CFL may keep all NCAA players in 2021 CFL draft after 132 U Sports players opt out

Photo courtesy: University of Maine Athletics

In a year of change, another shift could be coming for the 2021 CFL draft.

Maine offensive lineman Liam Dobson. Photo courtesy: University of Maine Athletics

Per sources, the CFL’s nine general managers are discussing the possibility of keeping all NCAA prospects in next year’s draft. The change would be made in response to the overwhelming number of U Sports players who chose to defer their draft years from 2021 to 2022.

132 U Sports players opted out of the 2021 CFL draft, a number that was higher than originally anticipated. The mass exodus has resulted in a weakened draft class with many mid-to-late-round prospects no longer available.

The deadline for U Sports players to defer their draft year was November 30. NCAA players can still opt out because, under the current guidelines, they must be finished their last year of college eligibility in order to qualify for the draft.

In August, the NCAA voted to ensure that all fall athletes — even those currently playing — would not lose a year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 crisis. This means football players can return for the 2021 college season even if they are already seniors.

There is concern in CFL circles that there will not be enough legitimate prospects to fill out the upcoming draft unless all NCAA players remain available. While this would be an effective short-term fix, having underclassmen in the draft isn’t optimal.

Up until 2013, the CFL allowed its teams to draft redshirt juniors from the NCAA. These players had a year of college eligibility remaining and would return to school before signing a professional contract.

There was always risk associated with drafting these prospects. If a player’s NFL draft stock changed dramatically during his senior year, teams north of the border could come to regret where they’d selected him in the CFL draft.

A prime example of this was the B.C. Lions’ selection of offensive lineman Danny Watkins in 2010. The Kelowna native was selected No. 4 overall before climbing NFL draft boards during his senior year at Baylor. He became a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, which meant he would never sign a CFL contract.

The CFL no longer permitted redshirt juniors to enter the draft as of 2014 to prevent further draft disparity. The new rule helped maintain the integrity of the draft, allowing teams to have a more accurate read of a player’s odds of reaching the NFL.

As a one-off, however, it makes sense to keep NCAA prospects as part of the 2021 CFL draft. Considering the vast number of U Sports players who opted out, it’s essential to ensure there is enough talent to go around come draft day.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.