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Laval pass-rusher Betts might be late-round NFL draft pick

ESPN analyst high on 24-year-old from Montreal

Mathieu Betts of Montreal is the only born-and-raised Canadian this year with a realistic shot at being selected in the NFL Draft.

A prominent U.S. draft expert believes he will indeed get picked.

A four-year starter at defensive end for Laval University in Quebec City, Betts shone as one of two Canadian collegians invited to the first of three post-season U.S. college all-star games in January, the East-West Shrine Game.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay on Monday told Postmedia on a conference call with reporters that he believes Betts will be taken on Saturday, the third and final day of the draft, when Rounds 4-7 take place.

“Yeah, I went back and watched the East-West Shrine tape, and he had a really good week,” McShay said. “Betts, to me, I think he’s going to be a late-round pick, when it’s all said and done.

“He handled good competition. It’s so important in those all-star games for small-school players, and players from Canada, to come in and get the opportunity and show that they can play against high-quality talent. I think he performed well enough where a team will look at him and say, ‘You know what? He’s worth a late-round pick, and at worst a priority free agent.’”

That’d fulfill a dream the 24-year-old has had since all the way back … in December.

To hear Betts explain why reaching the NFL hadn’t been a priority for him until the past few months tells a lot about the short-term focus the young man has had, as well as his team-first mentality — attributes football coaches pray for in a prospect.

“I never approached a season where my end goal was to reach the NFL,” Betts said this week in a phone interview from Quebec City. “I’ve always been a guy whose only goal was to win championships, either at high school or college. And I was fortunate enough to experience that along the way. Obviously, the last couple of months have been really exciting — for me, for my friends, for my family. I wouldn’t say it’s surreal, because it feels more real now. But for sure it is exciting.”

The CFL Scouting Bureau, in its final rankings released two weeks ago, again had Betts as the No. 1-rated prospect for the three-down league’s draft of Canadians, a week Thursday. But by then Betts almost certainly will be either drafted by an NFL team, or signed immediately following the draft’s conclusion Saturday.

CBSSports.com ranks Betts the No. 29 defensive end in the NFL Draft, and No. 376 overall out of 539 graded players. But Dane Brugler of TheAthletic.com ranks Betts as the No. 50 defensive end, and NFLDraftScout.com has him at No. 51 along with the lowest projection: worthy of a tryout only following the NFL Draft.

For perspective, 22 defensive ends on average have been selected in each of the past five NFL drafts, with the most coming in 2014 (25), the fewest in 2016 and 2018 (19).

Betts said he and his agent, Sasha Ghavami, are trying not to get too high nor too low amid such divergent projections.

“It’s kind of hard to try to be confident or precise in where I’ll end up, and how,” said Betts, who grew up in Montreal’s LaSalle neighbourhood. “From the feedback I’ve received, I’ll either hopefully get drafted late, or get signed post-draft. These are two options I’m comfortable with. The only thing we’re asking is to get an honest chance to compete during training camp, for the chance to compete during the regular season.”

Betts showed off his solid pass-rushing skills in practices leading up to the Jan. 19 East-West Shrine Game, and in the game as well. Betts credited his development to hands-on Laval head coach Glen Constantin, as well as to occasional visitors at Laval football camps, former U.S. college and NFL defensive coaches Jim Washburn and Jim Herrmann. All three urged him to diversify his rush moves, from the same looking attack.

“My best attribute is my takeoff,” Betts said. “I’m more of a speed guy with a good takeoff. I’ll also use a couple of speed-to-power moves, just to keep the blocker honest. If he oversteps me, I’m not scared to try an inside move on him. I’m comfortable trying a spin move a couple of times a game, too. So having a variety of moves is something I improved on a lot through university.

“Down at the Shrine Game I was coached at my position by Marcus Lewis, who was with the Cincinnati Bengals. He had mostly the same philosophy. But he was a big fan of the spin move, inside or outside. The footwork was maybe a bit different from what I was used to. Most old-school coaches are not fans of spin moves, but coach Lewis was big on that, so that was fun.”

It might not bode well that no NFL team invited Betts for an official pre-draft visit or worked him out solo, as permitted. But five NFL teams did send scouts to his March 11 pro day at Laval: the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers.

Betts said that his former Laval teammate and current tight end with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Antony (Tony) Auclair, remains a good friend and offered him some helpful advice by phone in December.

