One of the more memorable moments in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 2019 Grey Cup victory was linebacker Thiadric Hansen’s bone-rattling hit on Hamilton Tiger-Cat Frankie Williams when the special teams player of the year was returning a kickoff following a touchdown.
Hansen, from Flensburg, Germany, was one of 17 global players to dress in a CFL game in 2019. Along with Hamilton defensive end Valentin Gnahoua and Edmonton linebacker Maxime Rouyer, both from France, they are part of the growing wave of talented players from outside Canada and the United States earning spots in North American football.
CFL teams will have a chance to find more diamonds in the rough when the 2021 Global Draft will be held Thursday, April 15. This year’s draft will include players from leagues around the world. Two separate drafts were conducted in 2019.
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Edmonton general manager Brock Sunderland likes the idea of combining the drafts.
“It’s nice to lump them all together,” said Sunderland. “Then you can do comparisons at the same time, then do the draft all at once. That aspect of it is better in my opinion.”
Shawn Burke, Hamilton’s senior director of personnel and co-manager of football operations, said there’s been a steady of growth of global athletes playing on both NCAA and Canadian university teams.
“The level of player that we’re looking at this year is much more capable of stepping in,” said Burke. “Talent increases because the pools increase. The game of football in all these countries is growing. The talent is going to rise with commitment.
“There is a development phase, even for new Canadian or U.S. players coming into our league. If we can get a guy that comes in and contributes like Val did last year for our team, I think that’ll be a success.”
This year’s global player combine was held virtually. All testing, drills and interviews were conducted remotely through video. Teams had the option of conducting player interviews online. They also had access to game tape, medical background and performance information.
Deciding on draft picks is always a mixture of science, experience and sometimes luck. Sunderland said this year’s virtual process added another wrinkle.
“You always want to see players and people in person,” he said. “Body language says a lot about how they handle themselves in between drills and conducting the drills. What you don’t get with virtual is that a player has to do a drill three times in a row because he can’t follow instructions.
“Those are the intricacies that you can’t get through a virtual combine. It’s always nice to see player movement in person. It’s just a different evaluation that’s a lot more thorough.”
“It’s not the first time we’re going through it,” Burke said.
“We went through this with the National Draft last year and learned how to work that way and talk to the prospects and ask them for certain things video-wise. It’s just a different way of working.”
Even on video, size and natural talent are easy to spot.
“It’s natural the top athletes stand out,” Burke continued. “If a lineman is a certain size and he’s put together a certain way, you know he’s got a pro-ready body as opposed to a guy that you have to maybe develop a little more.
“You’ve got to trust your eyes and verify what everything is on paper. Everyone in our league is paid to do these evaluations. Part of that is just trusting your years of knowledge.”
The Global Draft will consist of four rounds with a total of 36 prospects selected. The BC Lions will have the first overall pick, followed by Edmonton and Toronto.
Some of the players who caught coaches’ attention during the combine were Tomoya Machino, a six-foot-four, 303-pound offensive lineman from Japan; Nico Leonard, a five-foot-11, 210-pound running back from South Africa; David Izinyon, a six-foot-one, 240-pound linebacker from the United Kingdom; and Sebastien Sagne, a six-foot-two, 199-pound receiver from Finland.
The Tiger-Cats selected Gnahoua first overall in the 2019 European draft. The six-foot-two, 235-pound native of Le Mans, France, was injured in training camp but worked his way back to the active roster and played predominately on special teams.
“He was a core component of multiple specialties for our squad,” said Burke. “It really helped getting an extra roster guy for us.”
Edmonton selected Rouyer, of Troyers, France, fourth overall. He dressed for 17 regular season games and was used mostly on special teams.
Like Gnahoua, the six-foot-one, 225-pound Rouyer played for McGill University.
“He was extremely familiar with the Canadian game and the rules,” said Sunderland. “We thought his transition would be seamless and it proved to be that.”
Burke expects between 10 and 15 players available in the Global Draft could also be selected by the NFL. That will factor into the decisions made by CFL teams.
“You have to make a sort of educated decision if they are ever going to end up here or not and how soon,” he said, adding the Tiger-Cats have the eighth pick in the first round. “We have to see what happens in front of us and then adjust on the fly.”
Sunderland said Edmonton’s picks will depend on the team’s needs and the talent available.
“Our organization always believes we’re taking the best player available, regardless of the position,” he said. “If you’re talking later in the rounds, you look at does he have a unique skill set that may fit with what our roster needs are.”