2022 CFL Combine at the Westin Harbour Castle on March 27, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Thomas Skrlj/CFL.ca)
Members of the Toronto Argonauts front office allowed Argonauts.ca’s Mike Hogan to shadow them for the three days of the CFL Combine. Here is a look behind the curtain at how the team uses the three-day event to better prepare for the CFL Drafts. No players names will used in this story as to not share information with other teams prior to the draft.
It was both a meat market and a meet market. For three days – March 25-27 – the personnel departments from all nine CFL teams flocked to Toronto for the CFL Combine, an opportunity to check out draft-eligible players firsthand in advance of the May 3 selection process.
Players were put through both physical drills and an interview process, allowing teams to combine those results with hours of studying game film on each of the prospects from U SPORTS, the NCAA, as well as all Global prospects.
After two years without the event, Argos Assistant General Manager Vince Magri was thrilled to not only get back to a more normal pre-draft routine, but to be able to see the prospects up close as opposed to relying on game film and interviews over Zoom.
“It’s Christmas morning,” Magri told Argonauts.ca just before the event commenced. “For obvious reasons it’s been a difficult past two years. To have the chance again to have them all under one roof and to get a chance to see them in person and to get the interviews and the measurements to me is invaluable.”
It is Magri and Director of Football Operations and National Scout Alex Russell that do most of the heavy lifting in preparation for the draft. The duo studies hours and hours of video to prepare a working draft order, then General Manager Michael “Pinball” Clemons, Senior Advisor Jim Barker and Head Coach Ryan Dinwiddie begin looking at film to give their input, as does Dinwiddie’s coaching staff.
A prioritized list of players will become closer to being finalized after the Combine evaluation is done.
Over the years some players have impressed enough to improve their draft status, while others have performed or interviewed poorly enough to make a team think twice. The draft process is not an exact science, but exercises like this can help an evaluator answer some questions.
“It can help a lot,” said Magri. “The two most important parts of the Combine to me, contrary to popular belief, are the medicals and the interviews. Those are two things you can’t really gather on video; you can’t get it by visiting a practice. Here you can get verified measurements on a player, check on his health status, on past injuries, whether or not he has a propensity to be re-injured. Then you do the interview and start to get to know the person you’re drafting, not just the player.”
The medicals were conducted on both Thursday and Friday morning, prior to any physical activities.
There was one word that popped up more than most on Day One; “normalcy.” Argonauts.ca experienced that when entering the Westin Harbour Castle, the site of the first two days of activities.
Calgary president and general manager John Hufnagel and B.C. co-general manager and head coach Rick Campbell were sitting and having a chat over a coffee, while a few feet away Edmonton coach and G.M. Chris Jones walked through the lobby wearing his new Elks pullover – in black, naturally.
This was a day for some physical testing, but more importantly – at least to Magri – the first round of interviews; the chance to sit down with players and find out a little more about them in a formal, yet at times relaxed manner.
The first order of business was to hear from the Global players. These would not be one-on-ones with teams; the potential draftees would be led into a conference room one at a time. The athlete would sit on a couch at the front of the room, while representatives from every CFL team – general managers, coaches, and members of the personnel department – sat in two rows of chairs arranged in a semi-circle to hear what the player had to say.
There were two separate rooms for these discussions; offensive players would go to one room, defensive players to the other. Argonauts.ca tagged alongside Alex Russell as he sat in with the defensive players.
Russell would take a much more active role in this year’s draft preparations. Recently promoted, he would be leading the sessions of one-on-one conversations with National defensive players later that night.
A total of 15 representatives of CFL teams were in the room with the Global defensive prospects. Each player was first asked a series of questions by Lawrence Hopper, the league’s coordinator of global scouting. Most of Hopper’s questions were basic; asking about a player’s background, injury history, commitment to attending camp, and if they would stay for the season if they didn’t dress for games immediately and started the year on the practice roster.
Hopper would then turn the questioning over to the assembled team personnel. A couple of other questions would usually be sprinkled in to add depth to the profile. After about 15 minutes the player would leave the room and the next athlete would take his spot on the couch.
