The CFL's leading receiver last year likely won't have a chance to defend his title. Former Saskatchewan Roughrider Andy Fantuz tweeted Friday that he'll be heading to the NFL next season to join the Chicago Bears. Fantuz was widely expected to go to the NFL this offseason, drawing interest from the Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and others, so his exchange of the three-down game for the four-down one isn't particularly surprising. However, it's notable that he wound up with the Bears rather than one of the teams more prominently linked to him, particularly Pittsburgh.
This move actually could make a lot of sense for Fantuz (pictured signing his Bears deal, above right). Of the teams interested in him, most already have a lot of depth at receiver. The Vikings have the likes of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, and they also just signed CFL star Emmanuel Arceneaux. The Steelers are in Sunday's Super Bowl, and a large part of the reason why is the depth of their receiving corps, which stretches from veteran Hines Ward to speedster Mike Wallace and rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Meanwhile, the Bears are a decent team overall, and they made it all the way to the NFC championship game, but their receiving corps is far from the league's strongest. Players like Johnny Knox and Devin Hester have shown plenty of promise without delivering consistently, and others like Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu have demonstrated flashes of potential, but haven't exactly taken the NFL by storm.
The Bears could use some consistency in the receiving corps, and Fantuz might just be able to supply that. He led the CFL this season with 1,380 receiving yards on 87 catches, averaging 15.9 yards per play (which is some ammunition against those who have criticized his speed; he was hardly pulling in only short passes). He has struggled with injuries at times, but stayed healthy this season and was consistently a key part of Saskatchewan's tremendous passing offence. He also came up huge in the big moments, such as this year's Grey Cup against Montreal:
What's particularly impressive in that highlight reel to me is Fantuz's versatility. He can make difficult catches in tight coverage, hang on despite hits, and use his agility to cross up defenders deep and pick up yards after the catch. The move he makes on Chip Cox on the play that starts at 0:54 is particularly impressive, and he follows that up by breaking a couple of tackles. He's also perfectly capable of beating defensive backs outright, as this 60-yard catch and run from September shows:
The Bears could use a bit of that in their receiving corps. Fantuz is most known for his terrific hands, which are some of the best I've ever seen, but don't be fooled. He's not just a possession receiver who can make catches in traffic, although he's able to do that too; he's got more speed than you'd think, and he has a tremendous ability to make quick cuts and leave defenders looking silly. There's a reason he's shone at both the CIS and CFL levels, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him doing well in the NFL next season.
Chicago also has plenty of Canadian connections, which could help make Fantuz's transition easier. Their director of player personnel, Tim Ruskell, worked as a scout with the Roughriders for three years in the 1980s; GM Jerry Angelo was with the Calgary Stampeders in 1981 as a linebackers coach, and WRs coach Darryl Drake, played for the Ottawa Rough Riders that year as well. They also feature one of the most successful Canadian players currently in the NFL, defensive end Israel Idonije, who played CIS football at the University of Manitoba before catching on with the Bears as an undrafted free agent.
However, the CFL to NFL transition is not an easy one. For all the great success stories like Cam Wake's Pro Bowl year, the vast majority of CFL players who head south don't wind up lasting too long. The NFL's an intensely competitive league, and just staying on an active roster or even a practice squad is quite difficult. It's not always about pure talent, either; it's about what coaches think of a player, how hard he competes in practice, what plays he makes when he gets the chance, and several factors outside his control, including injuries (to himself and others), trades and draft picks. It's quite possible this could work out well for Fantuz, particularly given that he's gone to a team in need of receiving help, but it's also very possible that he may not last long there. If he is cut, that isn't necessarily an indictment of his talent, but more of a reflection of just how many things have to go right for a player to catch on in the NFL.
There's also the looming spectre of an NFL lockout, which could prevent Fantuz from even getting the chance to play at all. Plenty of things have to happen before the 2011 season is officially written off, but there's a very real chance still that it could be. If it is, Fantuz's decision to go south could come back to hurt him; the CFL-NFL agreement means that he likely wouldn't be able to come back to the CFL this year if there's a NFL lockout.
Some Saskatchewan fans will definitely be disappointed that Fantuz has headed south, and his departure is certainly a loss for the CFL as a whole. In 2010, he became the first Canadian player to lead the league in receiving since fellow former Western Mustang Dave Sapunjis did it in 1995. He was an excellent case in point that Canadian and CIS-trained players can do a great job at positions traditionally reserved for NCAA-trained American imports, and his departure will remove one of the league's most talented players.
Still, as Rob Vanstone wrote last month, it's tough to blame Fantuz for taking a shot at the NFL. He's already given the Roughriders and the CFL plenty of good years, and he's been a terrific ambassador for both the team and the league. At 27, this is likely his last chance to make a real impact south of the border, and if he didn't jump at it, he'd probably be wondering forever about what could have been. If Fantuz does wind up catching on with the Bears, he'd be a great example of how far the CIS and CFL games have come, which could pave the way for further American interest in the CFL. If he's cut by Chicago, he'll probably be back in Saskatchewan before too long. Either way, it's worth a shot for him to see what he can do. His departure will also open up opportunities for the Roughriders' other talented Canadian receivers to step up, including Rob Bagg and Chris Getzlaf, so Fantuz is hardly leaving the team in crisis. His exit will hurt, but they should be fine without him, and he'll get the chance to show off what he can do down south.