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Early Offseason Showcasing Many Nontraditional Pipelines to the NFL

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 11, 2015

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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson launched a ball deep to the right side late in the second quarter of Super Bowl XLIX.

As it sailed and his intended target wasn’t yet in view on television screens around living rooms and bars, the assumption was either Jermaine Kearse or Doug Baldwin would be on the other end. They are Seattle’s top two wide receivers, after all, so those dots connected easily.

Instead there was a 6’5” fast-moving tree bounding downfield. The mystery receiver showed impressive athletic awareness while adjusting his route to an underthrown ball then contorting his body before corralling the throw while falling backward.

That's when Chris Matthews crashed to the ground. It wasn’t just his first catch of the game or the playoffs. The 44-yard reception was the first of his NFL career.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Had the Seahawks managed to gain that measly, now-haunting yard to win their second straight Super Bowl, Matthewswho finished with four receptions for 109 yards and a touchdownwould have at least received MVP consideration. He was only the latest shining example of a different route to potential NFL stardom, one that takes a detour north.

The NFL draft is still the main league entry point for prospects. That won’t change. But increasingly there are alternative paths for those who tumble through the draft’s many cracks.

General managers and scouts are getting creative and sometimes downright adventurous. That’s meant looking far beyond the traditional American college feeder system and to the frosty north, or sometimes even the land down under.

One default NFL proving ground still stands out among the secondary options. Let’s return to Matthews and his origin story.

The NFL-CFL bridge is getting some serious traffic

The architect of the CFL-to-NFL bridge is Warren Moon. Or at least he reinforced the structure’s base for many future generations to walk safely south after thriving in a different (most notably: three downs, 12 players per side and 110-yard fields) though similar enough game.

Jan 31, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Former quarterback Warren Moon on the red carpet prior to the NFL Honors award ceremony at Symphony Hall. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Moon is the only player enshrined in both the CFL Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Every conversation about former CFL stars who transitioned to the southern game usually begins with either Moon or Joe Theismann as the grand historical figures. Then Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia are remembered fondly as we approach modern times, and current Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake ripped apart the CFL for 23 sacks in 2008 before going to four Pro Bowls.

But the northern pipeline is gushing even more now, and Matthews’ Super Bowl performance will help to crank the knob that much further.

Arash Madani @ArashMadani

More Chris Matthews: "Canada treated me right. I have nothing but love for Canada and all the Canadians down there that helped me out." #CFL

Matthews earned the CFL’s Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 on the strength of 81 catches for 1,192 yards. He was eventually slowed during Super Bowl XLIX when cornerback Brandon Browner begged New England Patriots coaches to change his assignment, per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com. Browner recognized that, as a large man himself (6’4”, 221 lbs), he would match up well against a towering receiver.

When Browner stalled Matthews’ surge, two former CFL stars were battling on the NFL’s highest stage. Browner spent four seasons with the Calgary Stampeders, recording 12 interceptions while being named to three all-star teams.

Perhaps a similar matchup decision will have to be made because of Duron Carter in the near future. He leads the next generation of CFL transfer hopefuls after being a highly sought-after commodity earlier in the offseason.

Up to 10 NFL teams showed interest in the large-bodied wide receiver at one point after his Montreal Alouettes contract expired following the 2014 season, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.

That number actually doesn't feel high enough, because 32 teams should have been interested in striking rich on potential low-cost gold. Carter has size at 6’5”, 209 pounds and still plenty of speed along with the open-area quickness to average a staggering 18.6 yards per reception for the Alouettes in 2013.

He eventually landed with the Indianapolis Colts, where the 23-year-old has a chance to replace fading veteran Reggie Wayne. Alouettes general manager Jim Popp heaped glowing praise on Carter when speaking to Steve Andress of Colts.com, which included a rather legendary comparison.

HAMILTON, ON - NOVEMBER 23:  Duron Carter #89 of the Montreal Alouettes breaks a play against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the CFL football Eastern Conference Final at Tim Hortons Field on November 23, 2014 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The Tiger-Cats d
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

“Let’s put him in a Jerry Rice category...as Jerry Rice did, he’s going to catch a ball, get by you, and you’re not going to catch him,” Popp said. “He’s got a tremendous stride. He’s got great short-space escapability.”

The Colts have become an NFL haven for CFL studs, as general manager Ryan Grigson keeps poaching northern talent. Grigson continually leans on his CFL background after he spent time as a scout for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the late ‘90s.

His recent haul includes linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who recorded 145 tackles during his 2012 rookie season.

Josh Wilson @JoshWilsonSB

Grigson likes signing CFL guys. In 2012, it was Jerrell Freeman. In 2014, it was Henoc Muamba. This year, Duron Carter and Ben Heenan #Colts

“There’s no doubt that because of my time up there and scouting the league, I can pinpoint certain areas and teams when I get that first initial list of CFL players who are going to be free agents,” Grigson told iChill’s Perry Lefko.

Grigson has exploited that advantage to acquire a starting linebacker in Freeman (a restricted free agent in 2015), and now Carter, a likely starter in the near future. Fellow linebacker Henoc Muamba was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 CFL draft, and Grigson snatched him in 2014.

The Colts have warmly embraced former first overall CFL picks, inviting another, Ben Heenan, with open arms this year.

