The journey to the NFL is not always a smooth one; some players must resort to playing in other professional leagues to prove themselves. The Canadian Football League has acted as a haven for unpolished or troubled college players for many years, with players like Warren Moon and Cameron Wake being past and present examples of newfound success.
Even if a CFL player lands a spot on an NFL roster, it is no guarantee of success, however. These players are often at the bottom of rosters, shuffling between the inactive list and practice squad. Special teams becomes a necessity to maintaining a roster spot. Mistakes can be costly; a third-round rookie fumbling the ball will get some leeway, but it can be costly to the 52nd or 53rd man on the roster.
This isn’t to say that all CFLers are bad players—far from it. In a league where college prospects are examined daily, CFLers have to stand out in other ways. They do not have the pedigree, but they could still shine if given the opportunity. Here’s a look at nine players currently in the CFL system that could potentially make the jump to the American game.
D’haquille Williams — Wide Receiver — Edmonton Eskimos
The Edmonton Eskimos have been a wide receiver factory over the recent years. Derel Walker starred with Edmonton in 2016, posting 1589 yards on 109 catches and 10 touchdowns in 18 games—a CFL season is 18 games long with 21 total weeks. He signed (but didn’t stick with) the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following year. In his stead was Brandon Zylstra, who put up 1687 yards on 100 catches and five touchdowns in 16 games; once more, the NFL came knocking, and Zylstra signed with the Minnesota Vikings and managed to make the 53-man roster (as of this writing).
This year, it appears as though D’haquille “Duke” Williams is next in line to take a shot down south. Through 17 games, Williams has recorded 85 catches for 1534 yards, an absurd 18.0 yards per catch, and 10 touchdowns. Coupled with his 46-catch, 715-yard rookie season, Williams has already hit 2000 yards in his young football career.
Williams’s best asset is his size. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, he is able to win contested catches against defenders with ease. While not the quickest receiver, he does an excellent job getting free with his route running. His biggest concern coming out of Auburn was his character. Originally a five-star recruit, Williams was kicked from Auburn for an altercation at a bar. Coupled with issues regarding breaking team rules and attitude, he slipped from a promising prospect to undrafted.
Williams seems to have improved his character since joining Edmonton. The CFL has a history of humbling troubled players, as they realize that it could be their final shot at playing professional football. While Williams has flashed on the field, NFL teams will be wary of his past.
Lewis Ward — Kicker — Ottawa Redblacks
It was a rough start to Lewis Ward’s professional football career.
Passed over in the CFL draft, the 5-foot-7 kicker opted to return to the University of Ottawa to finish his degree. During college, the closest he got to the field was being a security guard at TD Place Stadium, home of the Redblacks. Much like Joique Bell, Ward was able to trade in his security vest for a jersey. Ward earned a spot with the Redblacks in 2018, primed to replace current Cowboys kicker Brett Maher.
To call him a replacement would be an understatement.
Through 16 games in the season, Ward has converted 48-of-49 field goals, including breaking a record set by Adam Vinatieri—and this is just his rookie season!
Lewis Ward nails the 52-yard field goal to set the new record for most consecutive field goals made in professional football at 45 in a row. The previous record (44) was held by Adam Vinatieri. #LiveMic #CFLGameDay pic.twitter.com/to9Bt0Bs6J— CFL on TSN (@CFLonTSN) October 19, 2018
The biggest concern for Ward is his leg strength—his longest is the 52-yarder shown above. However, with a 98 percent kicking accuracy, it is safe to say his range hasn’t been thoroughly tested.
Many NFL teams have struggled with kickers this year. Zane Gonzalez and Daniel Carlson were early victims of missed field goals, while Mason Crosby’s misses helped the Lions secured a victory. If Ward keeps posting numbers like these, the NFL might come knocking.
Alex Singleton — Linebacker — Calgary Stampeders
Few have looked as impressive as Singleton in such a short period. Unable to land a gig with the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, or Minnesota Vikings in 2015, Singleton soon signed with the Calgary Stampeders, who had selected the dual citizen fifth overall in the 2016 CFL Draft.
Singleton immediately stepped into an already dominant Stampeders defense and quickly emerged as one of their best players. He finished his rookie season with 65 tackles in 18 games, and followed it up in 2017 with a 123 tackle and 4.0 sack campaign en route to winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award. Through 16 games in 2018, Singleton has 107 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles. Singleton’s knack for reading plays and his nose for the football could make him valuable to an NFL team.
Taylor Loffler — Safety — Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Taylor Loffler has been the cornerstone of Winnipeg’s defense since he entered the league in 2016. He finished his rookie season with 58 tackles, four interceptions, and four forced fumbles. In his second season, he recorded 75 tackles, one interception, and three forced fumbles. Loffler garnered a spot on the CFL All-Star team both seasons, and he is looking to add a third with his ongoing 52 tackle, three interception campaign.
