As I mentioned in yesterday's Secondhand Eight, it's been well-known that the CFL's leading receiver this past season and Most Outstanding Canadian Andy Fantuz was going to have some opportunities to try and catch on with NFL teams. He worked out with the Pittsburgh Steelers Tuesday and the Minnesota Vikings today.
What comes as more of a surprise, though, is that Fantuz is far from the only CFL player the Vikings brought in. According to Judd Zulgad of the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, the team also worked out Winnipeg defensive end Philip Hunt (pictured above chasing down Calgary quarterback Henry Burris in a July 31 game), Hamilton defensive tackle Demonte' Bolden and Montreal wide receiver S.J. Green.
Zulgad adds that the team can't bring any of them in immediately thanks to the terms of the NFL-CFL agreement, but the Vikings do have a long history of looking at the CFL. They famously hired Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Bud Grant in 1967; Grant remains the winningest coach in franchise history and led the team to four Super Bowl appearances. Grant also acquired quarterback Joe Kapp from the B.C. Lions for Jim Young in one of the most famous NFL-CFL transactions; Kapp went on to star in the NFL for a few years before winding up in some notable contract disputes and court cases, including one where he won an anti-trust case that forced the NFL to amend its contract policies. He also went on to an acting career and was the head coach at Cal before returning to B.C. as the Lions' general manager. More recently, the Vikings brought in Edmonton linebacker Kenny Onatolu, who remains a key contributor for them on special teams.
The player who might have the most chance of catching on with the Vikings or another NFL team is Hunt. In an interview I did with Shutdown Corner's Doug Farrar back in September, I listed Hunt as one of the league's top five players and mentioned him as one of the five players most likely to jump to the NFL. A few months later, both of those statements look pretty good. Hunt is a tremendously athletic defensive end who led the league with 16 sacks this year; his closest competitor, Montreal's John Bowman, had 12. He was also solid against the run, recording 53 tackles over the course of the season. What's crucial is that Hunt has the combination of both stats and measurables; he's 6'1 and 250, which would be very small for an NFL defensive end, but he's got the combined speed and size to perhaps play linebacker, especially as a pass-rushing specialist.
The biggest factor in Hunt's favour might be the success Cameron Wake has found with the Miami Dolphins. After demonstrating enough promise last year for the Dolphins to go retain him over a pair of bigger names in Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, Wake has turned into one of the league's best defensive players this year. He currently leads the league with 14 sacks, but he's become an every-down player who can also perform well in coverage and against the run. As I wrote last year, the story of NFL innovation is generally one team thinking outside of the box, finding success and then spawning a legion of copycats; consider how the Wildcat was panned when the Dolphins first started using it, but soon spread across the league.
A similar tale could happen with Wake's success, which might inspire more NFL teams to look at converting successful CFL defensive ends to pass-rushing NFL linebackers. Unlike Wake, Hunt doesn't have the benefit of playing linebacker in college (he was an all-conference defensive end for Houston), but he has the measurements and history of similar success to cue memories of another CFL star, and he's the most logical candidate to follow in Wake's path. For a small sample of what he can do, just look at the athleticism Hunt( 53) shows here in this Oct. 2 game against B.C., beating tackle Jovan Olafioye (63) and getting around running back Jamal Robertson (25) before bringing down quarterback Travis Lulay:
Green is also an intriguing candidate for the NFL. He had a solid college career at South Florida, has shone with the Alouettes over the last several years and even spent several months with the New York Jets earlier this year. He's not the fastest player out there (his college recruiting profile at Rivals lists his 40 time as 4.6 to 4.7, which is respectable but not afterburner quality), but he's got the size (different profiles list him everywhere from 6'4'', 200 to 6'2'', 216) and athleticism to make big plays. Just look at the catch he made in this year's first game:
Fantuz's case is one that depends more on stats than measurables, and that's an area the NFL hasn't always taken into account. Still, Fantuz (pictured at right in a photo he tweeted of himself with Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre) was the league's top receiver this year with 87 catches for 1,380 yards, the first Canadian to accomplish that feat since fellow University of Western Ontario alumnus Dave Sapunjis did it in 1995. He was also named the league's Most Outstanding Canadian. There are some factors that might entice him to stay in Saskatchewan if he doesn't get a firm NFL offer, but if a south-of-the-border team makes him a strong proposal, there's a good chance he'd jump at it. Despite paying more than a CFL team likely would, they could be getting a bargain: Fantuz has some of the best hands you'll see anywhere and is known for his consistency and football IQ, but he can also make spectacular plays, like the one shown below:
Bolden is the most surprising name on this list, and he's a guy that not even a lot of CFL fans would recognize. He didn't make any of the all-star teams and didn't even put up particularly notable stats this season, recording 39 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Still, he had a solid (if not spectacular) career at the University of Tennessee. He's reasonably big (6'3'', 290), but doesn't seem as quick as many NFL defensive ends (he notched a 4.9 40 time at his pro day; many DEs put up 4.6 or 4.7 times), and I think he'd be undersized as an NFL DT. Still, the Vikings at least seem to have some interest in him. I couldn't find any CFL highlights of him, so here are some college ones:
As I pointed out in the Cameron Wake piece, the CFL to NFL transition doesn't go well for the vast majority of players. 18 CFL players signed with NFL teams this past offseason, but none remain on active rosters, and John Chick (Indianapolis) is the only one even still on a practice roster. Most wound up coming back to the CFL partway through the season, so the odds aren't in the favour of any of these guys making a big NFL splash. Still, the success of players like Wake, Stefan Logan and Onatolu proves that the CFL to NFL path can work out in some cases. We'll see if that happens with Hunt, Green, Fantuz or Bolden.