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Scoop exclusive: CFL exec, FCS staff talk program, roster construction

Roster construction, be it at a conference-championship-winning Football Championship Subdivision team or with a perennial playoff contender in the Canadian Football League, has to keep its basic principles.

That was the message in a recent Zoom meeting between a CFL assistant general manager and members of the offensive staff at Alcorn State University, the back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference champs. was invited to sit in on the meeting as well.

“Ultimately, it has to fit for what you guys do and how you can get better,” Edmonton Football Team assistant general manager Bobby Merritt told the coaches. “You have to have your non-negotiables and parameters for positions.”

Merritt, a longtime NFL scout with time as a personnel man at the collegiate ranks before ascending into Edmonton's front office, shared insight into roster assembly that he's gleaned through 15-plus years in football.

Merritt explained that while tangible measurements at various positions are going to vary from the collegiate to the professional levels, constructing a rating system that helps an entire staff be on the same page consistently provides tremendous value.

“To me, the skill-set is more important than having a defined parameter,” Merritt explained. “There are 6-foot guys that are playing at a high level (at quarterback) that don't have balls batted down, and there are 6-4 guys who lack the instincts to find the passing lanes.

“So, for that position, whether he's 6-1 or 6-4, I want to look at the skill-set. Some guys are 6-4 and can throw it through a wall, but what can you learn from them about their decision-making on film? What about their intangibles?”

Merritt extrapolated that philosophy to a couple other offensive positions.

“When you're talking about parameters for your receivers, you don't want seven guys who are all 6-4,” said Merritt, who worked extensively with both the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans. “You have to have a mix of guys based on your scheme. You say, 'OK, he's not probably going to be a man-beater (at that size), so you have to define what you want at each position. What you want in your outside guys and inside guys.”

“If we had them all 6-1 and great, we'd be happy,” said Alcorn assistant Jason Phillips, the Braves' pass-game coordinator and wide receivers coach. “But we're going to have a 6-4 guy who's a 50-50 guy, a slot guy who's 5-11, 6-foot and has great hips. Not necessarily can he win a 40 but he's got great hips, gets in and out of breaks and then we're going to have an option-route guy. Then we want one who is OUR GUY.”

Depending upon both roster makeup and roster restrictions, be it for scholarships or salary caps, Merritt explained another key point that's central in his personnel discussions.

“Position versatility is key,” Merritt said. “Running back is another thing where size concerns, we didn't go by hard-line parameters (in the NFL). If you have a running back who's 198, we might have concern about his ability to hold up. So how does he hold that 198? Does he have great wiggle and great in space? Then you might have another guy who's 190 but it's less concerning because of his frame.

“We look at shoulder-width more so with offensive linemen and tight ends; running backs and wide receivers, it's more lower-body concern. Interior guys it's got to be a little bit of both.”

Merritt goes in-depth on the preeminent position: quarterback. He advised that staffs should have a list of perhaps 10 items or more that it wants to see from any quarterback it either might sign to scholarship or might look to draft.

“It's the whole package,” he said. “Think about everything you're going to ask your quarterback to do:

“Start from the snap, then it's pocket agility, setup-quickness, does he make good decisions, work through progressions. In high school, if a kid can go to his second read, that's probably pretty good. Can he still gauge and project where he wants to go with the ball to the receiver? Does he throw on time? What about delivery? Release? Arm-strength is probably lesser, to me, because I want to see ball placement; is he short or long? Can he create off-schedule? Does he have a run-skill?”

Merritt also said, at least at the collegiate level, it could be important to generate a value-ranking system from one through six when evaluating prospects.

“You have to ask, is he going to be an impact player, a good starter, a starter, backup, depth player or a walk-on,” Merritt said.

Phillips shared a glimpse into Alcorn's recruiting approach. The Braves have won 18 games in the past two seasons and have been scheduled to begin defense of their back-to-back SWAC crowns Feb. 27, 2021, at Alabama A&M.

“Part of it is we don't get nearly enough time on each kid and sometimes it's going to come off some grainy film,” Phillips said. “We'll watch their highlight tape as a staff, and if we know the head coach, they'll send us some full games.

“We do a good job, we get some good players. We'll see a kid in March, April on a highlight tape and we'll start from there. Everybody's got a good running back. We might only be going to take one, but we're gonna offer 20 good ones.”

A former collegiate athlete who later earned a Master's from Toledo and also served in the military, Merritt shared a particularly insightful moment from one of his scouting stops in the NFL at a major Power-5 school.

The coaches there had asked Merritt to look at tape of a skill player that they were on the verge of extending an offer.

“We're not sure about the guy, not sure if we want to offer him,” Merritt recalled the staff saying. “It was a highlight-tape, and I asked do you have game tape? They said, 'Yeah, but we usually watch highlights. Why?'

“Well, on that highlight tape, we saw the running back catch the ball, run upfield and step out of bounds. What I want to know is why was he stepping out of bounds? Was it a game-clock situation? Some of that stuff can tell you more about their makeup. To me, a guy showing a lack of willingness to finish runs may be an indictment on his toughness. So a guy willing to finish for four more yards may be more willing to go cover punts and kickoffs for you. And I think conversations like that can increase your roster value, from player 1 through the end.”

Phillips said he and his colleagues left the Zoom session with a greater understanding on the intricacies of roster management – and without a need to implement budget-breaking practices to build a good program.

“You can lean on the process Mr. Merritt talked about from an initial evaluation to the interview all the way through player development and grading both players and coaches responsible for their development,” Phillips said. “The things he talked about didn't require ridiculous budgets but a great attention to detail and finding value in all parts of your organization and program.”