Welcome back to the Huddle!
As we wrap up our CFL Draft coverage, we are left to see if any drafted players sign NFL free agent contracts. Several drafted players have already signed such as Simon Frasier’s Rysen John and Alberta’s Carter O’Donnell. CFL teams that took chances on these players will await in the coming months or seasons whether their prized prospects will come North.
As it turns out, there are many CFL Draft selections in recent history that have managed to stick in the NFL, and there are even some that opted to retire after failed stints down South rather than coming North. Today we look at some of the more active case studies. To do this, we take the sample size of the past five CFL Drafts prior to 2020 (2015-2019) to form our list. The rules are such: a player had to be selected in a previous CFL Draft (1); and the given player has never ended up playing a CFL to this point (2). One other note: while we did examine the 2019 class, there aren’t currently any active cases that fit our parameters. Not to worry, because the other four years have provided us with several fascinating examples!
Did we miss anyone? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
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2015 CFL Draft
RB Tyler Varga
Selected 19th overall in the 3rd-Round by the Calgary Stampeders
College: Yale, Western
Originally born in Stockholm, Sweden, Varga moved to Canada at a young age and lived most of his youth in Kitchener, Ontario where he attended high school. Following high school, Varga received an offer to play football at the University of Western Ontario. In his first year with the Mustangs in 2011, the runningback lit the OUA on fire, capturing Canadian Inter-university Sport’s award for best rookie with nearly 800 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
After his lone stellar season in London, Varga, also an esteemed academic, decided to make the decision to transfer to a school in the United States for his sophomore year. The Canadian collegiate star eventually opted to take the Ivy-League route, committing to the Yale Bulldogs in 2012. In three seasons in New Haven, Connecticut, Varga rushed for nearly 3000 yards and was twice named 1st-team All-IVY. He solidified himself as one of the school’s all-time runners, building up his profile as a professional prospect.
When the NFL Draft came around in 2015, Varga was not selected, instead signing an undrafted free agent deal with the Indianapolis Colts. Meanwhile, the Calgary Stampeders didn’t seem too concerned with the NFL’s interest in the runningback, selecting him with the first pick in the 3rd-round.
Seen in the NFL by most as a full-back and special teamer, the Yale standout survived the Colts roster cuts’ to make the team’s 53-player roster. However, in his third career NFL game, Varga would suffer a major concussion that would force him onto injured reserve. It turns out that would be the last organized football he would play, as Varga surprisingly retired just before training camp in 2016, deciding to use his education to pursue other opportunities.
DL Christian Covington
Selected 43rd overall in the 5th-Round by the BC Lions
Vancouver bred through and through, Covington opted to stay in the city for high school, attending an athletic prep-school called Vancouver College. In his dominant high school career, Covington, who plays interior defensive line, had over 275 career tackles and 38 sacks! This was enough to grab the attention of American-based scouts, who gave the young Canadian an offer to play football for Rice University.
At Rice, Covington would redshirt his initial season before playing three active years with the school. During this time he proved to be a dominant presence along the interior, possessing elite play-strength with pass-rush upside. In his third active year with the program, the lineman managed 20 tackles and 2.5 sacks in six games during an injury-riddled season. When the 2015 Draft was fast approaching, Covington decided to forego his remaining college eligibility to turn pro.
Covington eventually was drafted in the 6th-round by the Houston Texans, whom he would spend his first four NFL seasons. He gradually began receiving more playing time year after year with the Texans but ended up leaving Houston upon the end of his four-year rookie contract, signing with the cross-state rival Dallas Cowboys on a one-year deal. Covington played a significant rotational role in Dallas last season, playing in all 16 games and starting 6, while greatly assisting the Cowboys’ run-defense. This offseason, he hit free agency again, signing another one-year deal, this time with the Denver Broncos.
Meanwhile, the CFL’s BC Lions drafted him back in 2015, and continue to hold his rights’ North of the border. The team is still probably holding out hope that the hometown hero will eventually come North once he exhausts all of his NFL opportunities.
