One of the things I find interesting about football is that there is no real development system. The first sports I watched while growing up were hockey and baseball, both of which have a “farm system.” The “farm team” was always a major topic of discussion. Even for the young fans who didn’t really know what they were talking about.
From a blogger’s point of view it would be nice to have a farm team just so there would be more to write about, especially this time of year. It would also just be fun, in general. I understand how the system works and why NFL Europe failed. I’m not desperately yearning for a dysfunctional developmental league but I do think there are some consequences to throwing kids right into the fire. I think there’s a good chance that some very talented guys don’t last in the NFL because they just aren’t physically and/or psychologically ready yet and just fall through the cracks. I also think those kids often end up in the Canadian Football League (CFL).
I’m not a hardcore CFL fan but I do know many of the teams. The first thing they’ll tell you about the league is that “it’s a totally different game” and in many ways it is. The CFL is based a lot more on the passing game — the field is bigger, the end zones are deeper, there are more receivers and a lot of confusing pre-snap movements that always look offsides to me but never are. The CFL is also much more focused on speed rather than size because there is a lot more ground to cover.
However, the fundamentals of football remain the same everywhere: tackling, blocking, catching, and throwing are universal (although I guess technically the ball is bigger in the CFL). When looking at the Seahawks contracts, it occurrs to me that teams should really consider investing more effort into scouting the CFL for two reasons. One is the extreme cost effectiveness. The second is the way in which you can cherry pick a player’s prime years.
In 2011 Brandon Browner signed a three year contract worth $1.29 million. That is fairly astounding. It’s less than Doug Baldwin’s contract as an undrafted free agent. In 2009 Cameron Wake signed for $4.9 million over four years with only $1 million guaranteed. The only reason the price went so high is that some reports indicated that over 10 teams were interested. Even when you have a bidding war for a CFL veteran you are still paying less than you would for Heath Farwell. Brandon Browner’s entire contract costs less than the Seahawks are set to pay Clint Gresham, their long snapper, this year. These guys are dirt cheap and for that money Seattle and Miami have gotten a combined three Pro Bowl selections and even an All-Pro selection for Cameron Wake who has 37.5 sacks in the last three years.
The second reason why I think teams should be exploring the CFL more is that they can sign players for exclusively their prime years. Browner was signed for his 27-29 years, Wake for his 27-30, Detroit’s Stephan Logan was picked up by the Steelers at age 28. Our beloved Jon Ryan made the trek to the NFL at age 25 although I’m not even going to try to claim that I understand punters’ aging curves.
When you sign players in their mid to late twenties you don’t have to wait around for them to develop, they are finished products. That may mean that they don’t have super high ceilings, Logan for example is just a role-playing kick returner, but it does mean you can avoid investing money in players who are before or past their peak. If CFL players can rise to the challenge of playing in the NFL, they will probably be ready to do so right away, like Browner was, and, if they can’t immediately hack it, a team can pull the plug if the player has a low ceiling. Taking players in this stage of their careers is excellent for an NFL team because they aren’t available in the draft and rarely reach the market in free agency.
I’m not saying that picking up talent from the CFL is easy or guaranteed to work. If it was, it would be more common. It does happen more often than we realize because a lot of guys get try outs but don’t get jobs. However, I can’t help but feel like more could be done to explore CFL talent. I’m not implying that you would be looking for starters. Wouldn’t it be nice to sign a 26 year old who already knows how to be a professional and cover kicks instead of an immature college kid who has always been the star of his team and has never had to play on special teams before?
It’s an intriguing thought at least. Most CFL guys probably couldn’t make it, but I think a few more could than currently do. In general, the quality of athletes is likely worse but that doesn’t mean there aren’t NFL caliber athletes available. There is a largely untapped source of finished products for the price of college kids if you are willing to look to the north. Every player is a free agent and every player would sign with an NFL team due to the financial incentive. Keep in mind that Browner was an All-Star in the CFL but he wasn’t a dominant superstar by any means. The six interceptions he recorded for the Seahawks in 2011 were more than he ever had in a season in the CFL. (That’s especially interesting given that the CFL has a longer season.) I can’t help but think there are a couple more Browners in the CFL if only teams were willing to look.