One of the interesting things about the CFL's prospect evaluation camp (E-Camp), which took place in Toronto this past weekend, is just how small in scope it really is. Yes, there are plenty of angles to cover, with everything from 40 times to bench-press records to storylines drawing plenty of attention, but in the end, this is an event that only had 55 invitees this year. Sure, only 47 guys were chosen in the CFL draft last year, so it's quite possible that the entire draft could be composed of players from E-Camp. Still, that isn't exactly the largest group for CFL general managers to choose from when making draft picks (even when you consider that there are a few highly-regarded 2011 draft prospects, such as top-ranked player Philip Blake, who didn't attend this year's E-Camp).
Are the low numbers of E-Camp invitees reflective of a shallow pool of Canadian talent in general, one that could go 50-60 players deep each year and no deeper? Some would say yes, but I don't think that's the case. The calibre of CIS football is getting better all the time, and even teams like the York Lions that were awful on the field in 2010 (0-8) had great players like Andre Clark, a hot CFL prospect who recorded the best 40 time at E-Camp this year with a mark of 4.50 seconds. Moreover, there are more and more Canadians playing key roles for NCAA squads all the time. Junior football remains strong as well, particularly out West. From a depth perspective, you can make a compelling argument that the state of Canadian talent is perhaps the best it's ever been.
With that increased depth, though, you'd think there would be more than 55 players who should be receiving consideration for the CFL draft. That's an assessment I'd tend to agree with, and so would one of the most renowned draft observers, TSN's Duane Forde. Mark Masters had an excellent piece in the lead-up to E-Camp last week on what Forde and combine-prep specialist Mike Gough have done to try and solve the problem; namely, starting their own evaluation camp that more players can attend, conducting the same drills and tests and holding it during the same week as the CFL-sponsored one so that every team's scouting staff (already in the area for the regular E-camp) have the opportunity to look at more players.
Here's what Forde told Masters about why he was motivated to start this initiative:
"CFL people want to see more kids, but are limited by resources," Forde said. "Meanwhile, Canadian university coaches feel there are a lot of kids who have earned an opportunity and deserve an opportunity to be seen, but don't necessarily have an outlet for that to happen."
The chief distinction between Forde's camp and the regular camp (apart from the vastly different amounts of attention they get) is that the league pays the bill for E-Camp invitees, while prospects have to pay their own way to Forde's camp. It's worked out quite well for many of them, though, including Argonauts' wide receiver Spencer Watt (pictured at top trying to evade Hamilton's Jerome Dennis in the 2010 East Final).
Watt made the trip to Forde's 2010 camp and made quite the impression. Toronto selected him in the third round last year, 18th overall, and he went on to be a key contributor for them down the stretch. He wasn't the only one, either; seven players from Forde's 2010 camp were chosen in the 2010 draft, while less than half of the E-Camp invitees were chosen in that draft. Obviously, more draft choices overall came from the traditional E-Camp participants than Forde's supplementary one, but that's to be expected considering that the regular E-Camp is picking its invitees from what's seen as the cream of the crop (each team provides the league with a list of the players they want to see, and the ones on the most lists are invited to the official E-Camp). With that kind of an advantage, it's quite impressive that Forde's supplementary camp has put up the record it has.
Does this mean the league's current E-Camp setup needs drastic alteration? Not necessarily. It certainly would be nice to see more prospects invited, as there are plenty of talented Canadian guys out there who might have the ability to play in the CFL given the chance, and many of them are currently slipping under the radar. However, putting up large numbers of prospects for a weekend isn't the cheapest thing in the world, and the league clearly can't afford to pay for every kid with CFL dreams to attend the camp. It might make sense for the league to increase the numbers of invitees, but there clearly needs to be a cap somewhere; the real debate is just where the cap should be set.
Moreover, although the way the league picks prospects isn't perfect, as there are always talented players like Watt who slip through the gaps, selecting guys for E-Camp based on how many teams want to see them is a good plan. The pre-camp evaluation issues are more on the individual team side, where more intensive Canadian scouting that goes deeper and looks at a wider range of players needs to be an increased priority. Regardless of how many people are invited to E-Camp, though, there are always going to be some talented ones who miss out for some reason. Alternative camps like Forde's are a great way for them to try and make an impression on teams, and a good way for teams to get a look at players who might have been off their radar. Even having to pay their own way isn't necessarily such a bad thing; that certainly does make it tougher (or impossible) for some players, but it also has the effect of weeding out those who aren't particularly serious about trying to play football at the next level. The current system isn't perfect, but it's significantly improved by having Forde's camp as well as the official one, and with that extra camp in place, it doesn't seem all that bad from this standpoint.