2016 CFL Draft
DL Mehdi Abdesmad
Selected 25th overall in the 3rd-Round by the Ottawa Redblacks
College: Boston College
Born in Montreal, Abdesmad was truly homegrown, starring at one of the city’s high schools and earning a scholarship offer to play football for Boston College.
At six-foot-six, 284 LBS, Abdesmad had ideal size for a defensive lineman but struggled with injuries during his collegiate stint. Injuries affected multiple campaigns, including a torn patellar tendon in his second-to-last season. However, as a fifth-year senior in 2015, he broke out with 49 total tackles and 5.5 sacks. He was also a part of the #1 defense in the nation that season and was named an honourable mention to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference Team by the conference’s coaches.
Despite the breakout, skepticism was still in the air surrounding the health of Abdesmad, given that he was still on a snaps-restriction in his final college season. It was because of this that he found himself undrafted, leaving him to sign as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans. The Titans originally released him at the end of training camp in 2016 as part of the team’s final cuts, but the defensive lineman was able to clear waivers to remain on the club’s practice squad. Later on in that 2016 season, Abdesmad would earn a promotion to Tennessee’s active roster, primarily playing on special teams while getting occasional rotation snaps along the defensive front.
As it happens, this stint would not last, playing in only two games and only mustering a single tackle. Tennessee would bring him back for training camp in 2017, only to again release the Canadian. He would be signed later that season to the Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s practice squad, but this proved to be brief. After his release from Tampa Bay in the middle of the 2017 season, Abdesmad has not played in the NFL since.
According to 3DownNation.com, Abdesmad considered a CFL venture in 2018, but instead opted for retirement, likely to avoid risking another injury. The Ottawa Redblacks, who hold his CFL rights’ aren’t likely to see a comeback from the Montreal native.
DL David Onyemata
Selected 35th overall in the 4th-Round by the Saskatchewan Roughriders
Onyemata had one of the more unique journeys to the NFL you will ever see. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Onyemata had never even seen a North American-style football game until the age of 18. That is when he decided to attend university in Canada, moving across the world to go to school in Winnipeg, at the University of Manitoba.
As a walk-on at Manitoba, Onyemata would learn to play defensive line, picking it up quickly. He would develop rapidly into a star for the program in his four seasons, wreaking havoc on overmatched CIS defensive lines. In his final season with the Bison, he had an outstanding 50 tackles, 5 sacks and 7.5 tackles-for-loss, in just 9 games. He impressed so much during his time North of the border that buzz began to build around Onyemata as an NFL prospect.
Sure enough, he would enter the 2016 NFL Draft, and become one of the few prospects to ever be drafted into the NFL straight from a Canadian USports’ program, going in the 4th-round to the New Orleans Saints. In the following CFL Draft, his rights would be secured by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
However, it seems very unlikely that Onyemata is coming North anytime soon. The defensive lineman is still in New Orleans to this day, year-after-year putting up high-tackle totals for his position while showing some pass-rush ability with 9.5 sacks in his four seasons. Onyemata was rewarded for his hard work with a shiny new three-year $27 million contract earlier this offseason. To date, he has an argument as the current most impactful Canadian NFL player. At the very least, Canadian fans, in general, can look forward to watching him chase a Super Bowl with the contending Saints.
2017 CFL Draft
DL Eli Ankou
Selected 26th overall in the 3rd-Round by the Ottawa Redblacks
Ankou was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1994. He attended St. Peter Catholic High School in Orleans, Ontario for three years before making the decision to transfer to a U.S-based prep-school in Delaware for his senior year. There, Ankou was able to impress scouts enough to receive an offer to play football for the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), who brought the youngster on as a defensive lineman.
Playing four seasons for the Bruins between 2013 and 2016, the 300-pounder settled into a nice role at nose-tackle. Due to his position, Ankou didn’t put up flashy statistics, but was well respected within the Pac-12 conference by the end of his Junior season, his best at the collegiate level. After a good senior season in 2016, Ankou entered the 2017 NFL Draft.
He was not selected in the 2017 NFL Draft’s seven rounds, forcing him to take the undrafted free agent route. He ended up with the Houston Texans, who kept him on their roster all the way up until final cuts in September of 2017. Placed on waivers by the Texans, Ankou was claimed by the Jacksonville Jaguars shortly thereafter.
The former UCLA player went in and out of Jacksonville’s lineup the next two seasons, playing 11 total games. He remained on the Jaguar’s practice roster into the 2019 season until the Cleveland Browns signed him to their 53-player roster on a two-year deal. Ankou would play 9 games the remainder of the season in Cleveland, even starting 2 games. He is currently under contract for another year with the team in 2020, though it is unclear how close he is to the club’s roster bubble.
Ankou, who’s CFL rights are still held by the Ottawa Redblacks, will be an interesting case to watch going forward. If he falls out of the NFL, he will likely have the choice to come North and join the Redblacks.
TE Antony Auclair
Selected 30th overall in the 4th-Round by the Saskatchewan Roughriders
From Notre-Dame-des-Pins, Quebec, Auclair might ring a bell for CFL fans as his brother, Adam, was selected in last week’s CFL Draft in the 1st-Round by the Ottawa Redblacks. Football seems to run in the family.
The older Auclair, Antony, was born in raised in Quebec where he played his high school football and later starred at the university level with the Laval Rouge et Or. As a tight-end and versatile athlete standing six-foot-six and over 250 LBS, Antony attracted plenty of scouting buzz during his time in Laval. With superb blocking ability and athleticism at his size to play special teams, Auclair was a rare commodity.
Though he wasn’t selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, he had plenty of options as an undrafted free agent, eventually ending up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As a player that has always adapted to the role he is asked to play, he made Tampa’s 53-man roster, the only undrafted free agent signing to earn a spot on the team that year. In his first season, Auclair mainly played on special teams, but as he became more comfortable with the team, he began to see more playing time, specifically as a blocking-specialist tight-end.
Going into 2020, Auclair is still with the Bucs, having carved out a nice role for himself with the club going into his fourth NFL season. Given how useful a back-end roster player he is due to his versatility, it is very likely that Auclair will receive multiple NFL chances if Tampa Bay ever decides to move on. That’s too bad for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who continue to hold his CFL rights.
OL Justin Senior
Selected 40th overall in the 5th-Round by the Edmonton Eskimos
College: Mississippi State
Another member on this list originally from Montreal, Quebec, Senior attended Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia on his way to receiving an offer to play for Mississippi State University in 2012.
A hulking offensive tackle standing six-foot-five, 330LBS, Senior was an offensive anchor for the Bulldogs, whom he was a starter for three consecutive years. To add to his achievements, he became one of the rare Canadian players to play in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), which is the near-consensus best conference in College Football.
Following his 2016 senior campaign, Senior declared for the 2017 NFL Draft where he was selected in the 6th-round by the Seattle Seahawks. Unfortunately, this appeared to be the height of Senior’s NFL career. In his lone season in the league, he participated in Seattle’s training camp, only to see it end in an injury, sending him to injured reserve. For the entirety of 2018, Senior was out of football. He wouldn’t get another NFL crack until the 2019 offseason, when he was acquired by the Chiefs for their spring OTAs. This turned out to be brief, as he was promptly released before training camp even begun.
In the near-year that has eclipsed since, Senior likely has run out of NFL opportunities. The Edmonton Eskimos hold his CFL rights’ but it is unclear if the former NFLer will decide to take his talents back North.
2018 CFL Draft
WR Mark Chapman
Selected #1 overall in the 1st-round by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats
College: Central Michigan
The 2019 CFL Draft did not produce any players that have stuck down South, but don’t worry, the 2018 class did not disappoint. At the front of that conversation is Chapman, one of the more perplexing examples of the weird NFL dynamic that CFL teams need to maneuver.
