CFL Pass

Betts' gamble already starting to pay off for Eskimos

What began as a draft-day gamble is looking more and more like a safe bet at the moment.

Make that Betts.

University of Laval product Mathieu Betts, taken third overall by the Edmonton Eskimos in May’s Canadian Football League draft, made his debut in green and gold in Friday’s 30-27 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

And despite having just one full week of practice under his belt following his release from the Chicago Bears, where he spent the National Football League pre-season, the 24-year-old native of Montreal wasted no time in proving his potential as a playmaker at the professional level up north.

“It was my first game out there, I think the coaches played me well and just gave me a couple reps there on defence,” said Betts. “Obviously, we’ve got a good group of guys on the D-line. I was fortunate enough to go out there for a few plays, just try to get a groove.”

Despite seeing limited use in rotation on the defensive line, Betts came up with a timely strip sack against Ticats quarterback Dane Evans, registering his first CFL stats while forcing loose a ball that was recovered by defensive tackle Mike Moore in the second quarter in Hamilton territory.

“I was happy about it, we had really good coverage and the quarterback had held the ball a little longer, which got me to go on him,” Betts said. “And our guys got the ball back.

“Our offence converted off of it too. They scored, so that was a big push for us.”

Two snaps later, Eskimos quarterback Logan Kilgore cashed the turnover in for points, with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Greg Ellingson, which turned what had been a mightily lopsided contest throughout the first half into a one-score game heading into the final quarter.

“I think guys did a good job in the second half to come back,” said Betts. “It was positive for the second half on all three phases of the ball: Offence, defence and special teams. We have to carry that throughout this next week.”

While it’s not a good idea to put too much faith in such a small sample size — even for someone like the reigning three-time U-Sports defensive lineman of the year — the former Canadian university football rookie of the year is giving early reason for Eskimos fans to get excited about the prospect of one day having not one, but two Canadian defensive ends.

Kwaku Boateng’s emergence as a pass-rushing force to be reckoned with after winding up as the steal of the draft as a fifth-round pick in 2017, made Betts a tempting target on the Eskimos draft board this year, despite pursuing NFL aspirations at the time.

“We drafted him for a reason, we took him at that point because we think he is a very good football player,” Eskimos general manager Brock Sunderland said when Betts’ signing was announced over the recent bye week. “We said this on draft day: That he was the No. 1 guy on our boards, so when you have someone, in our opinion, that talented we certainly expect him to help us right away.”

Or, as soon as he got here, at least, which — according to Sunderland — might not have been that much of a gamble in the first place.

“It was calculated,” Sunderland said. “Analytics is a buzz word out there that people throw around all the time. Our analytics is studying what the percentage is of undrafted free agents that stick with NFL rosters, and it was in the 30 per cent.”

So, the Eskimos played the odds. What they don’t know right now is exactly what the payout could be in the end. But let’s just say no one is planning on going shopping to replace any lost shirts.

“We feel like during the week of work he put in, he came early on the bye week and got to learn the playbook a little bit,” said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. “We knew he would go in there for about 10 or 14 plays and didn’t know how it would go, but based on the film we’d seen of him, we know he can influence the game at times, and I felt like he did a good job of that.

“But I know the one thing for sure is he will be better the next time out.”

With all the arrows pointing up for the rookie, the Eskimos are keeping their feet grounded when it comes to his progression.

“I also think we all need to be realistic and understand expectations and reality,” Sunderland cautioned. “We all need to be realistic with where he’s at in his development and where he’s going to go.

“I think there’s a very high ceiling, but even some of the best players and Hall-of-Famers need to integrate and acclimate to this league.”


On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge