Monday, 23 March 2015

Fans Rejoice! Bakari Grant is Back

One of the longest-tenured Tiger-Cats is returning for at least one more season after the team announced this afternoon that receiver Bakari Grant has signed a new contract.

The pact is reported to be for one season, which means Grant will once again be free to test the market next offseason. It also allows him to make more money next season should he have a big season in 2015, while also giving the team some flexibility going forward.

The Oakland native has spent all four years of his CFL career with the Ti-Cats, hauling in 207 passes for 2,535 yards and 12 touchdowns, with a single-season best 69 catches and 947 yards in 2013 leading to an East Division All-Star selection. Grant likely would have notched his first 1,000-yard season had he not sat out the final game of the 2013 season (due to the Tiger-Cats having locked up second in the East).

The signing of Grant more than likely ends Hamilton’s acquisition of CFL veterans. I cannot see the team dipping into the free agent pool again, and anyone else signed will likely come from their negotiation list and/or US tryouts.

Grant is a hugely popular player amongst Tiger-Cat fans. He is a hardnosed, unselfish, intense player, one who is unafraid of doing the little things to help the team win, and players like that are always loved by Tiger-Cat fans. Grant also works a ton in the community, and even spent the offseason between the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Hamilton instead of heading home to California. These types of things endear players to the fans of their teams and you can see why reaction to the signing has been universally positive.

After four seasons and two heartbreaking Grey Cup loses, fans want to see big No. 84 finally lift the Cup with the Ti-Cats. Hopefully, for all involved, 2015 will be that year.

The Next Canadian Superstar?

Many experts feel that Simon Fraser product Lemar Durant is not only far and away the best draft-eligible receiver, but the overall most talented player available in the 2015 CFL draft class. That includes all eligible Canadians in both the NCAA and CIS, such as NFL bound studs Tyler Varga from Yale and Brett Boyko from UNLV.

The last time that I can recall a Canadian pass catcher receiving such hype was when University of Western Ontario legend Andy Fantuz was selected with the third overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Despite being the best CIS receiver of all time, Fantuz was selected third overall behind defensive end Adam Braidwood and linebacker Jay Pottinger.

Similarly to Fantuz, Durant will likely not be drafted first overall due to the importance of offensive and defensive lineman in the player ratio. Teams typically start three or four national offensive lineman versus two Canadian receivers, while the offensive line position is also without a doubt far more vital to a team’s success than a good receiving corps, particularly the Canadian players on the line.

It's also often considered perhaps a risky pick when clubs decide to use their first round draft pick on a receiver. While being selected in the first round does not mean that the receiver is expected to have a career as successful as Fantuz's or Chris Getzlaf's, it is expected that they develop into a solid starter at some point during their career.

From 2007 to 2014, 11 receivers were taken off the board in the opening round of the draft. The combined average yards-per-season for all 11 is a mere 246 yards. Meanwhile, Andy Fantuz has averaged a whopping 757 yards per season which included a 1,000 yard campaign in 2010.

While Durant's college career was impressive when he was in the lineup, it was not nearly as good as Fantuz's for reasons I'll touch on soon. Although from what I've seen on tape, I think he possesses the skill set to match the former Hec Crighton winner's production in the professional ranks and become the next Canadian superstar.

Durant was originally recruited by the University of Nevada, but transferred to Division II Simon Fraser after redshirting his freshman year with the Wolfpack. He then utilized a medical redshirt in year two to treat juvenile arthritis in his knee, which has not bothered him since he took a year off to treat it in 2011.

Nevada was hoping Durant would return to be an asset in an offence that was centred around some quarterback named Colin Kaepernick. In fact, Nevada coaches even told Durant he would compete for a starting job as a redshirt freshman with Rishard Matthews, who's currently a wideout for the Miami Dolphins. However, he opted to return home and officially start his collegiate career with his high school coach and friends at Simon Fraser, which had just entered the NCAA ranks.

Durant had an incredible freshman year, recording 91 receptions for 1,318 yards (120 YPG) with 17 touchdowns in 11 games. After starting quarterback Trey Wheeler left to pursue bigger and better things in Division I, Durant caught 29 passes for 389 yards and five touchdowns in only four games during his sophomore season while playing with two struggling quarterbacks, which ultimately led to the Clan becoming a very run heavy offence during Durant's final two seasons. Simon Fraser's quarterbacks led the conference in interceptions while Durant missed seven games with an ankle injury; the only sport-related injury of his athletic career.

