‘Good young Canadian talent’

Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press files</p>
<p>CFL.com projects the Bombers will use the third-overall draft choice to pice Nelson Lokombo — the 2019 U Sports Defensive Player of the Year.</p>
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Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press files

CFL.com projects the Bombers will use the third-overall draft choice to pice Nelson Lokombo — the 2019 U Sports Defensive Player of the Year.

When training camp rolls around later this summer, assuming it does, CFL teams are going to have two full draft classes of prospects to evaluate.

But that won’t be as much of an issue for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The Blue and Gold will find themselves in a much different, and much improved, position on Tuesday for the 2021 CFL Draft compared to where they were the year before. Despite the 2020 CFL season getting axed owing to the pandemic, the league still held a draft.

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The CFL Scouting Bureau consists of CFL scouts, player personnel directors, and general managers from the league’s nine clubs,

1. WR Josh Palmer, Brampton, Ont. (Tennessee)

2. OL Alaric Jackson, Windsor, Ont. (Iowa)

3. DB Jevon Holland, Coquitlam, B.C. (Oregon)

4. LB Amen Ogbongbemiga, Calgary, Alta. (Oklahoma State)

5. RB Chuba Hubbard, Sherwood Park, Alta. (Oklahoma State)

6. DB Benjamin St-Juste, Montreal, Que. (Minnesota)

7. OL Pier-Olivier Lestage, Saint-Eustache, Que. (Montreal)

8. OL Sage Doxtater, Welland, Ont. (New Mexico State)

9. OL Mohamed Diallo, Toronto, Ont. (Central Michigan)

10. DB Deane Leonard, Calgary, Alta. (Ole Miss)

But it was rather forgettable for the Bombers as their first and third-round picks belonged to the Toronto Argonauts. The Boatmen acquired the selections in the deadline deal that sent quarterback Zach Collaros to Winnipeg in 2019. Considering Collaros and the Bombers hoisted the Grey Cup over their heads a month and a half later, there was no one in Bomberland complaining about being mostly spectators in the early rounds. Two of the picks Bombers general manager Kyle Walters did make that night — Ottawa linebacker Kyle Rodger (sixth round) and defensive back Bleska Kambamba out of Western (eighth round) — have informed the team that they have moved on from football.

On Tuesday, Walters will be able to make lots of noise as the club holds the third overall pick, as well as the 16th, 21st, 34th, 39th, and 48th overall selections in the six-round affair. Since there wasn’t a season in 2020, this year’s draft order was determined by a random draw and the reigning Grey Cup champions came out with a prime spot. The format has also changed as this year will be a snake draft.

“The benefit with more Canadians being in training camp is the best ones are going to survive and it’s good for our league to have an influx of good, young, Canadian talent,” said Walters in a media conference call on Friday.

“The interesting thing will be is nothing’s written in stone. The reality is, will there be limits on training camp numbers? Will teams have to decide how many Canadians they bring in? All of that sort of stuff is uncertain. I’m not exactly sure how the numbers will work, but from strictly a competitive standpoint… you’re going to have two groups of draft classes come in and compete with each other. It’s logical and commonsensical that the better players are going to survive and it’s going to be good for the young talent coming into our league.”

Since 2014, the Bombers have used four first-round picks on Canadian offensive lineman, most recently in 2019 when they snagged Drew Desjarlais out of Windsor with the fourth overall pick. But this year’s draft is loaded on the defensive side of the ball as CFL.com’s mock draft projects four out of the first five selections will be defenders. This draft will also test everyone’s patience as some of the most talented names played college ball down south and have already informed CFL teams that they will be returning to their NCAA programs this fall. Then, there are well-known names such as Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, who was nearly a Heisman Finalist in 2019, and Tennesse wide receiver Josh Palmer, the top-ranked player in the CFL’s final Scouting Bureau Rankings. By the time the seven-round NFL Draft ends on Saturday, Hubbard and Palmer will likely have heard their names and there’s no guarantee they’ll ever return home to play the three-down game.

“You’re going to get a good football player, but you’re not going to see them for a year. And then, is there going to be NFL interest for a year? It’s a little more challenging than in draft’s past where you knew the players would all be coming out,” said Walters on the NCAA prospects.

“So, you combine that, with the number of players that are in this draft that are coming out that are legitimate NFL opportunity players. There are probably 12-13 names of players that are in that mix of you’re not exactly sure if and when you’re going to see them.”

There’ll definitely be a team that will use a dart throw on Hubbard and Palmer in case the NFL doesn’t pan out for them, but Walters didn’t make it sound like that’s something the Bombers would be willing to do. He said they typically see the value in using later picks on players who are towards the backend of the draft board as they know they’ll get them in camp and the club believes they can make an impact.

Another difficulty to this year’s draft is trying to evaluate all the U Sports players. Unlike the NCAA, COVID-19 forced U Sports to cancel the 2020 season. It’s been over a year since projected first-round picks Calgary offensive lineman Logan Bandy, Saskatchewan defensive back Nelson Lokombo, and UBC linebacker Ben Hladik have played a game. CFL.com is projecting the Bombers will use their first-rounder on Lokombo — the 2019 U Sports Defensive Player of the Year.

“We’re going back to 2019 and a lot of the interview process has been ‘What was your body weight that we’re watching on film? What have you been doing for a year? How’s the training going? What do you weigh now?’ You try to match up their virtual testing and it’s a real, real challenge compared to other years,” Walters said.

“You don’t get to see the kids in person and you don’t get to see them playing football for a couple of seasons and trying to project so it’s been a real, real challenge, particularly for the Canadian university kids.”

And then, of course, there’s all the uncertainty that still surrounds the CFL. Even if you’re picked on Tuesday, there’s no guarantee you’ll be suiting up for a 2021 season. As of now, the season has been pushed back until August, but commissioner Randy Ambrosie said the league will make a decision on 2021 in June.

“The good thing about talking to players in this category that are about to be drafted, even the players last year, I made somewhat of a joke that during all of the operations cuts, all of the salary cap cuts, and having bad conversations, I just set aside one day to call all of our draft picks from last year because all of these kids were just pumped and super excited to sign their contracts and you’re seeing the same thing here,” said Walters.

“These young guys are just excited to hear their names called, they’re excited to take the next step, and honestly, they’re not worried as much as more of the veteran players that have been through the league for a few years and understand the negatives that we’ve had to endure the last year.”

 

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

 

 

Taylor Allen

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