Top 2015 CFL signings
PlayerPositionNFL teamNotable CFL stats/accomplishment
Duron CarterWRColts1,939 receiving yards over two seasons
Ben HeenanOTColts1st overall pick in 2012 CFL draft
Delvin BreauxCBSaints2014 CFL All-Star
Brett JonesCGiants2013 CFL Rookie of the Year
Source: CFL.ca

That’s a star-studded Canadian talent purge, and CFL executives are getting worried after watching so many high-quality young players migrate south.

Brett Jones is expected to sign with the New York Giants, per Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media, after being named the CFL’s best rookie in 2013 and best offensive lineman in 2014. He didn’t hide his desire to play in the NFL. For Jones, the CFL was a development league.

“The NFL has pretty much been my goal the whole time that I’ve been in the CFL,” Jones told Ian Hamilton of Postmedia News. “I knew that if I wanted to get a chance to play down there, I’d have to prove it in the CFL.”

The NFL expanded offseason roster sizes to 90 in 2012, then recently increased practice squad sizes from eight to 10. That’s given general managers many more chances to head north, spin around blindfolded and maybe come home with the next Wake.

Roughriders general manager Brendan Taman expressed his concern to Kirk Penton of the Winnipeg Sun.

“I just think it’s important for our league to keep our good guys as long as we can,” he said. “But the trend is that the NFL is coming to get our good players. That’s the trend. That’s where this is going.”

The next frontier: rugby?

The CFL route may be growing, with the pipeline nearly ready to burst. But it’s not new among the unconventional paths to NFL relevance. Neither is the Arena Football League, a back road made famous by Kurt Warner.

But rugby? Step right up, folks, and let’s explore the future of gem finding (maybe).

FOX SPORTS News @FOXSportsNews

Detroit Lions GM Martin Mayhew says franchise "want to evaluate" Jarryd Hayne & admits Lions would "like to have him" http://t.co/LosbZxefMK

Though there are rule differences between the NFL and CFL versions of football, projecting Canadian prospects can still be done with relative ease. On a fundamental level, the structure of the game doesn’t change between those two leagues.

That’s not true with rugby, an entirely different sport. Still, it’s easy to see how a transition from rugby to football could be within reach for one uniquely talented individual. Reducing rugby to its simplest level, large and fast-moving bodies have to overpower and evade other massive bodies.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 19:  Former NRL Rugby League player Jarryd Hayne speaks to the media at the check-in counters at Sydney International Airport on October 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. Hayne announced his decision to leave the Parramatta Eels o
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

One of those enormous humans is Jarryd Hayne, the Australian and two-time National Rugby League’s player of the year.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL,” Hayne wrote in a letter announcing his decision to leave the Parramatta Eels and pursue his football ambitions.

He wasn't messing around, as after writing that letter in October 2014, Hayne started a 12-month training program in the United States.

The Detroit Lions were among a handful of teams connected to Hayne after he first made his career change known. A futures contract giving him an opportunity to transfer his rugby fullback skills to an NFL backfield could be completed with the Lions soon, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

It doesn’t take much Hayne highlight-watching to see his NFL appeal and potential crossover ability. At 6’2” and 220 pounds he’s a barreling force. He easily busts through arm tackles and has the speed to break away in the open field.

If they sign Hayne, it won’t be the first time the Lions have tapped into uncharted football territory. Late in the 2013 season, Carlin Isles signed on with their practice squad. Detroit clocked him at sonic speed in the 40-yard dash, posting a time of 4.22 during his Lions workout.

Isles was a project, however, which is true for any rugby player attempting to make the leap. Eventually the lure of representing his country when rugby debuts in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics pulled the American (a native of Ohio) back to his natural sport.

Hayne will attempt to be the pioneer, and who knows, maybe start a rugby gateway. For now he’ll just be happy to have his name on a roster, even with 89 others.

That outlook is shared by a group of discarded veterans.

A lifeline thrown to veterans

In addition to the main NFL Scouting Combine and five regional combines, the NFL will also hold its first-ever veteran combine this year starting on March 22.

The league will invite up to 100 veterans, with the aim being to showcase those who have NFL experience but aren’t hotly pursued during the first wave of free agency that starts March 10.

As NFL director of football development Matt Birk explained to The Associated Press (via ESPN.com), the intention is to give veterans another avenue to demonstrate what they can contribute:

There's a void there. There was nothing for that guy out there who has one or two or three years in the league and is not with a team, and is at the mercy of when the phone rings or when his agents gets him a workout. This will be a forum for these guys to showcase their talents, and a service for our clubs instead of [what had been] and inefficient process.

That’s the politically correct description of what will happen in Arizona in late March, with Michael Sam likely in attendance after he applied for an invitation.

The true goal is to catch fringe players before they descend beyond the NFL’s grasp and are gone forever. There are specific depth roles to be filled on every roster, many of which are system-dependent. Those roles often require a specific body type or skill set.

Ideally a team will check off an item on its shopping list at the veteran combine, signing a player who would otherwise remain unemployed.

Above all, there are more opportunities for hope

General managers and team executives will always find another place to unearth football diamonds. Found talent is also cheap talent, and the rigid limits of a salary-cap league demand that if the best prospect on the planet is currently living in Antarctica, snowshoes must be prepared immediately.

For players, there are increasingly more access points to stardom, or at least making football pay the bills. The goal of the veteran combine is to prolong careers, while the CFL’s presence as a successful detour is growing. And maybe in the distant future the NFL will have a group of running backs who once played rugby, just as the league does now with basketball-playing tight ends.

Hope is central to the nontraditional talent pipelines then, with all of them either starting a dream or keeping it alive.

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