SANTA CLARA The long-heard lament of NFL defenders is that the rules constantly are being tweaked to aid the offense.
Oh yeah, says Armond Armstead? Try playing in the Canadian Football League for a while.
The end zones are 10 yards deeper, defensive linemen like Armstead must be a yard off the line of scrimmage when the play begins, and wideouts as well as all of the players in the offensive backfield can get a running start as the ball is snapped.
Offensive holding? Armstead, who played at Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove, said he remembers his Toronto Argonauts defense being awarded one holding call three months into the season.
"I literally had a guy punch my face mask off, and at the end of the play they penalized me for playing without a helmet," Armstead, 22, said with a laugh.
But Armstead, who led the Argonauts in sacks and was named to multiple CFL All-Star teams as a rookie, also learned how to defend a faster, more wide-open style of offense. And he's hoping NFL teams agree that those skills translate nicely to a league that increasingly revolves around the passing game.
"It's more about speed and quickness," said Armstead, who is 6-foot-5 and dropped from 300 pounds to about 285 for his CFL season. "You have to be athletic to play in this league. You have to cover more space. You're basically playing against a spread offense every week."
Cameron Wake, the Miami Dolphins defensive end who will play against the 49ers on Sunday, not only made the leap from CFL to NFL, he stuck the landing.
Undrafted out of college, Wake played two seasons for the British Columbia Lions. He won the CFL's Rookie of the Year award in 2007, and he led the league with 23 sacks the following season.
During the offseason, at least six NFL teams including the 49ers bid for Wake, who signed a four-year deal that included the largest signing bonus ever for a CFL player.
"We were actually in on Cameron Wake," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. "But it got to a point, from a signing bonus standpoint, where it was higher than we wanted to go. Props to Miami. They wanted him, and they went out and got him. They were willing to take a risk."
Wake has rewarded that risk with 39 sacks in 3 1/2 seasons. Like Armstead, Wake said he honed his pass-rush skills while chasing pass-happy CFL quarterbacks.
"Not only that but everybody talks about having that chip on your shoulder," Wake said this week. "I had to deal with a lot of that when I got here. People thinking, 'Oh, you're from the CFL? You're a bum. How good can you be?' Now I think people are kind of starting to recognize, 'You know what CFL, Arena (League), these guys can play ball.' "
Baalke said NFL teams have allocated more resources to the CFL in the last five years or so. For example, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, who played in the CFL, has two former CFL players on his roster, including Indianapolis' top tackler, linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
Baalke said Tom Gamble, the 49ers' director of pro player personnel, scouts the CFL as well as other professional leagues like the Arena League and the UFL. Gamble spends about a half a week in Canada in the summer before the 49ers' training camp begins.
"You may put the time in for 10 years and not find anyone," Baalke said. "But in Year 11, you could get Cameron Wake."
Armstead's main mission is to prove to NFL teams that he's healthy.
In August, Armstead sued USC, charging that the school's doctors repeatedly injected him with the painkiller Toradol and that it caused a heart attack early in 2011. USC did not allow him to play that season, and Armstead was not selected in the NFL draft.
Armstead said NFL teams, including the Seattle Seahawks coached by the man who recruited him at USC, Pete Carroll wouldn't allow him to work out this spring. So he went to Canada, where he was given a clean bill of health.
Armstead played 23 games for the Argonauts, who went on a five-game tear at the end of the season and won the CFL's 100th Grey Cup last month.
Armstead said he hopes to work out for interested NFL clubs in January.
"I played 23 games of football," he said. "I had no injuries, no problems. What kind of doubts could you have?"