The annual exodus of CFL talent to the brighter lights of the NFL has begun, albeit with some unexpected names. Instead of sack specialist Philip Hunt, outstanding kick returner Chad Owens or star receivers Andy Fantuz, S.J. Green and Emmanuel Arceneaux, all of whom have been previously linked to NFL interest, the first CFL players to officially be heading south appear to be Montreal slotback/kick returner Andrew Hawkins (who signed a deal with the St. Louis Rams last week) and Edmonton linebacker Mark Restelli (who apparently came to terms with the Miami Dolphins today). They're names many casual CFL fans might not recognize, but now they have an opportunity to showcase their skills on an even bigger stage.
Despite being only 24, Hawkins (pictured above attempting to evade a tackle from Edmonton's Weldon Brown in a Sept. 9 game) has had an interesting career so far. He played on offence, defence and special teams in college for the Mid-American Conference's Toledo Rockets, becoming their first two-way player in 48 years. Despite his football bloodlines (Hawkins is the younger brother of Artrell Hawkins, who was an NFL defensive back from 1998 to 2007, and the cousin of both former NFL offensive lineman Carleton Haselrig and current CFL star wideout Geroy Simon), he was passed over in the 2008 NFL draft and didn't catch on as a free agent. He eventually signed with the Montreal Alouettes in December of 2008.
Even from there, things didn't get particularly easy for Hawkins. He battled injuries and the Alouettes' incredible receiving depth early on, and only recorded 131 receiving yards on 13 catches in the entire 2009 season. He did showcase a nose for the end zone, though, turning three of those catches into touchdowns. He also proved he's quite adept at finding the spotlight, appearing on famed former Dallas Cowboys' receiver Michael Irwin's 4th And Long football reality show and surviving until the final episode.
This past season, Hawkins took on a slightly larger role in the Alouettes' offence, but he still had difficulty consistently cracking a lineup that included receiving stars like Green, Jamel Richardson and all-time CFL reception leader Ben Cahoon (who may be set to retire). He did record 326 yards on 28 catches, with a reasonably impressive average of 11.6 yards per reception and two touchdowns. However, he didn't crack the stat sheet in either their East Final victory or their Grey Cup win, so it's not like he was a crucial part of their roster. However, Alouettes' general manager Jim Popp still had kind words about Hawkins for his hometown paper, the Johnstown (PA) Tribune-Democrat:
"I'm very happy for Andrew," said Popp, the son of Cambria County Hall of Famer Joe Popp. "It's been a long recovery from his (leg) injury from a year ago. It sounds like things have continued to get better for him and he's been able to work out well for teams.
"He made it very clear to us that this is what he wanted to do. He was close (to making a NFL roster) before he came to Montreal. He was in camp with the Browns and it didn't work out. Before his injury he was doing well. He was able to work his way back onto the field and give us production and help us win a Grey Cup. He's worked his tail off."
Restelli's career is a similar story, with plenty of potential but few tangible CFL stats to back it up. He played at the Division I-Football Championship Subdivision (the old Division I-AA, below the top teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision) level in college with the Cal Poly Mustangs and was passed over in the 2009 NFL draft. He wound up camp attending an Eskimos' free-agent camp in California after that NFL draft, and signed with them in April 2009. He delivered a decent performance for them that season, recording 58 tackles, but didn't particularly stand out.
Restelli (pictured at right touching down Calgary's Derek Watson in a June preseason game) got off to a better start in 2010, recording two tackles and a sack in the Eskimos' first game against B.C.. Things soon went downhill for him, though, as he suffered a knee injury in the second game against Montreal and was put on the nine-game injured list. After returning to the lineup, though; Restelli showed what he's capable of; he picked up 17 more tackles and three more sacks down the stretch for the Eskimos and was a key part of the defence that was crucial to their drive for the playoffs, which came up just short. Still, his performance was apparently enough that the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins were all interested in him. Restelli wound up choosing Miami, and that move might make sense for both sides, considering the success the Dolphins' last CFL-trained linebacker found this year.
There's always a substantial migration of CFL players to the NFL in the offseason, but there are a couple of factors that suggest this year could see significant departures despite the labour sword of Damocles hanging over the four-down league. Most CFL players have always been interested in the bigger spotlight and payday available down south, but the aforementioned success of Cameron Wake has perhaps increased the amount of interest the NFL has in looking north for new talent. There's also a substantial chance the NFL will be expanding its schedule to 18 regular-season games next year, which likely means increased injuries and expanded rosters; that might be encouraging some teams to take a hard look at players they might not otherwise seriously consider.
For Restelli and other defensive players, Wake's played a crucial role in paving the way for their consideration by the NFL. For offensive players like Hawkins, though, the story's a bit different, and it largely comes down to American teams starting to effectively utilize players who traditionally would have been deemed too short for the NFL. Guys like Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles have made critical impacts for their squads over the last few years, and other teams are definitely taking notice. The CFL's traditionally found a lot of success with some of those players, including Hawkins (5'7'', 175) and current Detroit Lion/ex-B.C. Lion Stefan Logan (5'6'', 180).
One final factor that probably improved Restelli and Hawkins' chances of landing NFL contracts? Their ages. Both players are 24, and that keeps them right in with many of the players just coming out of college. They've got both college and professional experience, which likely gives them an edge. It's also to NFL teams' benefit to sign promising players from the CFL earlier in their career rather than waiting for them to become three-down superstars; this way, they not only have more time to perhaps develop the player, but they also don't have to offer as impressive of a contract. That trend on its own probably isn't good for the CFL, as it's tough to develop talent when your young guys keep getting poached, but it's not all negative either; most of the players who head to the NFL don't catch on and eventually wind up coming back to Canada, and many of them spread positive word of the CFL experience to teammates and coaches while down there, increasing the league's profile in critical areas.
We undoubtedly haven't seen the last of this year's CFL-to-NFL moves, and many of the bigger names are likely still to come. There's been enough NFL buzz around the likes of Arceneaux, Fantuz and Owens that all seem likely to at least get a contract offer, and there are undoubtedly many more players out there who will draw some southern interest. However, defections aren't really a crisis for the CFL. In many ways, they're more of an opportunity; the players who don't make it tend to come back, and the players who do increase the Canadian game's profile among NFL players, coaches, executives and fans. We'll see which category Hawkins and Restelli fit into.