Shepherd, Hunter, Knevel among Canadians eligible for selection in 2018 NFL draft

David Knevel may be a longtime Philadelphia Eagles fan, but he doesn’t have a burning desire to start his NFL career with his favourite team.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers’ offensive lineman is eligible for selection in the 2018 NFL draft, which begins Thursday in Arlington, Texas, and runs through Saturday. Knevel, of Brantford, Ont., would readily play for any team that signs him but admits donning the Eagles’ colours would feel a little odd.

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” he said. “Even though they’re my favourite team, I don’t know if I want to play for my favourite team because there’s kind of a mystical component to it.

“To be honest, though, any team that wants me I’ll go to. I’m not really nitpicking or anything like that.”

Knevel fondly remembers becoming an Eagles fan.

“It’s been since I got Madden (video game) in 2005,” he said. “I picked the Eagles and the first time I played, I think it was against my brother, I returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a good thing.’ Since then I’ve kind of stuck with them and they’ve been my favourite team.”

Knevel has been projected as a fourth- or fifth-round selection in some mock drafts but could also sign an NFL contract as a priority free agent. He started 13 of the 31 games at Nebraska after redshirting in 2013.

Knevel appeared in a career-high 10 games in 2016 and started Nebraska’s ’17 season opener before missing three games due to injury. Knevel returned to play in seven of the Cornhuskers’ final eight games, starting the last two contests of the year.

Knevel worked out at Nebraska’s pro day March 14, which was attended by 27 NFL and three CFL teams. He also had an individual workout with the Houston Texans.

Nathan Shepherd of Ajax, Ont., is expected to be the first Canadian drafted. The six-foot-five, 315-pound Fort Hays State University defensive tackle is projected as a second- or third-round selection.

“He’s kind of a rare guy from a height, weight, speed perspective,” NFL draft guru Mike Mayock said of Shepherd. “I think, a worst-case scenario, a second-round talent but he might drop to the third round just because it might take a little while to get something out of him because he’s so raw.”

It’s been a whirlwind off-season for Shepherd, who suffered a fractured hand at the Senior Bowl but still attended the NFL combine. Shepherd also visited 10 teams and conducted nine private workouts, doing both for the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals.

Dallas and Arizona were also among 16 NFL teams that watched Shepherd perform at Fort Hays State University’s pro day in March.

Shepherd registered 38 tackles (12.5 for loss) and four sacks to earn Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association defensive player of the year and NCAA Division II All-American honours last season. Shepherd also helped the Tigers (11-0) win their first MIAA title.

Other Canadians who could also garner NFL attention include offensive linemen Ryan Hunter of Bowling Green, Trey Rutherford of UConn and Alberta’s Mark Korte as well as Central Michigan receiver Mark Chapman. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats own Shepherd’s CFL rights but Knevel, Hunter, of North Bay, Ont., Rutherford. of Markham, Ont., Korte, of Spruce Grove, Alta., and Chapman – whose mother is Canadian – are all considered solid prospects for the league’s May 3 draft.

When they’re selected will depend on if they sign NFL deals beforehand.

Hunter is projected as either a late-round NFL selection or priority free agent. He worked out for both the Montreal Alouettes – who have the CFL draft’s first overall pick – and Detroit Lions and says he’s had telephone conversations with 15 to 20 U.S. clubs.

“If teams are calling then it means they’re definitely interested,” he said. “You just don’t know the interest level and no matter what they say, things change in the draft.

“It’s so unpredictable. You just have to sit and be patient.”

However, that’s often easier said than done.

“For someone who’s not very patient, it’s not easy,” Hunter said. “We’re working on patience.”

The NFL draft caps an arduous off-season for players that includes countless workouts, testing and interviews. There’s also the months of uncertainty regarding their football futures.

“In the beginning when you start training you’re excited, you’re fired up but as you get closer to that date, time starts to move slower,” Hunter said. “The waiting game is what makes it seem so much longer than it is.

“I love training, I love doing the workouts, interviews, getting on board with coaches. But, yeah, I’ll be excited once the weekend comes . . . that way you know at least the first part of your journey and where you’re going. Hopefully when my phone rings it will get the ball rolling.”