Top 5 Active NFL Players Who Started Their Pro Career In The CFL
On February 3rd, the Indianapolis Colts signed wide receiver Duron Carter (whose father, Cris Carter, was a former All-Pro wide receiver who is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) to a three-year contract. In 2014, Duron Carter was an All-Star in the Canadian Football League in his second season playing for the Montreal Alouettes. Carter first came to Montreal after not being selected in the 2013 NFL Draft (he was dismissed from Florida Atlantic University, after previously playing in Ohio State and a Junior College). Like many players who aren't drafted or don't get a chance in the National Football League, Carter tried his fortunes up north.
There was a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Canadian Football League attracted many top college players from the United States due to the strenght of the Canadian dollar and being more tolerant against black athletes (One example is running back Johnny Bright, who played for the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos from 1952 through 1964 and retired as Canada's all-time leading rusher. Bright, who was the 5th overalll pick in the 1952 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles after starring at Drake University, chose instead to play in Canada after an incident in a college game at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) when an opposing player broke his jaw intentionally after a play was over. Bright eventually became a Canadian citizen, and is inducted in both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, as well and in the College Football Hall of Fame in the US).
However, with the merger of the National and the American Football League in 1970 and more television revenues, less players went up north. There were some exceptions: Wide receiver Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner, went to the Montreal Alouettes instead of the San Diego Chargers, who had drafted him. Linebacker Tom Cousineau, the top pick in the 1979 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, chose also to play for the Alouettes. Defensive tackle Bruce Clark, the 4th overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers, chose instead to play for the Toronto Argonauts. In 1981, Vancouver billionaire Nelson Skalbania bought the Alouettes, and he brought two first round NFL Draft choices from that year: Running back David Overstreet, selected by the Miami Dolphins, and defensive end Keith Gary, selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Skalbania also brought some NFL established players: quarterback Vince Ferragamo from the Los Angeles Rams, and wide receiver Billy "White Shoes" Johnson from the Houston Oilers. All of those players returned to the NFL after a few seasons in Canada. But the most famous players who starred in Canada and then also in the NFL were two quarterbacks: Warren Moon (the only player inducted in both the Pro and the Canadian Football Hall of Fames, he won 5 Grey Cups with the Edmonton Eskimos before signing in 1984 with the Houston Oilers) and Doug Flutie (who actually started his career in the extinct USFL, and then played four more seasons in the NFL before going to Canada, where he won 3 Grey Cups with the Calgary Stampeders and the Toronto Argonauts and was named the CFL's Most Outstanding Player a record 6 times before returning to the NFL for another 8 years). Lastly, in 1991 the Argonauts signed wide receiver Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who was projected to be the top pick in that year's NFL Draft, and quickly helped Toronto to winning the Grey Cup after an All-Star season, then returned to the United States.
Nowadays, there are former NFL players who are starring in the CFL. Running back Steve Slaton, who ran for over 1,200 yards in 2008 for the Houston Texans, is playing for the Toronto Argonauts. Four defensive backs who were starters at a time in the NFL (Fred Bennett, Pat Watkins, Jamar Wall and Tyron Brackenridge) were named to the 2014 CFL All-Star team. Brandon Banks, who lead the NFL in kickoff yards in 2011 playing for the Washington Redskins, is also a CFL All-Star, playing nowadays with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
But, like Warren Moon and Duron Carter, there are many players who weren't drafted by the NFL and instead went to play in Canada hoping for a chance to shine in the NFL. And just in Super Bowl XLIX, we had three players who were CFL All-Stars and now were starters in their respective teams. So let's look at the top 5 active NFL players who started their pro career in Canada.
1) Chris Matthews (Wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks)
After playing college football for the Kentucky Wildcats, Matthews was not selected in the 2011 NFL Draft. He signed with the Cleveland Browns, but was cut in the preseason. He then went to the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. In 2012 he went to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he won the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie Award after catching 81 passes for 1,192 yards and 7 touchdowns. But in 2013, Williams only caught 14 passes for 138 and one touchdown for Winnipeg after being injured most of the season and was released. Out of a job, he was working in a Foot Locker store when the Seahawks signed him in 2014. After being assigned to the practice squad for most of the season (he only played in three games and did not catch a pass), Williams starred in the playoffs. In the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers he recovered an onside kick late in the game that enabled a Seattle comeback win in overtime. Then in Super Bowl XLIX, Matthews caught 4 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown late in the first half (those were their first career receptions in the NFL, and only Matthews and the Dallas Cowboys' Percy Howard in Super Bowl X have score their first NFL touchdowns in a Super Bowl).
