In what is being called the deepest talent pool since 2002 ushered in the likes of Jason Clermont and Alexander Gauthier, the 2012 CFL draft features around 435 young Canadians eligible to join the professional ranks.
On Thursday at 1 p.m., they will be vying for 45 spots in this year’s draft, one of which will have the eyes of the entire Eskimos Empire focused on it: the second-overall selection, which Edmonton gained through a surprising deal back in December that sent franchise quarterback Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts.
While the Eskimos got the studious Steven Jyles back at pivot, along with local leg Grant Shaw — who played junior ball with the Edmonton Huskies — it is the first-round pick that will make or break the deal that had more than a few Eskies faithful crying foul.
“Obviously, I like to use the word ‘we’ when speaking about the team,” Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman said over the phone Wednesday evening, minutes before boarding a plane to Edmonton. “With this trade, the accountability lies directly at my feet.
“I knew there would be fan reaction, especially because of the great respect the Edmonton fan base has for Ricky Ray.”
Ray, no doubt a future Hall-of-Famer with a pair of Grey Cup rings from his nine years with the Eskimos, threw for 40,529 yards, 210 touchdowns and 130 interceptions in that time, earning a career QB rating of 96.1.
Obviously, a team can’t immediately replace that kind of experience and productivity with a single draft pick — especially in a league that hasn’t seen a capable Canadian start at quarterback since the mid-90s.
The second-overall selection from the Argos accompanies the Eskimos’ own first-round pick, at sixth overall, to give Edmonton two of the top-eight choices for the second year in a row.
The last draft garnered Rice offensive lineman Scott Mitchell at second overall, followed by Alberta product and University of Calgary Dinos receiver Nate Coehoorn — both of whom spent more time in the classroom than on the field as rookies, but are expected to become impact performers in the not-too-distant future.
While it often takes time to develop even the most talented of university players, not even the most patient of fans will one day be able to judge the Ray trade on whatever happens with the Eskimos’ No. 2 pick on Thursday.
In the end, there is just no comparing American quarterbacks to the non-import positions traditionally drafted.
So, while there is understandable pressure on Tillman and the rest of the Eskimos brass with their top pick, it is simply because it’s their top pick and not because of losing Ray.
“In terms of pressure, if that bothers you, you’re probably in the wrong business,” Tillman said. “Pressure comes with the territory.”