Is The Draft a Crapshoot? Investigating the Value of CFL Draft Picks

The CFL Draft has always been a source of confusion to me. I never quite grasped how much impact it has on the league, one way or the other. This marks a stark contrast from what I know of drafts in other sports leagues, which are more publicized than they are north of the border. Further, I rarely come across much coverage breaking down the CFL Draft and its prospects, aside some general coverage done by Canadian broadcaster TSN surrounding the CFL Combine and the first couple rounds of the draft itself.

Yet this doesn’t mean the draft as a whole isn’t worth exploring. In this deep-dive article, we seek more of an understanding of the CFL Draft’s impact and what the league’s teams generally get out of the annual event. In doing so, we will also seek to uncover other aspects such as how many elite ratio-breakers come out of the draft each year and how many prospects actually see significant CFL action, versus the amount that end up seeking other opportunities.

CFL Draft 101

The Canadian Football League Draft is an annual event that occurs around the first week of May every year. As of 2016, the draft has 8 Rounds of 9 selections each (one allocated to each team) by which teams can choose from a pool of Canadian football players. To be eligible for the draft, a player, who must be a Canadian citizen, must be three years removed from their first year of Canadian U Sports eligibility or have completed their senior season if they played in the NCAA. Per CFL rules, all Canadian players must be subject to the CFL Draft before entering the league.

The importance of Canadian players is reinforced by the league’s ratio rules. Under the current guidelines, the CFL allows a roster of 45 players to dress for any given game. Of the 45 players, a minimum of 21 must be classified as “non-import” or in other words, Canadian players. Further, of the 24 starters on the active roster 7 must be of the Canadian variety at minimum. Therefore, it goes without saying that a team must find quality Canadian players or else face a roster with limited depth.

Finding Our Results

Finding results to our questions about the CFL Draft is certainly a difficult task, given all the different aspects to consider. First we must select a sample size, and for this exercise we have chosen to look at 13 CFL Drafts from 2003 up to and including the 2015 instalment. Why not look at more recent drafts, since we are already in 2020? It is to be fair to players drafted in recent years that may still have time to break into the league and make a mark. For our purposes, we believe that going back five years mostly eliminates that error.

Next, we must set parameters for evaluating the success of drafted players. With CFL careers generally being shorter than the NFL given aspects such as a lower wage, the bar for being a successful CFL player should be a lower amount of years of service. Per, an average CFL career stands at just above three seasons, so this seems like a fair bar. For example, if a player plays games in three different CFL seasons, we will mark this pick as a “hit”. Though a general measure, it sets a baseline between players that simply failed to make a dent on the league and those that played a legitimate amount of CFL games. We will also break this down by round for each draft in an inclusive table.

Additionally, we must account for the lower and higher ends of the spectrum.

For the lower end, we will note how many players either never played or barely took the field in the CFL, with our designation at 2 years of league appearances or less.

On the higher end, we will see how many players won notable awards. For the purpose of this study, we will limit these “notable awards” to Most Outstanding Player (MOP), All-Star appearances (Divisional or all-CFL), Most Outstanding Canadian (Winner) or Grey Cup MOP. One might argue in favour of more awards to be included, but we felt that for the purposes of this study we needed to set a higher standard. Ultimately while these are general measurements, it should give us a good overview of the data.

In our final section, we will look at recent Grey Cup Champion teams to see the impact of their drafted players. How many of the Canadian players on the roster were direct draft picks of the team? Or do most of the quality Canadian players on Grey Cup teams come as a result of Free Agent signings?

With the following data, we hope to gain a better understanding of what teams can realistically expect to achieve out of their draft selections.

Our Results

CFL Draft results, at a glance

Figure 1: Players that appeared in games across three different CFL seasons
*Denotes a round where a forfeited selection occurred. This does not count against percentage

Let’s first start by saying that this is not supposed to be an exhaustive and complete analysis, as that would require further study that might be examined on a later date here at Hussey’s Huddle. In conducting our research on the CFL Draft, we mainly wanted to get a glance at the overall impact the draft has when it comes to producing solid Canadian Football League careers.

In our first observation table–seen above in Figure 1–we wanted to provide a baseline measurement of drafted players by career length. As mentioned previously, since the average CFL career is three years, this is a sensible bar. While there are other sub-factors to consider in a deeper analysis, such as whether a player became a starter, simply appearing in CFL games provides value to teams because of the league’s ratio rules.