Durant looked to get back on track in his junior season, but had another case of bad luck as he contracted infectious mononucleosis (mono) and missed another four games. In 23 college games, the Coquitlam, BC native had 175 catches for 2,392 yards and 28 touchdowns, which averages out to 7.6 catches per game, 104 yards, and 1.2 touchdowns. He was named Simon Fraser's offensive MVP in 2012, was a three-time 1st-team All-Conference selection, was named an All-American in 2012 and was selected by Beyond Sports College Network in 2014 as the No. 1 draft sleeper for the 2015 NFL draft. While Durant's stats on paper under these circumstances are quite impressive, it's his game on film that really blows me away.

You don't have to be an expert scout to recognize Durant's raw talent. His highlight tape is essentially six minutes worth of entertainment featuring the 23-year old burning cornerbacks down field.

Durant is a bigger receiver at 6'3”, 231 pounds, and has great speed for a receiver of that size with a sub 4.5 40-yard dash time. Durant has a large catching radius and maximizes his vertical leap and physicality when fighting for the jump ball. Durant's freakish athleticism, size, speed and big-play ability have me sold that he can immediately be a respectable deep-threat and red-zone target in year one in the CFL.

In order to be labelled as "Fantuzable," Durant will have to find success in the CFL quickly and average around 600 yards with three touchdowns per season for his first three years.

The last rookie national receiver to start a good chunk of games was Edmonton's 2012 first-round pick Shamawd Chambers, who started 11 games, missing time due to injuries, and chipped in 390 yards and two touchdowns.

While Chambers was a first-round pick himself, he was nowhere near the prospect Lemar Durant is. Chambers' best season at Wilfrid Laurier University was his senior year when he recorded 652 receiving yards in eight games, good for 13th overall out of all CIS schools.

Chambers was fortunately put in a good situation to step up mid-season after injuries piled up in Edmonton. He had time to learn and adjust to the professional game before being thrust into the starting lineup for 11 starts. Despite him being far more prepared physically than Chambers, the same is likely to occur for Durant.

With that being said, I do believe there are a couple teams where Durant could beat the odds and start early on as a national rookie. One team that comes to mind is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who hold the second overall pick.

Winnipeg's starting inside national receiver is Julian Feoli-Gudino, who had zero career catches in two seasons before registering a mere 240 yards in 2014. The Laval product's three seasons of experience likely mean he has a good understanding of CFL coverages and can find soft spots in zones better than Durant (not that Julian has really proved any of that to be true), yet the latter has given me no reason to believe that he would not be able to learn quickly, like many international rookie receivers do during their first season. Feoli-Gudino, a fifth round draft pick in 2011, is not nearly as talented as Durant and cannot do anything, skill-wise, that Durant can’t do right now.

The 400 yards Fantuz accumulated during his rookie season is certainly doable for Durant, and I expect him to breakout in year two with around 600-700 yards.

As far as I am concerned, Durant is the best draft-eligible receiver since Fantuz in 2006. The former SFU Clan and Nevada Wolfpack member is reportedly viewed as the best player available in the best draft class in a very long time; far better than that of 2007 when a certain bust named Chris Bauman was selected with the top pick by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Durant was even viewed as a legitimate mid-to-late round future NFL draft pick after his incredible freshman year.

This kid is special, and I'm completely confident that he can follow in the footsteps of CIS-great Andy Fantuz.

I guess there's just something about football players named Durant.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Monday Mailbag, Vol. 4

Last week, in lieu of a mailbag, you got a podcast. Fair trade, I would say. Going forward, weeks that there is a podcast will be mailbag-free simply due to the fact that Mike and I cover a few of your questions when we record.

Anyway, no podcast this week, so let’s mailbag it up!

Any rules changes you’d like to see in 2015?

I am not all that big on making rule changes every year, but there is one I would like tweaked and one I would like eliminated completely. Let’s start with the latter: reviewable pass interference.

It was an interesting experiment, but I don’t think that making pass interference reviewable really made all that much of a difference. If it is the first step towards making all plays reviewable, fine, but by itself it was a bit unnecessary. I didn’t much care for it and would like to see it gone (which won’t happen, but I was asked what I would like to see, not what will occur).

One change I would like to see is something I wanted to see way back in 2011, and that is that all plays occurring in the endzone should be automatically reviewed. Both the CFL and NFL make scoring plays and turnovers subject to automatic review, but I think the CFL should take it one step further and review any play that takes place in the endzone. The play that sparked my initial desire to see this rule enacted took place in a game between the Montreal Alouettes and Hamilton Tiger-Cats. I called for the change then and I am still calling for change now.

You can pick one CFL quarterback, past or present, to lead one drive with the Grey Cup on the line. Who do you choose?

It has got to be Doug Flutie. No one I have ever seen play displayed what can best be described as magic on a football field quite like Doug Flutie. Whether it was with his arms or with his legs, Flutie made plays happen. In the most-important drive in the most-important game, I am giving the ball to the six-time Most Outstanding Player and three-time Grey Cup champion.

