April 10, 2019

Hogan: Looking out for number one

Jim Popp during the CFL Draft Day at the Argonauts office downtown Toronto on Sunday, May 7, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

It’s an odd, and very surprising stat. In the 37 years since the Argos selected Western running back Mike Kirkley with the first-overall pick in the 1982 CFL Draft, the Argos have had the first pick just one other time.

In 1997 they selected centre Chad Folk from Utah, a move that worked out exceptionally well. The Kelowna, B.C. native played 195 games in Double Blue, sixth most in team history, winning Grey Cups in 1997 and 2004.

Even that pick was a bit strange as the Argos had won the Grey Cup the year before. In June 1996, Toronto sent defensive end Jeff Cummins to Ottawa for its first-round pick, which ended up being the top pick in the draft.

To be fair, Kirkley wasn’t truly the top selection in the ’82 draft, as there were territorial exemptions in that era. Kirkley was the 19th player taken. The last time the Argos had the opportunity to select the best player in the draft prior to Folk, they chose UBC receiver Lawrence “Chip” Barrett first overall in 1967.

Chad Folk with the Grey Cup in 2004. Folk is third from the left.

On May 2nd the Argos will once again have the No. 1 pick – provided they keep it – a spot in the draft order that General Manager Jim Popp isn’t familiar with.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever had the first pick,” Popp told Argonauts.ca, “I’ve spent most of my career drafting at the bottom of the round.”

It’s an interesting position for Popp, entering his third season as the Argos GM. This time he doesn’t have to wait for several names to fall off the board before making his selection. “The difference is you have to pinpoint the player and you also know who you’re going to get.”

But knowing who you’re going to get doesn’t mean they’ll be on your team immediately.

The CFL Draft is a different duck. In other leagues, the usual method of operation for a team is to take the best player available and work out a contract. In some cases, a player says he won’t sign with a specific team, so the team simply trades the pick, or selects a different player.

In the CFL, a team must determine whether the player it has its eyes on is interested in the NFL. Even if a player isn’t selected in the NFL draft, he’s always able to sign in that league as a free agent.

“It’s a little easier now because of where the drafts fall on the calendar, the dynamics have changed,” said Popp. “Our draft is now after the NFL draft.”

According to the GM, the Argos have it broken down into two groups. ”The best player, and the best player who will sign. There’s no perfect science. After a player gets drafted high in the CFL there’s more NFL interest as teams wonder ‘what did we miss?’”

Popp is certain about one thing though, he wants whoever is chosen with the No. 1 pick to be at York University when the Argos training camp opens on May 19th.

“It’s different,” said Popp, when asked about taking Ryan Hunter at the end of the first round a year ago, knowing he was going to test the NFL waters first. “You can wait with nine (the ninth overall pick), not with one. We want to take the best player we can get into our camp.”

So, who is that player?

Popp wouldn’t tip his hand, saying there were five-to-eight players who could comfortably fall into that slot. His right-hand man concurs.

Vince Magri is the Argos Director of Canadian Scouting. He’s watched hours and hours of video of each prospect, watched them work out, talked to their coaches, anything he can to try and give the team the best portrait of the player it can paint.

He was even more tight lipped about the possible choices than his boss, but agreed that there is no slam dunk pick atop the board. After being asked how many he’d put in that top group he paused for a considerable period before offering “More than one player at more than one position, it’s that talented a draft.”

Nobody should be shocked if a receiver, or a lineman from either side of the ball goes first overall. It’s also a good year for players in the defensive secondary, but it’s doubtful a player from that group emerges as the first selection.

Now comes the process of grading the players and coming up with a draft list.

“All of our personnel people will be involved,” said Popp, “We all have opinions, we all have grades. We have it narrowed down to 80 players. That will be narrowed down to our top 50. We rarely go past 40.”

The process doesn’t stop with the scouting staff.

“We’ll eventually bring in the coaches,” the GM continued. “After we’ve done our evaluations we’ll list our top five players at each position. For instance, we’ll rank our top five offensive linemen. We’ll give the coach that video and let him give his thoughts. We want our coaches going into a camp with an open mind about a player.”

The Argos will bring the top handful of players on their board to Toronto for meetings with the personnel and coaching staffs. The interview process is important, especially since the teams only get the player for 15 minutes during the CFL Combine. It’s a chance to help determine how a player would fit into the locker room.

For Magri, entering his seventh draft with the Argos, his sixth in his current capacity, he’s learned one thing that will no doubt be drawn upon again on May 2nd.

“You should always expect the unexpected,” he said. “The board never falls the way you think. You can’t get inside the heads of the other eight teams.”

That makes the draft that much more fun for fans, and equally as stressful for the teams.