Our numbers in Figure 1 as you can see, aren’t just broken down by years but also by rounds. It is worth noting that in the CFL not all rounds have the same amount of selections for a few reasons. One is due to the fact that between 2006 and 2014, no franchise was present in Ottawa, meaning the maximum amount of picks in each round in the between time was 8. The other reason is due to forfeited selections mostly pertaining to the supplemental draft, which we will not cover in this article.

With this in mind, let’s get down to business.

A typical draft in any sport usually sees the cream of prospects rise to the top, with a general steep decline in descending rounds. On the surface it appears this way for CFL Drafts from 2003-2015, with 1st-rounders panning out over 80% of the time, with percentages dropping as the rounds continue. Yet, there isn’t a significant drop-off rate between 1st and 2nd selections. On five occasions studied (2004, 2006, 2010, 2012 and 2015), the 2nd round had just as many or more hits than the 1st. What this tells us is that the value of a 1st-round selection is actually not that much more than a 2nd in the CFL. This contrasts the NFL for example, with 1st-rounders in that league viewed as a premium asset and rarely traded, while teams are generally looser with their 2nd rounders due to a perceived talent drop-off. Despite this, we can also conclude that a strong majority of players selected in the opening two rounds register as a successful selection, at least by basic measures.

The 3rd round sees our first true drop in talent, hitting 17% less than those picked in the 2nd. This makes sense when considering when teams are making selections in the 3rd, there begins to be a lack of consensus around the prospects remaining. That being said, in the data years studied, there were a couple of particularly weak drafts (2005, 2009) where there were only 2 hits each, dragging the overall percentage down. When considering this, a team can still expect to draft a future CFL contributor on most occasions in this round.

The 4th round and beyond is where we start to see a “crapshoot” develop. Numbers in the 4th are all over the place, ranging from one hit in 2006 to seven in 2014, making the overall percentage of 47.3% rather meaningless. Although, one trend that is interesting is 4th-rounders in more recent drafts have panned out to a higher degree, perhaps due to the advancement of CFL scouting over this period. Still, 4th-rounders appear significantly less valuable in hindsight than 3rd-round selections due to the variance.

The 5th and 6th rounds are hard to draw any solid conclusions from year-to-year in terms of value. In years that have deeply-talented drafts, we’ve seen as many as 6 hits in the 5th (2012, 2013) or 4 hits in the 6th (2008). On the contrary, in thinner years, such as 2009, there were no significant CFLers taken in both. Finally, the 7th round was added to the draft in 2013 and therefore does not provide us enough of a sample size.

When evaluating this information, the key word is variance. How much variance in value does each round provide? The 1st and 2nd rounds illustrate to have the clear-cut best floors of any round, while also providing the highest ceiling. In a league that depends on having great Canadian talent to make up a strong roster, these higher picks should be considered far and away the most valuable picks in a team’s war-chest. 3rd-round selections should still be seen as valuable by CFL teams, but on a lower level than the first two rounds. This is a strong contrast to the rest of the draft, where teams essentially have lottery tickets that can turn out each and any way.

Looking at the draft years as a whole gives us a good idea of how much variance truly exists. The far right column gives a percentage of how many players overall in each draft class were hits. The average hit percentage from all drafts was 52.3% but this doesn’t tell us much since there is quite a range between certain classes. The worst draft was actually a tie between 2004 and 2005, with only a 39.6% hit percentage. On the other hand, the best performing class on this list was 2012 with 68.9%. This tells us there is significant year over year change in the sheer depth of Canadian draft-eligible prospects, usually affecting the quality of rounds 3 and later, with a few exceptions.

Notable Award Winners

Figure 2: Notable award winners drafted into the CFL between 2003-2015
Notable awards: MOP (Most Outstanding Player), any All-Star Appearance (Divisional or League), Most Outstanding Canadian or Grey Cup Most Outstanding Player
*Players that won multiple of these awards still only count as 1 towards the final tally

Measuring the value of players in a draft class is no easy task. Figure 1 in our previous section measured a players career success merely on how many appearances a player had. However, we need more information as to the quality of player that typically gets drafted. For this section, we dug through each of the 13 draft classes to find players that have notable career accomplishments. As stated in Figure 2 above, we have limited the list of notable awards to Most Outstanding Player (MOP), All-Star selections, Most Outstanding Canadian, or Grey Cup Most Outstanding Player. If a player won at least one of these stated awards, they are reflected in Figure 2. While there is a litany of other awards players can win, such as player of the week or month, we felt that having a higher bar helps separate the truly special players that come out of each class.

