy to break them.
The Edmonton Elks’ head coach and general manager pulled off the most bizarre move of the CFL offseason when he traded a second-round pick in the upcoming CFL Draft — 12th overall — to the Ottawa Redblacks in exchange for Canadian linebacker Woodly Appolon — a player who was selected in the fifth round a year ago.
While the basic math of that transaction didn’t add up for most fans, Jones insists the trade was actually a win for the organization.
“If you’ve watched as much film as I have on this year’s draft, especially at the linebacker position, you see the importance of a guy like Woodly,” he said in an interview with 3DownNation.
A native of Montreal, Appolon began his collegiate career at Highland Community College in Kansas, before transferring to Butler Community College. He played safety at both stops but eventually earned a shot as a linebacker at the University of Northern Illinois, dressing for one game during the 2020 season.
The six-foot-four, 220-pound backer eventually transferred to Tuskegee University, a historically black Division II program in Alabama. He played 10 games in 2021, amassing 70 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two pass deflections, an interception and a forced fumble. That was good enough to become the 40th overall selection in the 2022 CFL Draft, though that didn’t tell the whole story.
“We felt the only reason why he was a fifth-round pick last year is because he wasn’t coming to the CFL right away. We felt that in comparison to some of the linebackers in this draft, he would be an elite guy,” Elks’ assistant general manager Geroy Simon explained.
“Spending a second-round pick, we felt that was a bargain for us. He’ll come in and he’ll compete right away as a special teamer and have a chance to play on defence as well.”
While he was unable to defer his draft year due to age, Appolon made clear to teams that his intention was to return to school in 2022 and play out his final season of NCAA eligibility with the Golden Tigers. That caused his draft stock to fall significantly, despite being the fourth-best prospect at his position according to 3DownNation.
Appolon struggled with injury during his senior season, dressing for just eight games and making an impact on the stat sheet in only four. He recorded 18 tackles including one for a loss but still received an invite to the HBCU Legacy Bowl. While there, he quickly reminded Jones why he had been so highly graded by the Elks the year before.
“I was at the HBCU game for four days there in New Orleans and when I looked down, I didn’t know who the kids were,” Jones recalled. “I was like, ‘Man, who’s that number 33?’ I pulled up my little HBCU list and sure enough, it was Woodly.”
That all-star game exposure may have sparked the team’s pursuit of a trade, but Edmonton had plenty of data points beyond Jones’ in-person evaluation pointing to Appolon status as a potential diamond in the rough. Namely, they drafted his identical twin brother Wesly with the 39th overall pick in 2022 — one spot before Ottawa snagged Woodly.
Wesly Appolon was graded a tier below his brother on most scouts’ boards, marginally less productive at Tuskegee and never having generated FBS interest. However, he surprised many by earning the Elks’ starting weakside linebacker position out of training camp, beating out veteran Adam Konar and 2022 fourth-overall pick Enock Makonzo for the role.
Sadly, Elks fans never got to see Wesly’s true impact as a rookie as he suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first defensive play of the season against the B.C. Lions.
“I know what his brother brought to our football team last year and it was tragic [that he was injured],” Jones said. “The first defensive play of the year, he’s our starter and when you’ve got Adam Konar and some other talented guys and he was able to be the starter, that tells you how good he’s played.”
“I can say that the first few days with our Apollon, I was sitting there questioning, but then all of a sudden that light switch went off and I’m like, ‘Wow, this kid’s got real potential.’ To be able to add his brother to the mix, I think is a good thing for our football team and that’s really all that matters, is our football team, to us.”
The Elks hope that reuniting the Appolon brothers will provide a level of comfort that can help spark them both to success, providing valuable depth for a team that could start two Canadians in their linebacking corps next season.
Still, it is difficult not to view the move as an indictment of the 2023 draft class, with Edmonton moving to aggressively part with a premium selection in exchange for a player whose stock has arguably dropped in the past year. Several prominent CFL decision-makers have complained that the final year of COVID deferrals wreaked havoc on this year’s available talent, artificially creating a weak class. Simon believes the reality is slightly more complex.
“Every class has its pros, has its cons. This class has a lot of guys that are going to get NFL shots so in that sense, it’s really, really good,” he said. “Those guys won’t be coming to the CFL right away so we have to project where they’re going to fall in the draft.”
Though he ultimately never garnered NFL attention, that is the same dilemma that teams faced in determining Appolon’s value a year ago. Now that he is finally coming north, the Elks have bet big on their evaluation.