This year's NFL draft runs from Thursday to Saturday, and it could be a very big one for Canadians. NFL interest in Canadian players has shot up over the last few years, from Danny Watkins' first-round selection in 2011 to the record-tying three Canadian players (and an American who played CIS football) who were taken in 2012 to last year's selection of one player and signing of several prominent Canadians as undrafted free agents, including top CFL draft pick Linden Gaydosh. This year might see even more CanCon, though, as there are at least five Canadian players who have a reasonable shot at being a NFL draft pick. Here's a breakdown of each, in likely draft order:
Laurent-Duvernay Tardif, offensive tackle, McGill (CIS): The 6'5'', 314-pounder from St. Hilaire, Quebec has shown plenty of versatility on the field, where he switched from defensive line to offensive line partway through his CIS career, and also off it, where he's juggled football with working 60-plus hours a week in the pediatric emergency ward at Montreal Children's Hospital as part of his medical school education. He's been praised as one of the most polished players to come out of the Canadian college ranks, and he's also excelled in all manner of physical tests, from a 4.94-second 40 to 34 bench press reps to a 9'6'' broad jump. The knock on him is that he doesn't have a ton of high-level offensive line playing time under his belt, but he still could be a very intriguing project for some teams. He's been the top-ranked prospect in all three editions of the CFL scouting bureau's list this year, but his attractiveness to NFL teams likely means he'll be a later-round CFL pick. He could potentially go as early as the third round (which takes place on Friday, along with the second round).
Brent Urban, defensive end, Virginia (ACC): Mississauga, ON product Urban led the NCAA with 11 pass knockdowns last season and also recorded 13 solo tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and one sack. He's had a couple of very solid years for the Cavaliers, but has faced injury issues. Hamilton took him ninth overall in last year's CFL draft, but he's also likely to land south of the border. TSN analyst Duane Forde said Thursday that Urban is "the one who jumps out" amongst Canadian NFL prospects, saying that Duvernay-Tardif and Urban are locks to be drafted. Look for him to be picked Saturday in the fourth round or later.
John Urschel, offensive lineman, Penn State (Big 10): Like Duvernay-Tardif, the Winnipeg-born Urschel is a punishing offensive lineman on the field, an incredibly smart grad student off the field. Here's a video of him teaching undergrads math. Urschel has had an impressive playing career, too; Forde listed him as his top Canadian to watch in the NCAA last year. Oddly enough, Urschel is a Canadian citizen, but he isn't considered a non-import by the CFL yet; he could apply for that if he elected to pursue a career in Canada, though, as long as he can prove he spent at least five years north of the border before turning 18. It's probably a moot point, as he seems to have excellent prospects south of the border. He's also likely a Day Three pick, but could be a great find at centre or guard for a NFL team.
T.J. Jones, receiver, Notre Dame (independent): Jones was born in Winnipeg in 1992 while his father Andre was playing for the Blue Bombers. He played high school football in Georgia and then went to Notre Dame, where his father starred before heading to the CFL. (Sadly, Andre died at age 42 in 2011 from a brain aneurysm.) T.J. has had a great career, including making 70 catches for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns this past season. Interestingly enough, his godfather is former NFL and CFL star Rocket Ismail. It's unclear whether Jones spent enough time in Canada growing up to qualify as a non-import for CFL purposes, but he'll likely have enough NFL interest in the later rounds Saturday that it won't matter right now.
Bo Lokombo, linebacker, Oregon (Pac-12): Lokombo was born in Kinshasa in what's now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but came to Canada in 1996, first landing in Montreal, then migrating west to Abbotsford, B.C. with his family. He shone in high school football there before finishing his prep football career in the States and earning a scholarship at Oregon. He's since starred for the Ducks, and he topped two editions of the CFL prospect list last season (but like we'll likely see with Duvernay-Tardif this year, his CFL stock fell thanks to the NFL's interest and he went 21st overall in last year's CFL draft.) He made plenty of big plays at Oregon, and could be an interesting late-round pick, or an undrafted free agent. Forde said he's "going to have a chance" at being taken in the draft.
That's some pretty substantial Canadian talent, especially considering that no more than three Canadians have ever gone in a single NFL draft (and that's only happened twice, in 1986 and 2012). There isn't a likely first-rounder in this year's crop, unlike 1986 or 2011, but there are still a bunch of guys who could be solid NFL players (and there are others not mentioned here who are drawing some NFL interest, such as CIS linemen David Foucault and Pierre Lavertu).
It may be most interesting that for all the hype Canadians in the NCAA get, the likely top Canadian NFL prospect this year played CIS ball; that's even more proof (following the drafting of Akiem Hicks out of Regina in 2012 and the signing of undrafted free agent Stefan Charles from the same school last year) that the NFL's taking a close look at CIS football. Forde said that's been a strong recent trend. "Over the course of the last five years, the NFL has perceived CIS football as kind of an untapped resource," he said. "The CIS has been added to that list of guys who may not be ready now, but are an investment. ... They may be gems down the road."
CIS- or NCAA-trained, it's clear the NFL has plenty of interest in Canadian players at the moment. That's great for Canadian football as a whole, but it does pose some problems for the CFL, especially when teams have to try and weigh if a guy's going to be snapped up by the NFL or not. It does show that there are some awfully good football players from Canada, though, and it also illustrates that football players from Canada can make it big. That might convince more kids to play and stick with football, which could increase this pool of Canadian talent even further down the road. Perhaps someday, we'll look back at 2014 as an odd time when there were only five or so Canadians receiving strong NFL consideration.