Despite being a 6-foot-4 defensive back, Loffler has impressive one-on-one coverage skills. While not the fastest player in the secondary, he makes up for it with excellent vision. Loffler is well rounded, excelling in both pass and run defense.
Nick Marshall — Cornerback — Saskatchewan Roughriders
Marshall is a name that you’ve likely heard before. The dual-threat quarterback led the Auburn Tigers to the 2014 National Championship game, losing to Florida State in a close 34-31 contest. Upon entering the 2015 NFL Draft, Marshall announced he would be switching to defensive back, a position he played at the University of Georgia.
Marshall joined the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015 and the New York Jets in 2016 before being waived in April of 2017 for a positive performance-enhancing drug test. After a year in the Indoor Football League, Marshall signed with the Roughriders. He quickly became their starting cornerback, recording a pick-six in his first game. However, he broke his finger and missed six games. Through 11 games this season, Marshall has recorded 23 tackles, three interceptions—two of which were returned for touchdowns—and one forced fumble.
Marshall has also been used a short-yardage quarterback for the Roughriders. He has had 12 carries for 17 yards, but six of them have gone for touchdowns. Much like Saints utility man Taysom Hill, Marshall could be an asset for a creative coach. Playing offense, defense, and special teams makes him both dynamic and exciting.
Micah Awe — Linebacker — BC Lions
At just under 6-feet and 220 pounds, Awe is smaller than most linebackers you will find. What Awe lacks in size, however, he makes up for in physicality. One of the hardest hitters in the CFL, Awe began his football career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, where he was notorious for fracturing Carson Wentz’s ribs in his first game:
Awe has good speed—he ran a 4.67 40-yard dash at his pro day—to make him a sideline-to-sideline threat. Additionally, he could be an occasional edge rusher due to his explosiveness. He has yet to record a sack in the CFL—this is primarily due to the Lions’ scheme—but there is potential to rush him a few times a game. Awe is a good run defender with solid instincts, but his pass coverage is lacking. Special teams will likely be key to making an NFL roster.
Branden Dozier — Safety — Montreal Alouettes
The Montreal Alouettes have been awful this year—sorry, that includes Johnny Manziel. One of the few bright spots, however, is Branden Dozier. The 5-foot-11 defender out of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has been one of the best safeties in the league since joining the Alouettes in 2017, where he recorded 66 tackles, 15 special teams tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles. Through 15 games this season, Dozier has 77 tackles, 15 special teams tackles, and five interceptions.
Dozier is a versatile defender for the Alouettes. So far in 2018, Dozier has played at three different positions: free safety, strong-side linebacker, and halfback—a position similar to cornerback, which covers slotbacks. It is worth noting that most strong-side linebackers in the CFL are smaller than NFL players at the same position, so it is almost equivalent to a strong safety. In the NFL, Dozier could play anywhere in the secondary, though free safety remains his best position.
Jalen Saunders — Wide Receiver — Hamilton Tiger-Cats
A fourth-round pick by the New York Jets in 2014, Saunders was unable to land in the NFL. He bounced from the Jets to the Cardinals to the Seahawks to the Saints to the Patriots and finally to the Bears before landing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2017. Originally signed to their practice squad, Saunders was promoted to the active roster in lieu of fellow receiver Terrence Toliver’s torn ACL. Saunders quickly established himself as a dynamic playmaker, racking up 1170 yards on 76 catches, along with four touchdowns.
His second season picked up where he left off, recording 712 yards on 43 catches and two touchdowns through nine games. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in Week 12. Hamilton has been plagued with injuries to its receiving corps this season—Shamawd Chambers tore his ACL before the season even started, Chris Williams tore his Achilles the week before Saunders’s injury, Terrence Toliver suffered a concussion in Week 16, and Brandon Banks broke his collarbone in Week 19.
An injury as serious as a torn ACL drastically hurts Saunders’s bid for an NFL gig, but if he recovers well, there’s no questioning that his performance with Hamilton is enough to put him on the map. Another thing to consider is that he was injured on September 3—with a full year of recovery, he could be ready for the NFL season in 2019.
Sean McEwen — Center — Toronto Argonauts
The third overall pick in the 2015 CFL Draft, McEwen has become one of the premier linemen in the league. At the CFL Combine, McEwen posted a 40-yard dash of 5.01 seconds, which is in the upper echelon for offensive linemen. Coupled with his 6-foot-3, 296-pound frame, a decent bench of 27 reps, a three-cone of 7.82 seconds, and a shuttle of 4.8 seconds, McEwen comes in as a near-elite athlete on Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Scores:
McEwen is an excellent run and pass blocker, and with his speed, he can be effective at pulling. Coaches and teammates have raved about his football IQ, and his awareness shows on the field. The biggest knock on McEwen’s NFL dream is that CFL defensive linemen tend to be small; even at the University of Calgary, McEwen faced smaller linemen. The larger NFL defensive tackles could be significant step up for the center. Nonetheless, McEwen has showcased enough to warrant a shot down south.