Evaluating talent to decide which combination of players gives a CFL team the best opportunity for success has always been a challenge.
Finding that winning formula will be even more complicated heading into the 2021 campaign after a majority of the league’s players have missed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re dealing with the unknown,” said Montreal Alouettes general manager Danny Maciocia. “This is something that’s foreign to all of us.
“I don’t think anybody can honestly say ‘I’ve got a plan for this because I’ve experienced it elsewhere.’ We’re all going through this for the first time.”
Brock Sunderland, Edmonton’s general manager and vice-president of football operations, said change is a constant when it comes to players. Being idle a year can execrate that process.
“Guys change year to year regardless,” said Sunderland. “A lot of times, players change within the year, either improving or declining. So, when you have an entire year off, you just don’t know where they are.
“Are guys staying in shape? Are there guys that had to take other jobs and haven’t had a chance to do a lot of football specific training? Players who were injured, did they heal up and rehab the way they should?”
This evaluation process is further hampered by many team facilities being shut due to COVID-19 concerns and the border with the U.S. being closed, preventing players travelling to Canada.
“There’s been little if any face-to-face interaction,” said Sunderland. “That’s always the best way to eyeball somebody and see where they are at physically.”
The CFL is hoping to open training camps in early May with the first weekend of games scheduled to begin June 10.
Jeremy O’Day, the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ vice-president of football operations and general manager, worries about keeping players healthy.
“The one concern we really have is injuries,” said O’Day. “They’ve had a full year where they haven’t had contact, their bodies are usually used to playing football. Being off the field for that long, that’s something we are going to be watching and monitoring how we control practice, how we can make sure you ease guys back into playing football.”
Maciocia said his medical staff, along with the strength and conditioning coaches, are already mapping out a strategy.
“What kind of programs are we talking about that (players) should follow in order to recuperate from that year of inactivity,” he said. “At the end of the day you can never simulate a football game in weight room. That’s part of our reality.”
Younger players may find it easier to bounce back, but questions linger for those on the far side of 30.
“Going from 33 to 34 is different than going from 23 to 24,” said Maciocia. “That year of inactivity, how does that affect them?
“You can make an argument that their bodies are not beat up, which is a valid one, but are they going to still be able to perform at a level that they last performed at?”
On the other end of the spectrum there may be young players who would have spent 2020 developing on the practice roster or even seeing some playing time. They could be challenged for a job by players coming out of the NCAA or NFL cuts.
“As an organization you have to make a determination,” said Sunderland. “We had a player for a year, where do we think he was trending.
“It’s hard to read the future without a crystal ball on where these players are with a year off. If you have someone coming up at the same position, around the same age that you think has a much higher upside, or maybe they were one of the few people that was able get a college football season in the NCAA, so you have a more recent evaluation. Maybe you lean that way.”
As for how the long layoff might affect players in specific positions, Maciocia will keep a close eye on the line of scrimmage.
“The last thing I want to see is a guy that was 295 or 300 pounds come in at 330 pounds or 265,” he said.
Sunderland is more concerned about the defensive backs, wide receivers and running backs.
“Any of the positions were speed and explosion and quickness is a priority,” he said. “When you get to a certain age, or for certain players, it just falls off naturally and you can’t always predict what’s going to happen.”
Some players may be physically fit but lost that mental edge needed “to displace the person that’s line up right in front of them,” said Maciocia.
Sunderland is concerned the mental toil COVID has taken on players who have seen family and friends struggle both financially and physically due to the virus.
“Do I anticipate some players mentally struggling a little bit like the rest of the world is because of this? Yes, I do,” he said. “The concern for me isn’t really football related right way. It’s are you OK? Are you healthy? Is your family healthy? Where are you at mentally on everyday life?
“Let’s forget about football and put the person first.”
Some players might make the decision not to return.
“There has been one player that I was speaking with his agent,” said Sunderland. “During the time off, they found a job they like that pays pretty well. They just made the decision that they were going to retire and focus all their time and energy on that.”