The CFL’s Canadian draft is usually a virtual event to some extent, but in 2020, the league took that to a new level, and it will continue when the 2021 draft is held Tuesday night.
Last year, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Edmonton Football Team general manager Brock Sunderland was by himself at home in his basement with a couple of white boards for draft day; this year, he will be in a more comfortable situation.
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“I’m going to be in the office and may have a person or two with me social distanced, but I will work out of the office this year; a little easier and more functional.”
Because the CFL did not play in 2020, the league went with a random draw to set the draft order. Hamilton picks first followed by Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and then Edmonton.
It will be a “snake draft” — one to nine in Round 1, and nine to one in Round 2. Edmonton is right in the middle at No. 5 — they will be the only team picking in the same spot in every round (fifth,14th, 23rd, 32nd, 41st and 50th overall).
B.C., Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Hamilton again will close out Round 1. The Ti-Cats second pick comes from Montreal as the final piece of the Johnny Manziel trade. The Alouettes will start Round 2.
It’s a shorter draft this year, reduced from the usual eight rounds to six. Some players have deferred their draft status to 2022, some players have moved on from football altogether and some players are headed south for NFL opportunities via the draft or as undrafted free agents.
Sunderland says despite all that, there are good players available, especially early.
“It’s a very top-heavy draft. Certainly the best players in the first round jump out.”
The travel and gathering restrictions in place because of the pandemic forced teams to work virtually to prepare. That meant all meetings with players and the combine were done over Zoom. Sunderland wasn’t a big fan of that.
“You want to see players up close and in person,” said Sunderland, as he prepares for his fifth draft as vice president of football for the Edmonton Football Team.
“You want to see body language to see how they are in drills.
“For me, a lot of times, it’s not how they learn a drill; it’s how they handle the situation.
“If a player messes up a drill and has to be corrected three or four times, then you get an idea about how coachable they are, what the intelligence is and all those things. When you do it virtually, you don’t get that aspect.”
As is the case every year, CFL general mangers will have to make a decision on players with NFL potential.
Several Canadian players were either drafted last week by an NFL team or have signed as an undrafted free agent. So if a a CFL team selects them, they will likely have to wait a year or two for them or even be prepared to never see them.
Edmonton has seen both sides of that. The team selected defensive lineman Matthieu Betts third overall in 2019 even though he had a contract with the Chicago Bears. He was released late in training camp and made his debut in Green and Gold in September.
In 2017, Sunderland took offensive lineman Justin Senior — believed to be the best player in the draft — in the fifth round. Senior had already been drafted by the Seattle Seahawks and never got to Edmonton. He spent four seasons trying to make it in the NFL before injuries forced him to retire.
One of the players in that category for this draft is Sherwood Park’s Chuba Hubbard. The speedy running back was drafted in the fourth round last week by the Carolina Panthers out of Oklahoma State and any CFL team that takes him will be gambling.
“We always want to take the best player possible to make the best possible roster,” Sunderland said.
He believes that going in the fourth round of the NFL draft will mean Hubbard will get a long look with the Panthers and then even another team if he is released.
“That does make it challenging. He is probably going to have a lot of opportunities and for him, hopefully, he has a long productive NFL career.”
The 2021 CFL Canadian Draft starts 5 p.m. MST on Tuesday.