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March 30, 2021

2021 CFL Virtual Combine Poses Challenges

Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters, head coach Mike O'Shea and assistant GM Ted Goveia during the CFL combine at the Varsity Stadium in Toronto, ON, Sunday, March 24, 2019. (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL)

It’s right about now when Kyle Walters, Mike O’Shea and Ted Goveia – the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Canadian Draft gurus – would be gathered together to poke, prod and peruse some of the best college prospects in this country.

They’d be huddled together with the rest of their Canadian Football League counterparts, stopwatches aimed at each player as he crossed the finish line of the 40-yard dash.

They would study the results of the bench press, the vertical and broad jumps, conduct face-to-face interviews and then watch as the prospects donned helmets and shoulder pads for a little mano-a-mano work that can see a player’s draft stock skyrocket or plummet.

And yet, thanks to the pandemic, this year’s annual events have again been turned completely upside down. Instead of having most of the prospects attend regional combines and then the national event, the whole process for both the Canadian and the Global Drafts is being done virtually.

Global prospects, for example, will need to have their own workout footage in to the league for teams to study by this Wednesday, with Canadians having until April 10th. Teams can arrange video interviews with prospects individually.

“There’s so much uncertainty this year, every team is going to look at this differently,” began Walters, the Bombers GM, in a chat with bluebombers.com.

“Studying the test numbers is a challenge given some of the quality of the film. Some kids are doing it on their phones, for example, plus when you don’t see it with your own eyes and with your own stopwatch you have to take everything with a grain of salt.

“Mike (O’Shea) and I were joking about this – I would have liked to have added a few more pounds in my draft year and so I would have stuffed quarters in my socks and then jumped on the scale if we would have had a situation like this. And would you be running a 39-yard dash and not a 40 to cheat a bit to help with your time?

“You can’t verify some of this stuff so you just take it with a grain of salt. Scouts are skeptics at the best of times when it comes to this sort of stuff. And this year without getting eyes on them it is tough.”

The other wrinkle is this: the majority of Canadians at NCAA schools were able to play their 2020 seasons, while the U Sports season was cancelled.

“So now we’re back watching 2019 film of U Sports kids. At least with the NCAA guys we’re watching 2020 film,” Walters said. “A lot of the final notes when you look at the U Sports guys is, ‘likeable player, let’s see him in person to see if his height, weight and speed match up to a CFL standard.’ Sadly, we’re not going to get to see these players in person to gauge that.”

Two other factors might impact how the first few rounds go…

First, U Sports players were often able to improve their draft stock with a solid showing in one-on-ones with NCAA players at the combine. That’s gone now with everything done virtually.

“A lot of our rankings come from the productivity on film and, realistically this year, the level of competition and how they’re playing,” said Walters. “I think you’ll see a lot of the NCAA kids are going to get the benefit of the doubt more so just because of the competition. Even if a player at a U Sports school is on par with them in height, weight, speed in a normal year to close that gap, they’re not going to get that opportunity this year to show in person that physically they are every bit the player that the NCAA player is.”

And, second, the top Canadians – especially this year – are on the radar for NFL teams or heading back to school in 2021.

“That’s the head scratcher right now: most of the top NCAA-level guys are all going back to school,” said Walters. “That makes it a ‘futures’ pick. I’m looking at the draft board and not a lot of the NCAA picks are going to be in training camps this year, so then you have to factor this in: these are good football players starting at good schools. They’re going to have another full year (of school), so what will their NFL interest be in a year? So a lot of them are in spring camp and focused on the NFL and that means the CFL really isn’t at the top of their mind right now. They’re not going to do our virtual combines because they’re busy in other areas of their lives and their football lives.

“Ultimately, like every year, you want to draft good football players and whether you see them this year or you gamble and hope you see them a year from now, it’s another curveball when you finally put your draft rankings together.

“What’s also unique about our draft is Chase Claypool, the best player in our draft last year (a Pittsburgh Steelers second-round pick in 2020 and a starter), is not going to play in our league,” Walters added. “And this year in particular, there are a half dozen players coming out who are going to get NFL looks. Our league has done the wise thing and will run our draft after the NFL draft, so you can at least add that to your evaluation as to where the player was picked or whether he was signed as a priority free agent. Generally those are the players you’re not going to see for a bit.

“So, our final draft rankings won’t be until about 48 hours before our draft once all that stuff is cleared up.”

The Bombers have the third pick overall in the Canadian Draft, followed by picks 16, 21, 34, 39 and 48. The draft will be held on May 4th, following the NFL Draft, which runs April 29-May 1.

In the Global Draft, set for April 15th, Winnipeg will pick fourth overall, followed by picks 15, 22 and 33.