“It’s hard advice to follow, but I think it’s wise,” Betts said. “And that’s to not try to do too much in the off-season, just because you’re going to the pros. The formula doesn’t change, he said, because we were well-prepared at Laval, well-prepared for the season. You don’t want to change a winning formula.

“He said he might have been over-training in that off-season before going to the pros, and got a little bit injured. He said to keep my same routine … You don’t have to go six to 12 hours in the gym. You’ll just get more tired, and more injured. He said it’s a long year, a 16-game season, plus four preseason games and maybe the playoffs. So taking care of myself will be a priority. You can’t be a good football player if you’re injured, that’s for sure.”

As for other NFL draft prospects with Canadian ties, Arizona State wide receiver N’Keal Harry is likely to be taken anywhere from late in Round 1 Thursday night, to Round 2 or 3 on Friday night. He was born in Toronto but relocated with family to Grenada as an infant, then moved with his grandmother to Arizona at age 4, where he she raised him.

So, like NFL free-agent receiver/returner T.J. Jones (formerly of the Detroit Lions), Harry’s most impactful connection to Canada is his birth certificate.

Erroneous reports in the winter claimed Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien is Canadian, but in fact he told Postmedia at the NFL Scouting Combine in February he is merely eligible for dual citizenship. Rypien’s dad and uncle Mark — who quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl championship in 1991 — were both born in Calgary and raised in Spokane, Wash., while Brett himself was born and raised in Spokane.

“My uncle and dad are Canadian, so I’ve always loved Canada,” Brett said. “Right now I don’t have dual citizenship. I’m working on getting it.”

Rypien — a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan because head coach Mike Babcock is a close family friend — is regarded by NFL draftniks as probably a late-round prospect.

Numerous Canadian players besides Betts surely are hoping to land a post-draft free-agent contract offer, or at least a tryout — surely including offensive tackle Maurice Bibaku Simba of Concordia. He is 6-foot 7 and weighs 328 pounds — the classic body size of an NFL OT — and he played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in January.

“You look at the size and the ability he has,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Simba in February. “Once he gets some coaching he could be a guy that goes in the late rounds, and has a chance to be a developmental offensive lineman.”

Simba’s NFL draft stock seems to have fallen since February, however. Brugler does not rank Simba among his Top 50 offensive tackles, when an average of 22 OTs have been selected in each of the past five drafts. Also, Simba fell from No. 11 to 13 in the final CFL Scouting Bureau rankings.

Betts said he’ll watch the draft on TV on Saturday with family and close friends at his apartment in Quebec City.

“Just a little get-together,” he said. “For me it will be a fun time, but a stressful time. I want to share it with people who helped me reach this objective, who helped me throughout this process. My parents first, then close friends I grew up with who don’t care what occupation I do.”

CFL/NFL PROSPECT SAVARD QUITS FOOTBALL FOR ‘MEDICAL REASONS’

Three days before the NFL Draft, and 10 days before the CFL Draft, highly regarded Laval University wide receiver Alexandre Savard announced his retirement from football — for “medical reasons.”

This, according to a Tuesday afternoon news released issued by the university.

Postmedia has learned that the uncited medical reason for Savard’s decision is not life-threatening, just preventative.

The CFL Scouting Bureau ranked the Quebec City native as its No. 20 prospect for the three-down league’s draft, a week from Thursday night.

After being invited to perform in one of January’s post-season U.S. college all-star games, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, Savard at least got onto the radar of NFL teams.

He probably was a real longshot to get drafted, but had a good chance after the conclusion of the NFL Draft Saturday evening to receive either contract or tryout offers from teams, as an undrafted free agent.

Dane Brugler of TheAthletic.com ranked Savard as the No. 61 receiver in this draft class, when only 30-34 typically get drafted in any year.

Savard played four years at Laval, helping the team win Vanier Cup championship in 2016 and 2018. At 6-foot-5, 242 pounds he caught 41 passes for 499 yards and seven touchdowns in 23 career regular-season games, and added 14 receptions for 109 yards and a score in 12 playoff games.

“It’s a difficult decision to make, but it’s the best for me in the circumstances,” Savard said in the news release, per an online translation. “Football has brought me a lot, and I want to salute all those who have helped me climb the ladder in this sport over the years. I want to especially thank my teammates and the Rouge et Or organization, including head coach Glen Constantin, who helped forge the person I am today.”

JoKryk@postmedia.com

@JohnKryk

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