Born in Port Huron, Michigan, Chapman starred as a quarterback in high school, where his speed overwhelmed defenses. His success earned him praise among scouts, who consistently ranked him highly on lists of local prospects. Ultimately, with other college offers, Chapman decided to stay close to home, taking an offer to play football for Central Michigan University.
As a four-year contributor for the Chippewas, the high school quarterback had to make the conversion out to wide receiver to take advantage of his athleticism. It worked, as he managed over 2000 career receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, leaving his mark on the school.
After his senior season at Central Michigan in 2017, Chapman went undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft. However, due to the CFL’s eligibility rules, Chapman–who’s mother was born in Sarnia, Ontario–could enter the 2018 CFL Draft. During that draft, the Hamilton Tiger-cats decided to trade-up to the #1 overall pick to select the former state of Michigan star. It appeared, on paper, that Chapman was a great fit for Hamilton and vice-versa.
Only, it didn’t quite play out like this. After being drafted by Hamilton, Chapman didn’t immediately sign with the club, reportedly over salary concerns. Around this time, the wide receiver was able to secure an official workout with the NFL’s New York Giants. It didn’t work out in New York for Chapman, but this put him on the NFL’s radar. As a result, he received a training camp invite by the Denver Broncos for the 2018 season.
Ulitmately, it didn’t last in Denver long for Chapman either, as he was cast aside by the team at the end of training camp. Many had speculated that this was finally time for Chapman to join the Tiger-cats, but the receiver had other plans and did not sign a CFL contract. Instead, he latched on with the Salt Lake Stallions of the novel spring football league the AAF (Alliance of American Football) in the spring of 2019. However, due to personal reasons, Chapman decided not to report to the club, and the league ultimately folded just weeks in.
Reports began to surface in the Canadian sports media around the start of the 2019 CFL season that Chapman had “no interest” in continuing his football career anywhere. While we are only a year removed from this, there haven’t been any signs pointing towards a comeback for the former #1 overall pick.
OL Ryan Hunter
Selected #9 overall in the 1st-round by the Toronto Argonauts
College: Bowling Green
A Canadian-born lineman from North Bay, Ontario, Hunter was a football star in his hometown but decided that he needed to attend an American-based school to receive more attention from scouts. He did just that, attending a Buffalo-area high school where he quickly rose the ranks as an intriguing offensive line prospect, winning the Buffalo News Player of the Year. Hunter would eventually earn a scholarship to Bowling Green University in Kentucky in 2013.
At Bowling Green, the Canadian redshirted his freshman season before becoming a consistent member of the team’s group up-front along the line, where he started several games at guard and at tackle. Under offensive lines with Hunter, Bowling Green was often a great all-around offense. At the same time, the North Bay native starred off the field, winning conference awards for academics. When his college eligibility was up, Hunter decided to continue pursuing his football dreams.
In the 2018 NFL Draft, Hunter went undrafted. Still, he was able to latch on with the Kansas City Chiefs soon after as an undrafted free agent. Though he was part of training camp cuts, the offensive lineman was able to stay with the team after clearing waivers, landing on the club’s practice squad where he would remain his entire rookie season.
2019 started much the same for Hunter, who was still on the practice squad. Finally, however, the Chiefs activated the lineman out of Bowling Green for three different games during the 2019 regular season. The versatile lineman even able to impress the team enough to be in uniform for Kansas City’s Super Bowl victory against the San Francisco 49ers last February, celebrating alongside fellow Canadian Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff. Now officially a Super Bowl Champion, Hunter received a contract extension from the team this offseason and appears to have a chance at a full-time roster position next season.
This is too bad for the Toronto Argonauts, who selected him in the 2018 CFL Draft’s 1st-Round and have yet to see a return on their significant investment.