The 2021 CFL Draft was thought to be highly unpredictable heading into Tuesday night’s festivities and it didn’t disappoint.
The Edmonton Football Team stayed home with their first round pick, fifth overall, by selecting University of Alberta Golden Bears defensive lineman Cole Nelson.
Nelson was elated to be drafted by the hometown team.
“Just pure energy and excitement,” Nelson said. “When Brock Sunderland called, I had to put the phone away from my mouth, I was just so excited.
“The Edmonton Football Team were my favourite team growing up so it’s really special.”
The 6’6, 312-pounder from Ponoka played the last two seasons with the Bears, recording 16.5 total tackles, one quarterback sack, and one fumble recovery in 11 games.
Nelson tested well this year at the CFL Virtual Combine finishing fourth in the bench press with 25 reps. His recorded sub-five second times in both the 40-yard dash and the shuttle run.
In the second round, the Edmonton Football Team stayed in Alberta, going south to select University of Calgary linebacker Grant MacDonald. The 6’3, 235-pound linebacker in four seasons with the Dinos recorded 83 tackles,12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and one interception.
Shepherd University running back Deonte Glover was the next selection by the team in the third round. The 5’10-tall, 210-pounder transferred to Shepherd from West Virginia and recorded over 2,100 yards in his senior season.
In fourth round, the team selected 6’5, 220-pound receiver Dominic Johnson from the University of Buffalo. Johnson converted to receiver from quarterback in the 2019 season with the Bulls.
In the final two rounds, the Edmonton team selected Saint Mary’s offensive lineman Peter Kourtis (6’5, 305 pounds) in the fifth round.
In the sixth round the team selected Cornell defensive back Kenan Clarke (5’11, 185 pounds) who last played in 2019 — recording 14 tackles with a half-tackle for loss, an interception and a pass breakup in five games.
Edmonton Football Team general manager and vice-president of football operations Brock Sunderland said the fact Nelson is a local product is a bonus and that he sees him as a very talented football player.
“(He’s) a mountain of a man: six-foot-six, over 300 pounds,” he said. “There’s not many people on the planet with his size that moves as well as he does.
“(He’s) extremely athletic and versatile. He was used all over the place at the University of Alberta. He would be used as a defensive end, he would slide to the interior and he would line up at linebacker and come from depth.
“We see him as a very big, tough and physical player with a huge upside and a very high ceiling.”
With the draft behind the Edmonton Football Team and the rest of the CFL, the focus now is on training camp in July. The first order of business is to see if training camp will start on time depending on a number of factors surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunderland said he wants to bring as many prospects from the 2020 and 2021 CFL Draft class as possible, depending on what roster limit has been agreed upon.
Head coach Jamie Elizondo said players will separate themselves quickly in camp and the coaching staff needs to be ready to evaluate the roster in short amount of time.
“I think one of the challenges all teams are going to have, depending on the roster sizes and how the nature of the seasons goes, we’re going to have to be really sharp with our evaluations,” he said.
“What that means is guys getting equal number of reps at certain positions where evaluations are really necessary at who our best team will be.
“Players are going to quickly seperate themselves with the ones that have been working and continuing to work during the pandemic.”
The CFL is scheduled to kick off its 14-game season on Aug. 5.
The 2020 season was cancelled because of COVID-19.
Read more: EE Football Team extends Brian Walker
Last year, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunderland was by himself at home in his basement with a couple of white boards for draft day; this year, he was in a more comfortable situation.
“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,” he said earlier in the day.
Because the CFL did not play in 2020, the league went with a random draw to set the draft order. Hamilton picked first followed by Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and then Edmonton.
It was a “snake draft” — one to nine in round one, and nine to one in round two. 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 closed out Round 1. The Ti-Cats second pick came from Montreal as the final piece of the Johnny Manziel trade. The Alouettes started Round 2.
It was 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 were 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 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 prepared 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 managers had 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 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.”