NFL: CFL’s third pick hopes to stay with Panthers
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Jamall Lee’s hometown team liked him so much it traded up to take him No. 3 overall in the draft. The only problem was it wasn’t the NFL draft.
Lee was practicing with the Carolina Panthers when the B.C. Lions traded up to take him in the Canadian Football League draft. Canada’s top collegiate running back didn’t realize he’d become big news north of the border until he checked his voicemail several hours later and found it filled with congratulatory messages. He had been too busy practicing and learning a different style of football.
“I’d love to make it here,” Lee said Sunday after finishing his final minicamp practice with Carolina. “The CFL is a great league, and I’m really proud of the guys up there. But right now this is where I want to be. This is where the quote-unquote best players are.”
With Carolina already deep at running back, Lee faces long odds to make the Panthers’ final 53-man roster. The speedy, 6-foot-1 Lee feels he has the talent to play in the NFL. To do so he’ll have to adjust to a game that has one fewer player per side, an extra down to get a first down and a much narrower field.
“Even on the snap count, I would jump the snap count up there,” Lee said of the CFL’s more relaxed rules for going in motion. “Down here I just wait until the ball is snapped because I don’t want to be offside.”
Lee grew up a basketball fanatic in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, which is about a 30-minute drive from Vancouver. Soon he realized his best sport was football.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise because his father, Orville, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 CFL draft and spent five years in the league as a running back.
Oregon State suggested Lee attend junior college in the United States and maybe transfer there later, but he declined. He enrolled at Bishop’s University in Quebec and went on to become a two-time Canadian Interuniversity Sport rushing champion, finishing with 4,296 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Lee caught the attention of the Panthers and other NFL teams after setting CFL combine records in the 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds) and vertical leap (44 inches). He wasn’t taken in the NFL draft, but the Panthers were on the phone with his agent five minutes after it ended.
“Carolina showed a lot of interest before the draft. It was a good situation,” Lee’s agent, Zeke Sandhu said. “Yes, they have DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but he’s got a shot to be a third-down back and return man.”
Signing with Carolina didn’t scare away the Lions. They traded the sixth and 13th picks to Hamilton ó a deal that was agreed to Friday ó to get him.
“Things fell into place for us after the first two selections were made, and we are very excited to draft a player of Jamall’s caliber,” said Lions general manager and head coach Wally Buono. “He’s a tremendous athlete who I believe is capable of having a big impact on the field.”Since the CFL season starts much earlier than the NFL ó B.C.’s first regular-season game is July 3 ó the Lions will be without their top pick for a good chunk of the season because Lee is expected to be in training camp with Carolina beginning in August. The final cut to 53 players is Sept. 1.
“It lets you know they were really interested in me and they’re willing to even wait, if things work out for me here,” Lee said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Lee certainly has a financial incentive to stay south of the Canadian border. He’d make $310,000 under the NFL rookie minimum if he stuck with Carolina. He’d make about $50,000 in the CFL.
But Lee has to learn more than your basic NFL rookie. He got many of his yards in college by running outside and taking advantage of the 65 yard-wide field. In the NFL, the width is just over 53 yards.
“I don’t think I’ve cut outside once in this camp,” Lee said. “I just keep following the holes. If I break it up the middle, then maybe I’ll cut it outside. But you can’t do that here. Guys are too fast.”
Panthers coach John Fox said Lee’s “got the physical tools” and “we’ll see how he progresses.” With fourth-round pick Mike Goodson adding to the glut at running back, Lee knows he’ll have to shine in training camp.
Otherwise, he’ll quickly become a B.C. Lion and trade in his goals of winning the Super Bowl to competing for a Grey Cup title.
“I want to push myself as far as I can go and see what happens,” Lee said. “If it doesn’t work out, I’m happy I took my shot and I’ll go back home.”
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