Answering every question about the CFL draft you were too afraid to ask

Edited courtesy: Scott McEwen

Have you ever had a question about the CFL draft that you were too afraid to ask? If so, I got you covered.

The CFL draft is a bizarre event. It’s unlike any other draft in professional sports with lots of quirks and unique elements, so there’s no shame in feeling a little overwhelmed.

Below I’ve written answers to a number of common questions. I hope these will help clarify any confusion you may feel ahead of this year’s draft on May 4.

Is the CFL draft like drafts in other leagues like, say, the NFL?

Yes and no.

The order of selections in the CFL draft is the same as almost every league with the worst team from the previous year getting to pick first. The second-worst team picks next and so on until the defending champions pick last.

One key way in which the CFL and NFL drafts differ is that the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft is usually a quarterback. This is never the case in the CFL because of something called the ratio.

What the hell is the ‘ratio’?

CFL teams need to dress 21 players who are Canadian — by birth or citizenship — called ‘nationals.’ Every national player must enter the league through the draft.

Each CFL team must start a minimum of seven nationals. Three or four of these starters typically play along the offensive line with the remaining ones often starting at receiver and safety. Nationals also start at running back, linebacker, and along the defensive line, though this is less common.

What about quarterbacks?

No CFL team has started a national quarterback consistently for decades, so quarterbacks are undervalued in the draft. This is the complete opposite of the NFL draft in which quarterbacks are generally overvalued.

That’s lame.

I agree, but that wasn’t a question.

Fair enough. Wouldn’t a quarterback be the No. 1 pick in the draft if they were the best player available?

The best player available never gets picked No. 1 in the CFL draft.

Excuse me? That can’t be true.

It’s totally true.

The best player available in the CFL draft is almost always under contract with an NFL team. This is why the CFL holds their draft after the NFL draft, even though the CFL starts its season much earlier — it allows CFL teams to account for which players are under contract in the NFL.

That still seems weird. Why not take the best player and hope they get cut by the NFL?

You could, but that would require some really wishful thinking.

The best player available in the 2020 CFL Draft was Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool. He was a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers and scored eleven touchdowns as a rookie.

The odds of him playing in the CFL are negligible. Selecting him No. 1 in the CFL draft would have been a waste of a pick.

Notre Dame? That’s not in Canada.

That’s correct.

Most of the players eligible for the CFL draft each year are from U Sports programs. There are 27 university teams in Canada that participate in U Sports football.

Not all Canadian prospects choose to play U Sports. Some receive scholarship offers to play in the NCAA, which is America’s equivalent of U Sports. There are hundreds of NCAA programs that span different levels of play.

What’s better: U Sports or the NCAA?

There is a bias towards NCAA prospects because they are generally considered to have received better coaching and played against a higher level of competition. This is true in some cases but not all.

Lots of players have gone from U Sports straight to the NFL and had solid careers. Recent examples of this include David Onyemata, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Akiem Hicks, Cory Greenwood, Stefan Charles, Israel Idonije, Vaughn Martin, and Dan Federkeil.

If the best player available doesn’t get picked No. 1 overall, who does?

That depends on whether or not the team selecting first wants to make a futures pick.

What’s a ‘futures pick’?

A ‘future’ or ‘futures pick’ is a slang term for a player who is or will soon be under contract with the NFL. There is a risk with selecting these players because they may never decide to play in the CFL.

How do CFL teams know which players will have long NFL careers and which ones will get cut?

They don’t. Teams can make an educated guess about a player’s future based on a number of factors — their size, skill level, position, intelligence, personality — but nobody knows for sure whether or not they’ll stick in the NFL.

The level of risk that CFL teams are willing to take on draft day varies greatly. A team with elite national depth can afford to take chances by selecting several futures. For a team that needs national help immediately, taking any futures is probably a bad idea.

How far do futures usually fall in the CFL draft?

If a player is drafted by an NFL team, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll get taken in the first three to five rounds of the CFL draft. Some high NFL draft picks — like Claypool, for instance — won’t get selected at all.

For players who sign in the NFL as undrafted free agents (or ‘UDFAs’), these players usually go in rounds two and three of the CFL draft. It’s rare, but some still get picked in the first round.

How often do CFL draft picks start in their first year?

Rarely. This is another way in which the CFL and NFL drafts are very different.

In the NFL, first-round picks are usually expected to start right away. Players taken in later rounds often end up starting as the season progresses as well.

In the CFL, having a national rookie in the starting lineup for an extended period of time is uncommon. Most are limited to playing on special teams and filling rotational roles on offence or defence, playing only a handful of snaps in specific packages.

Does that mean the CFL draft is pointless?

Of course not.

The CFL draft is kind of like the NHL draft but on a shorter timeline. Instead of drafting a player and hoping that he’s ready to contribute in four or five years, you’re hoping that he can do so by his second or third season.

But what about players who get picked really high but aren’t any good?

That happens in every league. Ever heard of JaMarcus Russell, Darko Miličić or Nail Yakupov?

Do CFL teams purposely draft local players?

In some cases, yes.

It’s no secret that fans like cheering for hometown heroes. Teams like having local talent, too, because it’s good for marketing and it’s easier to re-sign them once their rookie contracts expire.

Teams won’t draft a bad player just because he was born in a particular province, but location matters. If two players at the same position have similar draft grades, it makes sense for teams to draft the one who’s local.

This is why you sometimes see Montreal and Ottawa favour bilingual players or Winnipeg and Saskatchewan prioritize players from the prairies. It just makes sense.

Has the pandemic affected the draft?

Quite a lot, actually.

The draft order was randomized this year due to the cancellation of the 2020 season, which is why Hamilton has the No. 1 pick despite finishing 15-3 in 2019. The draft will also “snake,” meaning the order of selections is reversed in even-numbered rounds.

There’s also the 2020 draft to consider. CFL teams selected a new crop of prospects last year and still haven’t had the chance to see them play.

If teams are happy with their picks from a year ago, it would make sense for them to draft more futures. For teams that weren’t happy with their selections last year, they would be wise to pick players who can help them out right away.

Who is going to be the first overall pick in this year’s draft?

Great question. Check out my next mock draft. Whoever I put first overall, it’ll probably be someone else.

You really like talking about the CFL draft, don’t you?

Yes, I do.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.