Some players showed up in suits, others in jacket and tie, while some showed up in sweats. If Russell was making notes about the attire it was mentally, as he didn’t write down how formally the player approached the interview.
The procession of players ran as smoothly as a car wash; one out, the next immediately taking his place. The diversity of backgrounds was fascinating. Players came from junior colleges, major NCAA Division-1 programs, pro European teams, or club teams in their home country.
Several of the players brought up their intent to get their master’s degree or were PHD candidates. There were an inordinate number of serious hand injuries, including one who broke his hand when he was kicked by a horse. There were smiles all around when a likable Latvian lineman entered the room sporting loud pink hair.
While these conversations were happening, Russell was making copious notes, preparing himself for the conversations that would follow when the Argos brain trust assembled in the days following the Combine, preparing for the Global draft, which will be held at noon ET on May 3, the same day as the main draft.
The entire process lasted a total of five hours. When it was over the planet was covered from A-to-Z; Otavio Amorim to Osvaldo Zumalacarregui. The countries represented in the defensive interviews were Mexico, France, Latvia, Australia, Norway, Brazil, England, Germany, Samoa, Finland, Japan and the Netherlands.
Football is truly a global sport.
At 4:00 the Argo personnel met as a group for the first time in one of the conference boardrooms on the Harbor Castle’s lower floor, the site of all interviews they would conduct with National defensive players. The first discussion was about some of the players that most intrigued the Argos and how they would approach those athletes in the interview sessions.
There wasn’t much time for small talk as the weigh-ins were scheduled for 5:00 in Salon B, located two floors up. Nine teams sat at ten tables – the Argos congregation was large enough that a second table was needed.
All players, both National and Global, walked to the stage one at a time. Wearing just shorts and a tee shirt, the player would announce himself by name, then step on a scale. Running this event for the league was Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Myles Gorrell. He would announce the weight to the room, then the pair would walk over to measure the player’s height to the tenth of an inch.
Optically, it was a bit comical that no matter how tall the player was he looked short next to Gorrell, who is 6’8”.
The room was mostly quiet, then totally silent when one of the top prospects was on the stage. Even though the info would be posted by the league, the personnel groups were making their own notes in preparation for the upcoming interviews. A few players would be asked about their weight later that night, or the next day.
The parade continued for an hour and ten minutes, giving the teams less than 90 minutes to grab a bite to eat and prepare for the interviews.
The Argos would conduct the interviews in two rooms. Offensive prospects would meet in a suite upstairs with Magri, Barker, Dinwiddie, receivers coach and pass game coordinator Pete Costanza and offensive line coach Kris Sweet. In the lower level boardroom the defensive prospects would meet with Russell, defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Corey Mace, linebackers coach and special teams assistant Kevin Eiben, and linebacker Henoc Muamba. Director of Video Jon Magri would be recording each interview, while Argonauts.ca was also in the room to take notes. Clemons had to miss the Friday sessions, but would be there for all Saturday and Sunday.
Tables in the room would be arranged in a U shape, with a chair placed inside the formation. Most of the players who entered the room joked about the configuration and being placed in the hotseat.
Russell, Eiben and Magri were facing the player, Muamba would be on the athlete’s right side, Mace and this reporter on his left. Mace had a computer set up to include two other coaches via Zoom; defensive backs coach Joshua Bell and secondary coach Will Fields.
After the athlete entered the room and shook hands with everyone, Russell would begin the questioning. Much of his early time would be spent on what could be considered housekeeping. He’d ask about injuries and commitment, among other things. Mace usually asked the next round of questions. He mixed up his approach with the players, sometimes going deep into the Xs and Os of a play, other times asking players about their deficiencies. His line of questioning was extremely direct.
After that Eiben would talk to linebackers, while Bell and Fields would question the defensive backs. Like Mace, they’d mix up their interrogation based on the player in the hotseat.
The amount of research and film study the Argos did was evident. On more than one occasion Russell would ask something very specific to a player and the reply would be along the lines of “I can’t believe you know that.” One player was asked about a negative play that he was involved in last season. He couldn’t recall which game it was, then in unison all four coaches immediately reminded him who the opponent was.
