Redblacks look to the future with 2021 CFL Draft class

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

The second draft, or third if you count the Global one last month, in the Paul LaPolice era centred heavily around players who will help the Redblacks down the road.

COVID-19 led to the cancellation of U Sports football and an erratic NCAA schedule. For general manager Marcel Desjardins, his eighth draft at the helm of the organization was perhaps the most difficult to plan out.

Many joke, and fairly so, that Desjardins almost always goes offensive line in the first round but a new trend has emerged. If you want to be drafted by the Redblacks in the first round, just be a versatile defensive player capable of contributing immediately on special teams. That worked for safety Antoine Pruneau in 2014, defensive back Adam Auclair in 2020 and now linebacker Deshawn Stevens.

With Ottawa’s ratio largely set following free agency, it makes a lot more sense why Desjardins and LaPolice used the draft for the future.

In a pair of interesting side notes, Ottawa spent an equal number of picks on each phase of the game — two on offence, two on defence, and two on special teams. As for the breakdown of where the picks are from — which typically looms large in contract renewals when rookie deals run out (see Evan Johnson for example) — five of the team’s six draft selections are Ontario talent.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the newest Redblacks.

First round, sixth overall: LB/DL Deshawn Stevens, Maine

The six-foot-two, 255-pound Toronto native boasts not only good size but excellent production. The two-time team captain was credited with 211 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, forced one fumble, recovered three more and snagged one interception while playing middle linebacker for the Black Bears.

Although Stevens tore his Achilles in 2019, he’s fully recovered from that injury, as evidence by the team-high 28 tackles he made in Maine’s four-game spring season. With another year of NCAA eligibility remaining, Stevens has been honest about his desire to transfer to a bigger football program in hopes of catching the eye of an NFL team. Should he fail to receive an offer during time in the transfer portal, Ottawa could be welcoming him to training camp.

If that turns out to be the case, Stevens likely begins his career making an immediate impact on special teams and rotating in at defensive end, mainly because Ottawa’s linebacking corps is already stacked with experienced Americans.

Oddly enough, Stevens won’t be the only Maine alum on the team, as linebacker Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga and defensive back Sherrod Baltimore are former Black Bears, too.

Second round, 13th overall:  DB Alonzo Addae, West Virginia

As per 3DownNation’s top prospect rankings, the Redblacks stole Addae at 13, given that he was the No. 9-ranked prospect. Just like Stevens, R-Nation shouldn’t expect to see Addae making plays at TD Place this summer, given that the Pickering native will return to school in 2021.

The five-foot-10, 189-pounder isn’t physically imposing per se, but has shown a knack for throwing his weight around. Much like Pruneau, a current fan favourite and original Redblack, Addae’s frame and skillset mean he’s capable of playing multiple positions in the secondary and potentially even strong-side linebacker.

Addae made 66 tackles forced one fumble, had five pass knockdowns and two interceptions in ten games in 2020. That production was enough for him to be named to the All-Big 12 Conference second team. Even though Ottawa will have to wait for him to complete his final year of school, another year of experience under his belt means Addae should be ready to compete for a spot immediately once he finally heads north.

Third round, 24th overall: OL Connor Berglof, Saskatchewan

You knew that an offensive lineman was coming at some point in the draft, and Berglof is big, six-foot-three, 300 pounds, and strong, and capable of playing both centre or guard. Furthermore, as per 3DownNation draft guru John Hodge, Berglof often jumps out on film for his ability to hustle down the field with receivers and running backs, throwing blocks far from the line of scrimmage.

In a radio interview with TSN 1200, Desjardins acknowledged that due to a lingering back issue, if camp were to start today, Berglof would not be available or medically cleared. In fact, the Redblacks’ GM admitted that they had him graded much higher but weren’t comfortable taking in the first or second round due to the uncertainty surrounding his back ailment.

Fourth round, 31st overall: P Jake Julien, Eastern Michigan

Don’t worry Lewis Ward fans, Julien isn’t coming for his job. In fact, although his designation reads kicker and punter, the Barrie native was used exclusively as a punter by the Eagles. Over the course of four seasons and 170 punts, Julien has averaged an impressive 43.4 yards per punt, with his career long registering 73 yards. Over the course of his career, 51 of his punts have been downed inside an opponent’s 20-yard line and 37 of his kicks were 50-plus-yard punts.

Originally a walk-on, the six-foot-two, 217-pounder was a nominee for the Ray Guy Award, given out to the NCAA’s best punter, in 2020.

Like Stevens and Addae, Julien will be returning to school in 2021, and thus won’t be on the Redblacks’ roster. When he does join the team for training camp in 2022, he’ll likely provide competition for American all-star Richie Leone or potentially be his replacement should he not re-sign in Ottawa.

This pick also makes a bit more sense when you factor in that unlike basically every other CFL team, the Redblacks did not select any kickers in the Global Draft.

Fifth round, 42nd overall: LS Keegan Markgraf, Utah

As a former long snapper myself, I will never criticize the pick of someone capable of playing such a tough, demanding and thankless role, doubly so when it is someone who does it consistently without error. Like many others in Ottawa’s 2021 draft class, the six-foot-three, 225-pound Hamilton native will stay in school, but when he does join the Redblacks in 2022, he’ll provide some much needed depth behind Louis-Philippe Bourassa.

Sixth round, 49th overall: OL Matthew Derks, Delaware State

When it comes to the later rounds of a CFL draft, GMs find themselves faced with two choices; take a flier on an NFL bound player unlikely to ever suit up for your team — see the Stamps selecting Chuba Hubbard — or take a less flashy developmental prospect who will require a few seasons of growth before maturing into a starter. And Derks is the latter.

The six-foot-three, 315-pound Brantford native is durable, tough and excels at run blocking. For him to earn regular reps at the next level, he’ll need to improve his foot-speed in pass blocking situations. Until that happens, he will likely only see the field as a blocker in heavy and jumbo offensive personnel packages or on special teams as a blocker on field goals.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).