The top 15 prospects, and Martin and O'Donnell's NFL ties

The CFL's Scouting Bureau released the latest edition of its rankings of the top 15 prospects for the 2011 draft today. There's a lot of carryover from the last one, which I analyzed here in September, but there are some interesting changes as well. Here's the list, complete with each prospect's previous ranking, school/current team and league:

Once again, the big news is buried in the middle. The top three prospects (Baylor centre/tackle Phillip Blake, Rice left tackle Scott Mitchell and Calgary slotback Anthony Parker) remain in the same order. There's a surprising name at fourth, though; former Western Mustangs' defensive lineman Vaughn Martin, who's currently playing for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Martin was ranked eighth in September (and as I wrote then, he's here because this is when his class would have graduated, making him eligible for the CFL draft; the NFL draft, where he was chosen in the fourth round in 2009, allows players to leave school early).

From a perspective of solely what these prospects have accomplished so far, Martin (pictured at right) would likely be at the top of the list. In addition to his impressive-but-brief CIS career with Western, he's managed to hang around an NFL team for two seasons and has done okay in limited playing time, putting up six tackles and a sack this year in just seven games. He isn't too likely be chosen first overall, though, and he might not even be taken in the first round thanks to his current gig in the NFL.

A lot depends on how Martin's NFL status looks by the CFL draft. If he's been cut by San Diego and other teams south of the border haven't expressed much interest, he could go right near the top of the CFL draft. If he's solidified his hold on a roster spot with the Chargers, it's unlikely he'll be selected until a few rounds in.

For reference, here's how NFL connections affected last year's draft. Four players—Concordia's Cory Greenwood, Regina's Jordan Sisco, Bishop's Shawn Gore and Laurier's Chima Ihekwoaba—had attracted a lot of NFL interest prior to the draft. They were taken third, eighth, tenth and fourteenth respectively. All except Greenwood (who's still with the Kansas City Chiefs) have since wound up in the CFL, but they all came in midway through the season.

The odds for Canadians (and even CFL-trained players in general) to hang on to NFL jobs for the long term aren't great, so it's quite possible Martin may wind up north of the border again some day, but CFL teams will have to balance his talent against the chance he'll be in the NFL for years to come. If anything, his NFL performance has improved as time's gone on this year; the first game he recorded any stats in came in Week Nine against Houston, and he's put up stats in each of San Diego's last four games. That's why it's so interesting to see him move up substantially in these rankings.

Another player whose stock may be affected by NFL connections is Queen's left tackle Matt O'Donnell, who slipped to eighth in these rankings from his sixth-place position in September. Mike Koreen of The Kingston Whig-Standard reports that O'Donnell hopes to follow in the footsteps of Greenwood, his former workout partner, heading to the U.S. for pro days and draft combines in advance of the NFL draft. O'Donnell's certainly played well over the last couple of CIS seasons, anchoring the Gaels' Vanier Cup-winning offensive line in 2009, turning in a strong individual showing this year, earning a first-team All-Canadian nod this season, being nominated as the OUA candidate for the J.P. Metras Trophy (CIS top offensive or defensive lineman) and earning one of the two CIS spots in the famed East-West Shrine Game despite his team's step back. Queen's head coach Pat Sheahan told Koreen that O'Donnell's consistently improved his game over time and should be a solid NFL prospect:

Sheahan feels O'Donnell was significantly better this season than he was in the Vanier Cup season of 2009, his first at left tackle.

"He's got a great first step and for a guy his size, he is pretty evenly distributed," Sheahan said.

"The other thing that favours him in terms of playing professional football is that Matt really wants to be a football player. He's smart and it's not too often he gets beat on assignments.

"The last thing I like about him is that he's a bit of a nasty guy. Sometimes for great big guys, it takes them time to get fired up and they're not overaggressive. That's not true in Matt's case. He's aggressive, he's competitive and he wants to win. He gets upset when we lose games."

NFL teams have been known to take CIS, CFL and even NCAA stats with a grain of salt over the years, often opting for players with less impressive track records but more telling physical attributes or combine showings. That won't necessarily hurt O'Donnell, though, as his physical stats leap off the page; Queen's lists him as 6'10'' and 329 pounds, while Koreen's article has him at 340. He has the rare combination of size and quickness that's necessary to play left tackle, but is extremely hard to find, and that might just see him become a Michael Oher-esque millionaire (probably without the movie, though). Where O'Donnell winds up falling in the CFL draft probably depends on if and where he's selected in the NFL draft. Dates for both drafts don't appear to have been announced yet, but the NFL one is usually in the last week or two of April and the CFL one is generally early in May, so CFL teams should have an idea of how likely O'Donnell is to wind up in the NFL by then. You never know how things will play out, though; Greenwood wasn't chosen at all in the NFL draft, but made the Chiefs' roster as a free agent.

A few further notes on the rankings and the draft:

—These rankings are not comprehensive. As Duane Forde pointed out a few months back, they don't include players who need to apply to the CFL for non-import status. That could make a big difference in the eventual draft order, as Forde's top-ranked player (Miami guard Orlando Franklin) and fifth-ranked player (Central Michigan WR Kito Poblah) both meet that definition, as do several other players out there.

—New players on the list are Concordia lineman Anthony Barrette (13th) and Saskatchewan WR Jade Etienne (15th). There's a good chance they could rise further by the final rankings in April; although there aren't any remaining CIS games, NCAA players still have bowls where their stock might drop, and there are also performances in invitational games like the East-West Bowl and the CFL's evaluation camp to consider.

—Players dropping out of this list are Montreal defensive lineman Gregory Alexandre (12th in September) and Maryland DB Michael Carter (13th in September). That doesn't mean they won't be taken in the draft, though, and it doesn't mean that they'll wind up below 15th. The rankings are quite interesting, but they're not a guide to how teams are thinking, and individual teams' needs also often come into play.

—Looking at the list by league, CIS schools are still doing quite well at developing talent. 10 of the 15 top prospects come from Canadian universities, with the other five from NCAA Division I's FBS level (the top level of American college football). If the draft played out exactly like that, it would be a slight step back from last year (where 11 of the first 15 players taken came from CIS schools), but still a strong performance from Canadian universities and one considerably better than the trends from a few years ago.

—However, the regional balance in terms of top prospects appears to have shifted a bit. Last year, four of those top 11 players (including top overall pick Shomari Williams) were from OUA schools, with another four from Quebec, two from Canada West and one from an AUS school. This year, Canada West leads the way with five players. Quebec has two, the OUA has two (if you count Martin), and AUS again has one. That doesn't necessarily mean anything in terms of where the conferences are at overall, but it does reinforce the impression that there was a lot of talent playing for the Western schools this year (particularly Calgary, which has three players on this list and might also see quarterback Erik Glavic and kicker Aaron Ifeld draw some CFL attention).

—The positional breakdown is also interesting. Seven of the 15 players are offensive linemen, which is a remarkable increase from how the draft played out last year (only two offensive linemen were taken in the top 15). Apart from that, though, it's a wide mix, with a slotback, a running back, a linebacker, two wide receivers, a kicker and two defensive linemen. It's also notable that there are no defensive backs listed, and three (if you count kicker/DB Grant Shaw) were chosen in the top 15 last season.

What to Read Next