One player may not have liked the hot seat so much and was noticeably sweating throughout the session. Another was very good in his conversation, though English wasn’t his first language. Near the end of the period Muamba asked him a question in French and was able to talk to the Argo delegation afterwards about whether the player was more comfortable in his native language.
At 9:30 the first day of interviewing concluded and the Argo group from the offensive room headed to the lower level to join those from the defensive room. Those involved were enthusiastically exchanging information gained from their discussions.
Russell was happy with his effort leading the sessions.
“It was good,” he told Argonauts.ca. “It was a little bit different being in charge and steering the direction of the interview. It was nice to get my feet wet with the first couple and then settled into a nice rhythm for the rest of the night and hopefully for the rest of the weekend.”
He, like Magri, took a lot out of the interview process.
“It’s huge for me,” he explained. “We’ve been watching these guys since September of last year. It’s more just getting an understanding of the person. I know it’s only 15 minutes, but you ask them a couple of basic questions and a couple of Xs and Os questions and you feel like you have a better understanding of the guy.”
Day One was in the books, but there was much more work to do.
The second day of interviews began at 9:45 Saturday morning. The same people were in the same rooms with Clemons now joining those for the defensive interview sessions. He’d sit to Muamba’s left in the U, immediately to the right of the potential draftee.
Russell again led the questioning, seeming more comfortable in his role as the lead dog. The process was now second nature to everyone as a definite rhythm had been developed on the first day.
It was still a laborious process. There was a certain degree of monotony that set in for both the questioners and the players. By the end of the day some of athletes would be answering the same questions for the eighth or ninth time.
Most of the players sat with perfect posture, while a couple leaned forward while answering, becoming totally engaged with the person asking the question. It was obvious that the majority of players had been given advice on how to answer certain questions as at times there was an almost robotic response.
The morning interview session wrapped up at 11:45. Again, the offensive and defensive groups assembled downstairs to compare notes. For some coaches the process solidified their stance on a player either positively or negatively. Some coaches were swayed by a player’s answer, especially when a reasonable explanation was given for why a player may have struggled in one phase of his game. More than one coach said they were going to have to go back and look at film, and that the interview may have changed their minds and made them more open to recommending that player be drafted.
At 2:00 all the teams once again assembled upstairs in Salon B for the vertical jump and weightlifting. It was an incredibly relaxed atmosphere as team personnel found time to reconnect with old friends.
There was a definite Argo presence in the room. There were high-profile former players like Clemons, Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea, Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer, Saskatchewan vice president of football operations and general manager Jeremy O’Day, and Riders defensive coordinator Jason Shivers. There were recognizable former coaches like Chris Jones and Ottawa head coach Paul LaPolice. Also, in attendance were player personnel evaluators like Winnipeg’s Ted Goveia, Hamilton’s Spencer Zimmerman and Montreal’s defensive line coach Greg Quick, all of whom had spent time in Double Blue.
There was an added Argo presence as head athletic therapist Josh Shewell and assistant athletic therapist Mark Belmore were on hand in case any athletes required treatment.
Henoc Muamba was doing some work with CFL.ca, but he wasn’t the only current Argo in attendance as defensive tackle Shawn Oakman popped by to say hello and check out the event.
Again, this was a very processional exercise. To begin the session, every athlete went onto the stage to execute three vertical jumps, exploding as high as they could and having the height recorded. Magri, Russell and Barker sat second row centre, while the rest of the Double Blue crew sat a little further back.
It took just under an hour for the Global players to cease leaping. The National players then took to the stage, taking just under an hour-and-a-half to complete the same task.
The device used to measure the vertical jump was moved off stage and replaced with the tools needed for the bench press testing, as each athlete was asked to bench 225 pounds as many times as possible.
The Global players again went first, followed by the Nationals. The trio of Magri, Russell and Barker may not have moved from their seats for either event, laser focused on what was happening on the stage.
Both events moved slowly but surely, and at 5:49 things came to an end. There were just over two hours to prepare for the final interview sessions.