Did Taylor Reed play much on special teams in '14 or was he only on the field because Plesius wasn't in the Grey Cup lineup?

I received this question when I was putting together the initial mailbag and it took me some time to find an answer, but I found it and the answer is: yes, Reed was on the punt return team prior to the Grey Cup.

I decided to look at a handful of punt returns to see if I could spot Reed and he was a member of the unit prior to the Plesius’ injury. In fact, during one of Brandon Banks’ scintillating punt returns in the East Division Final against Montreal, Reed was out there blocking. While I cannot say if he was a mainstay on the unit, I can say that the Grey Cup was not the first time Taylor Reed was blocking for Brandon Banks on a punt return.

Why should @AmericanCFLFan become a Ti-Cats fan?

Telling someone why they should cheer for a team is always hard. As Mike and I discussed on a recent episode of Podskee Wee Wee, my Tiger-Cat fandom is almost strictly due to being born in Hamilton. But place of birth is not the only reason someone should like the Tiger-Cats.

The Tiger-Cat fanbase as a whole is pretty awesome. Sure we can be loud (check), annoying (check) and sometimes extremely unlikable (check plus!), but you won’t find many fans out there as loyal as Tiger-Cat fans. Success has not come easy for the Cats since they last hoisted the Grey Cup, but the fans have stayed loyal. The team is in a fairly decent boom period right now – five playoff appearances in the last six years and back-to-back Grey Cup appearances – but yet fans still don’t take it for granted.

You also will not chided for backing a winner. Sure, the Cats have been to the last two Grey Cups, but they lost both. You pick a team like Montreal or Toronto, teams that have won multiple Grey Cups since Hamilton last won theirs – and people might consider you a front runner. That said, the Ti-Cats may win the championship this year, so if you pick the Tabbies, you can tell everyone that you were the magic fan who got them over the top.

The team also has a plethora of players that you can’t help but like, such as Simoni Lawrence and Peter Dyakowski. There are others, but those two guys standout as players that, even if they didn’t play for the Tiger-Cats, I would still be a fan of.

Also, we are Canada’s Team! Haha!

If you have a reason why you think @AmericanCFLFan should become a Tiger-Cats fan, tweet at him and let him know.

What's your opinion of the Bombers current sale, trade any Riders gear for 30 per cent off anything in the store?

It is an interesting concept, though I am not entirely sure of its purpose. Is it to convert Rider fans? Get Bomber fans to buy Rider gear and then trade it in? Something else altogether?

I know the Bombers and Riders are rivals, but this struck me as a little silly. I haven’t seen much outrage, which is quite surprising, but I just don’t get it. If it helps boost Bomber merchandise sales, then it will be a success, but I would really like to know the reason behind it and the genesis of the idea.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Podskee Wee Wee, Episode 4: The Favourites Show!

Episode 4 is here for your listening pleasure. Mike and I picked the mics to mostly talk about some of our favourite things about the CFL, both past and present. We also touched on the hailstorm of anger that came from a certain prairie province, and as always, answered some excellent questions from you, our listeners.

This episode actually goes pretty long, clocking in at over 83 minutes, so I hope you like the sound of our voices, because you are about to hear both for longer than usual.

If you haven't already, remember that you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking the button below. And any comments or ratings you could leave on iTunes would be greatly appreciated. And of course, feel free to sound off in the comment section. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Enjoy the show!

P.S. We have a special treat for you guys and gals this time around. The reason for posting these will make much more sense once you listen to the show.

Here is your giant-headed scribe with former Tiger-Cat linebacker Otis Floyd:

And this is a 1972 Grey Cup commemorative lunchbox I own:

Monday, 2 March 2015

From One of Their Own

So as I touched on in the Monday Mailbag, I was attacked by a few Rider fans over the weekend for my take on their fanbase. I was called jealous, a hater and some other nasty things that I simply will not reprint here. It was not the majority opinion, and not even the majority opinion from Riders fans, but there is still a segment of Rider Nation that views themselves as holier than thou.

Well, one of their own has decided to voice an opinion. Rider fan Jeremy Gourlay is also not a fan of the Riders adopting the "Canada's Team" moniker and makes many excellent points as to why. While he was not as harsh on the fans of the green and white as I was, his reasons are not much, if at all, different from my own.

So maybe, just maybe, all the Rider fans who took exception to what I said in my piece should check out Mr. Gourlay's. A voice from within Rider Nation is telling them to cool it, so maybe they will take it to heart more than they did mine.

It is a heckuva read and shows the side of Rider Nation that I want to be representative of the fanbase. More attitudes like Mr. Gourlay's will go a long way to changing the beliefs held by many CFL fans outside of Saskatchewan.