The newest version of the CFL's list of the top 15 prospects for the upcoming draft (released in September, December and April each season) was released Thursday, and there was a familiar name at the top. Oregon Ducks' linebacker Boseko (Bo) Lokombo, who's been spotlighted here before, topped this edition of the list, just as he topped the December version (and he was third in the September edition). Thus, his position here isn't all that surprising. What would be really surprising is if he's actually taken first overall in May 6's draft, though, and that says a lot about the challenges the CFL draft presents for teams.
First, here's the full list of the April prospect rankings, including players' current rank, their December rank, their position and what school they played at:
1. (1) Bo Lokombo LB Oregon
2. (4) Stefan Charles DL Regina
3. (3) Linden Gaydosh DL Calgary
4. (2) Matt Sewell OL McMaster
5. (6) Andy Mulumba DL Eastern Michigan
6. (10) Nolan MacMillan OL Iowa
7. (5) Ben D’Aguilar DL McMaster
8. (11) Brett Jones OL Regina
9. (9) Brent Urban DL Virginia
10. (14) Mike Edem LB Calgary
11. (NR) Seydou Junior Haidara WR Laval
12. (7) Corey Watman OL Eastern Michigan
13. (8) Jesse Joseph DL UCONN
14. (NR ) Connor Williams DL Utah St.
15. (NR) Brander Craighead OL UTEP
From a pure talent perspective, these rankings (which are generated by combining rankings from scouts, player personnel directors and general managers from each CFL team) seem about right. Lokombo and Charles are likely the top two eligible players this year, and Gaydosh isn't far behind. However, Lokombo and Charles both seem unlikely to go first overall, and their talent is a considerable factor there. They're both at a level where they're attracting serious NFL interest, and as we've seen before, that can significantly lower a player's CFL draft stock. That's for good reason: even many mid- to late-round NFL draft picks tend to hang around in that league for several years, as do some players who sign south of the border as undrafted free agents, so NFL interest is a legitimate deterrent.
NFL interest doesn't always pan out, though, and that's where spending picks on high-upside talent can prove extremely valuable. One of the best cases in point comes from the 2012 draft, where the Edmonton Eskimos were able to land Laurier receiver Shamawd Chambers sixth overall. Chambers shone at the CFL's E-Camp, and his college career was impressive from a wide variety of standpoints, but although he wasn't chosen in last year's NFL draft, there was enough buzz about the tryouts he had lined up south of the border to perhaps deter teams from taking him with a really high pick. That caused him to fall to the sixth pick, which now looks like a pretty substantial steal; Chambers made an early impact and had a solid season, recording 37 catches for 390 yards and two touchdowns on an Edmonton team that often struggled in the passing game. He might turn into one of the biggest stars of the 2012 draft, and the Eskimos' gamble on him may be remembered as a brilliant move. The higher-drafting teams that passed on him may also wind up kicking themselves.
On the flip side, though, there's the case of Baylor offensive lineman Danny Watkins, who the B.C. Lions took fourth overall in the 2010 CFL draft. Watkins obviously had substantial talent, but even then, NFL rumours were starting to circle around him a bit. Watkins stayed in school for his senior year and dramatically boosted his NFL stock, and in 2011, he became the first Canadian chosen in the first round of the NFL draft since Tim Biatkabutka in 1996. He's still in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, and although his play there hasn't been spectacular thus far, it's looking like that will turn out to be a wasted pick. The Lions' selection of Watkins was also a high-upside gamble, but it's one that didn't pay off.
The question CFL teams will have to ask is if players like Lokombo and Charles are closer to Chambers or Watkins. In Charles' case, that may not be too hard; he's eligible for the NFL draft this year and has attracted plenty of interest so far, and the NFL draft takes place April 25-27, so CFL teams will already know if Charles has been drafted south of the border by the time their own draft rolls around and can adjust their rankings of him accordingly. (He could go undrafted, sign as an NFL free agent and stick around there, but that's less perilous than if he's actually drafted.) That happened with Chambers, too, which is the advantage of picking players from CIS schools: CIS stars don't usually redshirt (spend a year just practicing with the team without using eligibility), so they're typically eligible for the CFL and NFL drafts in the same year. With Lokombo, though, it's much more of a guessing game. He's staying in school at Oregon and thanks to a redshirt year, is eligible for the CFL draft a full year before he'll be eligible for the NFL draft. That's the same situation that happened with Watkins, and it requires CFL teams to guess just how much NFL interest there will be in Lokombo. The guessing element also may further lower his CFL stock; there's a lot of uncertainty in taking a player like this who has substantial skill, significant NFL interest and a full year to go before his destination really becomes apparent. Few will argue with the talent of Lokombo, who was a key component for the Fiesta Bowl champion Ducks this year, so putting him in the top spot in these rankings is quite legitimate. However, it's unlikely to lead to his name being called first in the draft.