At 8:00 things resumed and followed the same routine as the previous two interview sessions. There were several defensive backs in this group, meaning coaches Bell and Fields would be more active. Another two hours of interviews were conducted before calling it a night, meaning the team had accomplished what it had set out to do.
Again, there was more discussion as the group from the offensive room made its way downstairs for one more opportunity to share what it had learned.
This was far from the first time Barker has gone through this process. After it was over he raved about this year’s crop of players interview skills.
“It was as intelligent a group in terms of being able to communicate as any I’ve ever seen,” he proclaimed. “You try to dig into what kind of person they really are; what’s show and what’s not show. You try to ask questions that get to those answers and with these guys there was really nothing you had to dig under. There wasn’t one guy that came in and you felt like they weren’t telling us the whole truth. It was really refreshing.”
The venue changed for Sunday, as players headed to the bubble at Varsity Stadium for one more round of testing, then a chance to strap on the pads and do some one-on-one contact drills.
If “normalcy” was the word of the day on Friday, Sunday’s word was “cold”. The temperature had dropped substantially from the day before and the heaters at the facility weren’t working. Nobody had dressed to be in sub-freezing temperatures, though everyone wished they had.
Joining Shewell and Bellmore from the Argos were athletic therapists Valerie Chuong and Amanda Deluca. The equipment team of Danny Webb and Dave Sillberg were also there in case there were any issues.
Former Argo linebacker and current Winnipeg defensive backs coach Jordan Younger was also in attendance.
The first order of the day was the final testing session. There were four stations set up around the field; the 40-yard dash, the broad jump, the three-cone drill and the short shuttle.
Russell was stationed at the shuttle, while Magri and Barker sat at the finish line at the 40. Every team hand timed the results to check against the official league time. The two Argo reps would exchange times to see if any clocking was out of whack. The other members of the staff wandered around to follow specific athletes or positional groups from station to station.
Groups would rotate from drill to drill until each athlete had completed all four, the final group finishing at around 10:00.
After players had a chance to put on helmets and shoulder pads it was time for one-on-one drills. The main event for many was the matchup between offensive and defensive linemen. The o-line lined up in formation five across, then a defensive player lined up across from one of the o-linemen. After a ball was snapped to a league rep acting as quarterback the players went full-contact, full speed; either trying to get to the QB or keeping the defensive player away from him.
Every representative from every team circled the action to watch these drills. Some players caught the attention of those watching because they stood out, others disappointed those in attendance.
After the big men battled, the linebackers and running backs did the same drill. Those two groups also did one-on-one coverage drills, as did the receivers and defensive backs.
The final event consisted of a “gunner drill” to test a player’s ability to run down the field on kickoff or punt coverage, and his opponent’s ability to block him.
The Argos assistant general manager got a lot out of the weekend; particularly the medicals, the interviews, and the chance to see them move around in person. Argonauts.ca asked Magri if the weekend had led him to consider drafting someone he hadn’t previously thought highly of, or performed so poorly they would be taken off the team’s list of potential draftees.
“I think that might be a little extreme,” said Magri “Every year there’s always a handful of guys that moved their way up a little bit or moved their way down. It’s not necessarily just from one aspect, it’s just how they performed through the entire weekend and how it matched up to how we already felt about them based on background and film evaluation.”
Clemons said he personally got the most out of the interviews, then the on-field one-on-one sessions. How did he feel about the way his personnel group performed?
“Extremely happy,” he said after Sunday’s final session. “I believe that’s because a great amount of the work had already been put in. Vince and Alex got us organized and having Jim back is so great. He had his own list prepared and the coaches had also prepared; so with all of that input we felt we had a good idea of what we were going to be looking at. In some cases, guys fulfilled it (expectations), in other places we found maybe concerns and all of those things are valuable.”
By the time it was over there weren’t many pleasantries exchanged, it was time to get out of the freezing bubble and warm up.
The last major pre-draft evaluation opportunity is done. Now it’s up to Clemons and his staff to evaluate the players, conduct several mock drafts, and compile a final list of athletes and where they’ll be ranked when the Argos take part in the CFL draft just five weeks from now.