Thursday, May 03, 2012

Draft Day 'Rider Blogging

Having dealt with the question of stadium construction in this morning's column, I'll take a moment to comment on the 'Riders' offseason - which looks to have taken another turn for the better with the (less-than-surprising) selection of Ben Heenan with the first pick of the CFL draft.

In general, there are two areas where the 'Riders have taken major steps forward since the end of the 2011 season. Rather than relying on the unpredictable Ryan Dinwiddie as the lone backup to Darian Durant (and having to be especially conservative with Durant as a result), the team now has both more upside and plenty of pro experience in a backup group including J.T. O'Sullivan and Colt Brennan. Which should both push Durant somewhat better from within, and ensure the 'Riders can survive without him.

But more importantly, there shouldn't be as much need to worry about Durant's health thanks to a revitalized offensive line. The most important task for the pre-season will likely be to integrate a massive set of new talent (Heenan, Brendon LaBatte, Dominic Picard and assorted others) with Chris Best and the remaining depth on the team's roster. But once that's done, the offensive line should be better than it's been in ages.

Of course, there has been one obvious hiccup in the 'Riders' player acquisitions this offseason. But while I'll give the same answer as to what the 'Riders should have avoided, I'll argue that the problem isn't the one that's been discussed by other commentators.

In general, a CFL team faces two main limitations on talent acquisition: a hard salary cap, and an import player limit. And the first step in building a team needs to be to maximize value taking those factors into consideration: looking for less-established players who aren't yet paid based on past performance, and non-imports who can help meet the roster quotas.

It's only once there's a sufficient base in place that it's worth putting much effort into adding veteran imports to fill particular needs. But even there, a team should be on the lookout for players who can be imported and developed.

And there are few positions where it seems easier to find import talent than defensive end. Indeed, near the end of Eric Tillman's tenure as 'Riders GM, John Chick and Stevie Baggs arrived from nowhere in particular and the CFL scrap heap respectively to terrorize quarterbacks for the 'Riders. Three of the CFL's top ten sacks leaders in 2011 (Winnipeg's Kenny Mainor and Jason Vega, and Edmonton's Marcus Howard) were brand-new to the league. And Kenny Rowe showed some ability to pressure quarterbacks in a late-season 'Riders audition.

So the case for trading for Willis would seem to be a weak one even if one didn't account for the possibility that his own gaudy numbers might have a lot to do with offensive lines treating Doug Brown as the greater threat. And that too looks to be a reason to think Willis might be overvalued - both in salary and in what he'd cost in a trade.

Meanwhile, the 'Riders managed to get superb results out of a second-round draft choice in 2011 by selecting Craig Butler, who looks to be a fixture in the team's secondary for years to come.

So how can a team justify trading multiple draft picks - which can help in both value for salary, and import/non-import calculations - to fill a position where skilled replacements are so readily available? I'd think the only way it makes sense as a single deal is if a team sees itself as unable to develop draft picks or new talent well enough to get value out of its younger players. But if that's going to be a team's operating assumption (and Butler offers at least one counterexample), then it has much bigger issues than simply patching individual holes.

And the Willis trade wasn't even the only example of the 'Riders trading draft value for the type of talent they should be able to find on their own.

So while the good news is that the 'Riders have set up their roster fairly nicely for 2012, the real danger from this offseason is that the team's planning horizon doesn't seem to extend far enough beyond that timeline. And the last thing 'Riders fans should want to see is for the team to fall into the Toronto Maple Leafs syndrome of consistently giving away long-term value to address perceived short-term needs.

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