2021 CFL season featured Global starters, sack artists and first ever all-star

At times last year, it seemed like it would never come to fruition, but almost as soon as it began, the shortened 2021 Canadian Football League regular season has reached its conclusion.

After 16 weeks and 63 games played, the CFL has separated the wheat from the chaff ahead of a historic December post-season run. The Ottawa Redblacks, Edmonton Elks and B.C. Lions have all been sent packing, leaving six teams to vie for the Grey Cup after the trophy’s year-long hiatus. Heading into the playoffs, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts hold the first-round bye, while Saskatchewan Roughriders, Calgary Stampeders, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Montreal Alouettes will need a win this weekend to stay alive.

As the league begins to hand out All-Star nods and award nomination, now is a perfect time for a retrospective on the second season of the league’s Global player program. Each of the league’s nine teams was required to dress one international athlete per game this season and in the end, 28 players from 13 different countries go their pro football shot.

With some preparing for the chance to be the next Global Grey Cup winner and others already headed home to lick the wounds of a losing record, here is how every Global player fared in 2021:

Cody Grace, P, Calgary Stampeders (Australia) – A historic season punting may get few people excited, but Grace’s booming leg was impressive enough that some championed him as the Stamps’ Most Outstanding Rookie. He hit a 45.6 average without recording a single, a testament to his directional punting, and became the first Global player to be named a CFL Divisional All-Star.

Thiadric Hansen, DE, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Germany) – Two years after he first made headlines with his Grey Cup hit, Hansen is still the benchmark for success among Global position players. The German’s production slowed down a little after a fantastic start to the year, but still finished with eight defensive tackles, 12 special teams tackles, three sacks and forced fumble. As a member of the top-seeded Bombers, a championship repeat is now in his sights.

Steven Nielsen, OT, Edmonton Elks (Denmark) – The second overall pick in the 2021 Global Draft, Nielsen has already begun delivering on the promise he showed at Eastern Michigan. The hulking Dane played in 13 games for the Elks this year and started five at right tackle, including the last four of the season, and never once looking out of place. His success will be a major selling point for the future of the Global strategy.

Joseph Zema, P, Montreal Alouettes (Australia) – Zema was a beacon of consistency in the punting game for the Alouettes, unleashing 90 kicks for a 45.2 yard average and three singles. He’ll continue to be leaned upon heading into the playoffs.

Tyron Vrede, LB, Ottawa Redblacks (Netherlands) – There weren’t many positives to draw from a terrible season in Ottawa, but the promising rookie year of Dutch linebacker Tyron Vrede was one. The North Dakota product was third on the team with 10 special teams tackles and even got in on defense at the end of the year, recording five defensive tackles.

Kaare Vedvik, P, Saskatchewan Roughriders (Norway) – A late season-ending injury to hometown hero and former Super Bowl champion Jon Ryan had the whole city of Regina in panic, but Vedvik stepped in with eye-popping numbers in the last four games. He heads into the playoffs with a 46 yard average, two singles and one incredible 75-yard punt to his credit.

Joel Whitford, P, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Australia) – Whitford missed a pair of games to injury, but when available he was a reliable boot for the Ticats. He recorded a 45.1 yard average and four singles in 12 contests, giving Hamilton a field position flipper for the post-season.

Niklas Gustav, DE, B.C. Lions (Germany) – One of the best Global stories of the year, Gustav was Mr. Irrelevant, the last pick in the 2021 Global Draft out of NAIA school Morningside. Circumstance forced him into the lineup and he became a core part of the Lions’ special teams, notching seven tackles in 12 games.

Tigie Sankoh, DB, Toronto Argonauts (United Kingdom) – Many were surprised was Sankoh didn’t immediately earn Toronto’s Global spot to start the season. That looks to have changed before the playoffs, as in four appearances at the end of the year the former Cleveland Brown recorded six special teams tackles and one on defense.

Les Maruo, LB, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Japan) – Maruo spent the second half of the season on the practice roster, but he proved his worth early in the year. The former UTSA Roadrunner posted six special teams tackles in seven games to start the year and remains a viable option for the playoff.

Chris Ezeala, DE/FB, Saskatchewan Roughriders (Germany) – The one-time Baltimore Raven joined the Riders late and was immediately inserted into the lineup for their last 11 games. It took some time for him to find his footing, but he’s shone in recent weeks, recording three special teams tackles, one on defense and a couple big blocks in the return game.

