‘It’s not worrisome, it’s just the reality’: Lions’ co-GM Neil McEvoy notes increased NFL competition for top Canadian prospects

Photo courtesy: Amber Bracken/CFL.ca

More Canadian football players are making a name for themselves in the NFL and at the highest level of NCAA competition than ever before, but as we enter the golden age of Canadian talent, that presents new challenges for CFL teams.

“As a Canadian and a guy who’s worked in and played football in Canada, I’m excited and happy for the young men that are finally getting opportunities to play at the top level,” B.C. Lions co-general manager Neil McEvoy said in an appearance on the Rod Pedersen Show.

“Now, as an executive in the Canadian Football League, you’re a little bit… the word’s not nervous, but the fact is that the United States and the NCAA and the NFL are finally looking at athletes in Canada.”

For teams built on the strength of their homegrown content, that adds new difficulties to the process of drafting players. A handful of NFL calibre prospects have always thrown a wrench into the CFL Draft, with teams forced to weigh how highly to select potentially difference-making players who might never play north of the border, but that is now happening in numbers higher than ever before.

In the 2021 CFL Draft, eight of the top 20 ranked prospects were either drafted or signed in the NFL. All stuck for the full year and 15 other draft picks took advantage of extended COVID-19 eligibility rules to return for another season in the NCAA, with several having a legitimate shot to sign NFL contracts this season.

Among those players that the Lions have had to wait on were B.C.’s top two selections, NC State defensive end Daniel Joseph and Iowa offensive tackle Alaric Jackson. However, McEvoy’s team has benefited from the rise in Canadian talent elsewhere. The Lions boast the reigning Most Outstanding Canadian in linebacker Bo Lokombo, 2020 first overall pick Jordan Williams won Most Outstanding Rookie, and their second-round pick from that draft, Nathan Rourke, is set to be the team’s starting quarterback.

As questions surrounding the makeup of the league’s ratio again capture attention, CFL personnel men simply have to learn to adapt to the boom or bust potential at the top of every draft class.

“Again, it’s not worrisome, it’s just the reality. It’s the reality that we have to live with that we are the Canadian Football League. We give young men an opportunity to play at the professional level and we’ve always had to compete with the National Football League for talent,” McEvoy noted.

“We’re just going to have to compete even more. That’s just the way things are, which is great for the young men playing, but we’re going to have to put our boots to the ground and find more raw talent to develop and compete.”

Players like receiver Jevon Cottoy, who played Canadian junior football with the Langley Rams, prove that there are still diamonds in the rough to be discovered, but the NFL has begun showing interest in players like that early in their CFL careers.

Prospects are being plucked from the Canadian university ranks with increasing regularity as well, and no longer just for those players playing in the trenches. University of Waterloo quarterback Tre Ford has a chance to become the first U Sports pivot signed by an NFL team since 1982, creating one of the most fascinating storylines in this year’s CFL Draft.

With the Lions set to play a Canadian under centre, it’s a story that McEvoy is following closely, noting that Tre and his twin brother Tyrell were the best two players at the University at Buffalo pro day. It may complicate his job, but that is a major achievement for the rest of the Canadian football ecosystem he cares deeply about.

“That’s a testament to U Sports and that’s a testament to all young football players in the country of Canada who work hard, get better and compete,” he said. “That’s what the sport’s all about and I’m excited to see young men compete at the top level.”