Edmonton GM Brock Sunderland defends off-the-board first-round CFL Draft pick

In the lead up to the 2021 CFL Draft, everyone from media personalities to personnel executives predicted the most chaotic draft in recent memory.

With two draft classes headed into what is likely to be a restricted training camp, an unprecedented level of NCAA talent with current or future NFL interest, and a full slate of U Sports players who haven’t played in over a year, the unpredictability was anticipated.

But when the Edmonton Football Team drafted Alberta defensive tackle Cole Nelson No. 5 overall on Tuesday, there wasn’t a jaw in the league that didn’t hit the floor.

As other top prospects fell, general managers and scouts scratched their heads. Agents stared at their phones in shock and commentators did audible double takes. Yet in the aftermath, Edmonton GM Brock Sunderland did not flinch about his decision.

“The more we watch film, the more we discuss that, there’s just not many players like that with his size, his athleticism, his versatility, his motor,” Sunderland told reporters after the draft.

“He plays hard. He loves football. The more conversations we have with him, the more we felt he fits what we’re building here culture-wise. Across the board, we liked him and we were really happy where we got him and excited to have him in the building and on the field for us.”

Few can argue that Nelson, at least physically, is a special player. Measuring in at six-foot-six and 312 pounds, he ran a 4.96 second forty-yard dash at the Virtual Combine, while jumping over nine feet and putting up 25 reps on the bench. That combination of size, strength and athleticism would be intriguing by NFL standards, but some have questioned why Nelson wasn’t more dominant at the U Sports level.

Since joining the University of Alberta Golden Bears in 2016, the Ponoka native has managed just 21 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble for his career. 11 of those tackles came in 2019, but Nelson did not generate a single tackle for loss or sack in eight games.

Without the benefit of a 2020 season, Nelson has yet to prove himself as an impactful starter, but Edmonton believes he has all the tools to be one given the chance.

“He’s extremely athletic and versatile and he was used all over the place in Alberta. He would be a defensive end, he would slide inside to the interior. He would line up as a linebacker and come from depth,” Sunderland explained.

“I think he was so talented — and I don’t want to speak for the coaching staff or university — but I think he was so big, athletic and talented that they used him a lot of places and didn’t let him just stick his hand in the ground and play defensive tackle — where he’s going to play for us — and really utilize that time to get the experience there. We just see a very big, athletic, tough, physical player with a huge upside and a very high ceiling.”

That was a sentiment echoed by head coach Jaime Elizondo.

“When you watch the film and the number of different things that he was asked to do, the number of different positions he aligned in just gives us a tremendous amount of versatility. Then you get a chance to visit with him on the phone and just what an awesome person. I couldn’t be more excited to work with somebody like Cole,” he said in his own post-draft address to the media.

“I think what he brings — as raw as he might be right now — is a tremendous upside and a ceiling that is a very large, and we’re excited to get a chance to work with him.”

Other teams saw that potential as well, but valued it nowhere near as highly as Edmonton did. Intel from across the league shows most teams viewed Nelson as a fourth-round pick on the high end, with many seeing the player as worth only a sixth-round flier.

For Edmonton, Nelson may have been more enticing to begin with. A local kid who played university football in their city and cheered for the team growing up is something most teams covet. Add in character considerations and you can see why Edmonton would have viewed Nelson higher than most, but those consideration mattered little to Sunderland.

“The fact that he grew up cheering for us and went to the University of Alberta, that’s icing on the cake, but I want to make it very clear, that’s not why we drafted him,” the GM emphasized.

“He wasn’t selected where he was because he’s local. We always believe in taking what we feel is the best player and he fit that bill for us right there.”

It’s likely no other teams felt the same way and had Edmonton played the draft more shrewdly, their best player available may have fallen to them much later in the process. That was a risk their front office was unwilling to take, instead trusting their eyes and their eyes alone.

Some have privately called it the biggest reach in the history of the CFL Draft. Brock Sunderland believes one day it will be considered its greatest gamble.

“We selected all these players for a reason, so we’re thrilled to have them. The reality is you only have a true evaluation of your draft class two to three years from now,” he said self-assuredly.

“Everybody’s excited with what happened tonight and we’ll see what happens three years from now.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.