Christopher Ferguson, OT, Ottawa Redblacks (Bahamas) – Faced with an under-manned and struggling offensive line, Ottawa made Ferguson just the second Global starter in the league. He started all four games he appeared in, two at left tackle and two at right tackle, but unfortunately struggled considerably, not that anyone else blocking for the Redblacks fared much better.

Asnnel Robo, RB, Toronto Argonauts (France) – The Argos surprising choice over Sankoh in Week 1, Robo played in 12 games for the Boatmen. The former feature back for the Montreal Carabins notched three special teams tackles in that span.

Taku Lee, RB, Montreal Alouettes (Japan) – One of the highest profile Global players in a skill position, Lee has earned his way into the lineup for a four game stretch. He made a pair of special teams tackles in that span and became the first Global to touch the ball this year, returning a pair of kicks for 48 yards in Week 7.

Valentin Gnahoua, DE, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (France) – Hamilton’s top Global from 2019, Gnahoua suited up for nine games in 2021 but wasn’t able to take a leap forward. He recorded just one special teams tackle but remains a viable option if needed in the playoffs.

Tibo Debaillie, DT, Edmonton Elks (Belgium) – Debaillie surprised many by making the Elks’ active roster out of training camp but was relegated to the practice squad after two games. He returned to the field in Week 13 and posted the first defensive tackle of his pro career while rotating in.

Chris Mulumba, DT, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Finland) – Once a promising prospect at the University of Colorado, it took Mulumba until Week 14 to see the field in Hamilton. He played two games and recorded a defensive tackle, with the potential to see more action in the playoffs.

Jake Ford, P, B.C. Lions (Australia) – The first overall pick in the Global Draft was solid in the first two weeks of the season as B.C.’s punter, but had to miss the Lions’ Week 3 game in order to receive his U.S. Green Card. American Stefan Flintoft showed off a big leg in his absence and Ford was relegated to practice squad duty for the remainder of the season.

 Maxime Rouyer, LB, Edmonton Elks (France) – With special teams a pressing concern, Rouyer was added to the Elks’ lineup in Week 10 to beef up the cover teams. He didn’t fix the issues, but he did add a special teams tackle in his lone appearance.

Sergio Schiaffino Perez, DB, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Mexico) – Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea said during training camp that he would seize any opportunity to get his feisty Mexican DB a shot at game action in his second season. That chance came in Week 9 against B.C. and Schiaffino Perez took full advantage, notching his first ever special teams tackle.

Toshiki Sato, K, Toronto Argonauts (Japan) – The Argos gave Sato the keys to their entire kicking game for the team’s final regular season game, but he was used unconventionally. Primarily a place-kicker, Sato was asked to go outside his skillset and punt all game with unfortunate results, while only being asked to kick on PAT, which was missed due to poor snap.

Ayo Oyelola, LB, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (United Kingdom) – The fourth different Global player to see time with the league-leading Bombers, Oyelola got his shot in the final week of the regular season. He didn’t impact the box score, but any action was huge for the development of the young linebacker.

Diego Viamontes, REC, Edmonton Elks (Mexico) – The first pick in the 2019 Mexican Draft waited patiently on the practice squad until Edmonton’s final game, where he was a late addition to an expanded roster, though he didn’t record a statistic.

Akio Yamagishi, LB, Montreal Alouettes (Japan) – Yamagishi got his chance to live out a pro football dream in Week 12 against Toronto, flying down on the kickoff team without recording a tackle.

David Izinyon, DE, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (United Kingdom) – Izinyon drew into the Ticats’ lineup in Week 12 against Ottawa. While he didn’t make a mark on the box score, it was just reward for excellent work on the practice squad.

Kevin Kaya, REC, Montreal Alouettes (France) – A former second team All-Canadian at the Université de Montreal, Kaya got his shot at the pro level in Week 11, though no balls were thrown his way.

John Henry Nell, K, Saskatchewan Roughriders (South Africa) – Seriously lacking Global talent, Saskatchewan dressed Nell as an extra kicker for the first three weeks of the season, using him as little more than a clipboard holder and tee delivery system.

Takeru Yamasaki, K, Free Agent (Japan) – After winning B.C.’s starting kicker job in training camp, Yamasaki’s whirlwind CFL journey lasted just two weeks. He became the first Japanese player to ever score a CFL point but struggled with consistency under pressure. He went just 4-of-8 in two games, badly shanking a few chip shots before being released by the club

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.