Taking a quick look at this chart may have some shaking their heads since the number of quality players on the surface doesn’t look too high. However, some context. The CFL, despite ratio rules, is largely dominated by American players that make up the vast majority of All-Star selections and other major awards. CFL teams only have to start 7 Canadians at minimum, meaning theres only so much of a window for Canadians to win major awards–the Most Outstanding Canadian Award notwithstanding.

Every draft class studied produced at least 1 of these award winners. However, some produced more than others. The 2009 draft performed the worst in this regard, only registering a single winner, #1 pick OT Simeon Rottier. On the other hand, three drafts had 7 winners or more, with the most occurring in the 2008 edition, which produced 9. Overall the average draft produced roughly 4.

What can we draw from this? Not too much, in truth, until we look at which rounds we can typically find these players.

Figure 3: Number of notable CFL Award selections by round 2003-2015

As we can see in Figure 3 above, 55 total award winning players came out of these 13 drafts that we’ve been studying. Of those 55, we can see that 37 came from the draft’s first two rounds, while the 3rd round produced a significant amount of winners as well with 10. From there though, we can see that those numbers fall off a cliff in later rounds. This lines up with our previous analysis that the draft becomes much like a lottery after the first three rounds, with some exceptions.

When viewed through our lens that having elite-level Canadians is essential to CFL roster building, this data shows that if you typically want to acquire such players, teams should want to hold onto their early round picks.

Canadian Content on Recent Grey Cup Winners

Photo Credit: Windsor Star OL Drew Desjarlais (61), selected by Winnipeg in the 1st round of the 2019 CFL Draft

Bringing us full-circle, it is time to see how drafted players impact CFL teams on the field. As mentioned previously, roughly half of each CFL roster must be classified as national (or Canadian), meaning 21 players in 2020. One question we had raised earlier is whether the best Canadian CFL players even reach their potential with their original drafted team, or if they generally have their best years with other teams they have signed with. In our study, we figured one general way to judge this was to look at recent Grey Cup champion rosters and how they acquired their Canadian content.

Figure 3: Recent Canadian players on Grey Cup Champion Rosters
Note: Undrafted Free Agent signings reflected in the signing category

Our results revealed an evident floor in the amount of drafted players typically on a Grey Cup roster. Out of the five teams studied, the lowest amount of drafted players was the Ottawa Redblacks in 2016 with 8. This low figure can easily be explained due to the franchise only existing for three seasons at that point, meaning that they did not have many years to accumulate talent through the draft. At the other end of the spectrum was the 2018 Calgary Stampeders, who had easily the most drafted players with 17. Calgary is a worthwhile mention, as their success over the past several seasons has largely been built on their strong Canadian core, including draft picks such as CFL All-Star OL Shane Bergman. Of course, signings have played a big role in these roster make-ups too, but these numbers tell us that typically a team needs to have a stockpile of Canadian drafted players to be successful.

What conclusions can we draw?

Ultimately, while our look into the CFL Draft today cannot be satisfactory in uncovering all the nuances about the event, we can draw a few big picture conclusions.

For one, there are major discrepencies in the hit percentage of picks in the first half of the draft and the second half, meaning that picks in the first three rounds, especially 1sts and 2nds, are much more valuable despite a reasonable degree of variance as well. Further, we can see that the draft can be considered a crapshoot when comparing overall hit percentage in each edition we have studied.

It is also evident that the vast majority of Canadian drafted players that win major CFL awards come from the draft’s first three rounds, which emphasize the importance of teams holding onto these selections, in general, over the long-haul.

Finally, in looking at recent Grey Cup Champion rosters, there is evidence to suggest that the draft holds significant importance to roster building. In the studied years, a minimum of 8 drafted players were on each respective year’s roster, still making up a significant portion of a team’s dressed 45 players.

This article only provides a small overview of the quality the CFL draft provides. In the future, it is our intention to explore the draft further to build upon the data we have explored here.

Thank you all for reading! Have anything to add? Make sure you hit us up in the comments below, and while you’re at it, give us a follow on Twitter @HusseysHuddle!