2) Brandon Browner (Cornerback, New England Patriots)
After playing college football for the Oregon State Beavers, where he was chosen as All-Pacific 10 Conference, Browner was not selected in the 2005 NFL Draft. He signed with the Denver Broncos, but he missed all the season due to an injury in the preseason. After being waived by the Broncos in 2006, Browner went to the Calgary Stampeders in 2007, where he starred for four seasons. He was named CFL All-Star from 2008 through 2010 and helped the Stampeders to a Grey Cup title. The Seattle Seahawks signed him in 2011 and quickly became a starter at right cornerback, where he picked 6 passes, returning 2 for touchdowns (including a Seahawks record 94-yarder against the New York Giants) and was named a Pro Bowl Alternate (playing in the game for the injured Carlos Rogers). But in 2012 Browner was suspended the first four games for violating the NFL's performance enhancing drug policy and in 2013 he was suspended again after eight games, so he missed the Seahawks' Super Bowl XLVIII victory against the Denver Broncos. After being suspended again for the first four games of the 2014 season, Browner signed with the New England Patriots, where he started the final 9 games of the season and was a vital part in their Super Bowl win against his former team.
3) Cameron Wake (Defensive end, Miami Dolphins)
After playing college football for the Penn State Nittany Lions, Wake was not selected in the 2005 NFL Draft. He signed with the New York Giants, but was cut in the preseason. In 2007, Wake signed for the British Columbia Lions, where he immediatily became a star, as he won both the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie Award and the CFL's Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award, and again was the CFL's top defensive player in 2008, totaling 39 sacks in his two All-Star seasons in Canada. Seventeen NFL teams took notice and Wake work out for eight of them. After signing for Miami, Wake hasn't slowed down: he has been selected to four Pro Bowls, was an AP All-Pro in 2012 and in 2010 and 2011 by two other sources, totaling 63 sacks in his six seasons in the NFL.
4) Jerrell Freeman (Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts)
After playing college football for the Division III's Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders, where he twice was named All-American, Freeman was not selected in the 2008 NFL Draft. He signed with the Tennessee Titans (he was the first player for the tiny school based in Belton, Texas, to be offered a NFL contract), but was cut in the preseason. In 2009, Freeman went to play in Canada for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he was chosen as the Roughriders top rookie. In 2010 he became a starter and in 2011 led the entire CFL in tackles with 105, and was chosen as a CFL All-Star. Freeman signed with the Colts in 2012, where he made an impact in his first game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, where he intercepted a Jay Cutler pass and returned it 4 yards for a touchdown. He finished 2012 with 145 tackles, fifth in the league, and in his three years in Indianapolis only has missed four games, and has started the 44 regular season games he has played, plus helping the Colts made the playoffs all three seasons.
5) Jon Ryan (Punter, Seattle Seahawks)
Born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, Ryan attended his hometown University of Regina, where he starred as a punter and wide receiver for the Rams.
He was drafted by the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2004, and was their punter for two seasons, earning an CFL All-Star award in 2005 when he led the CFL with an astounding 50.6 yard average.
Various NFL teams took notice and he moved to the Green Bay Packers in 2006 and was their punter for two seasons. Then he signed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2008 and has been one of the top punters in the league since, earning a Pro Bowl alternate nominiation after the 2009 season and being an important part of the 2013 Seahawks' Super Bowl winning team. In this year's NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, Ryan threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Garry Gilliam on a fake field goal in the third quarter that helped Seattle to cut back Green Bay's lead and started the Seahawks improbable come-from-behind victory (he was the first Canadian since former Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien in 1993 to threw a touchdown pass in the NFL).
Honorable Mention 1) Chris Williams (Kick returner, free agent)
After being a high school star in the state of New Mexico in football, basketball and track and field, Williams played college football as a wide receiver for the New Mexico State Aggies, where he was named twice for the All-Western Athletic Conference team, but he was not selected in the 2009 NFL Draft. He signed with the Miami Dolphins, but was injured in the preseason and was waived. He then signed with the Cleveland Browns, who assigned him to their practice squad, but released him just 9 days after signing him. In 2010, Williams signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for their practice squad, and in 2011 he became a star in Canada, as he won the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie Award, and in 2012 he was named a CFL All-Star, as he established a Canadian Football League record returning six kick or punt returns for touchdowns, and totaling nearly 2,500 combined receiving and return yards. In 2013, he went to the NFL, signing first with the New Orleans Saints, and later with the Chicago Bears. In a 2014 nationally televised Sunday Night game against the Green Bay Packers, Williams scored on a 101-yard kickoff return. He was waived late in the season when Bears kicker Robbie Gould was injured and the Bears needed to sign his replacement Jay Feely. As of this time, he is currently a free agent.
Honorable Mention 2) Henoc Muamba (Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts)
Born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Muamba moved to Canada when he was a teenager. He went to play at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where he became the X-Men all-time leader in tackles. He was the first selection of the entire 2011 CFL Draft by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and by 2013 he was a CFL All-Star, placing 2nd in the entire league in tackles. In 2014 he signed for the Colts, where he played for 13 games mainly in special teams. He should get more playing time in 2015.