Global players starting to make a mark on CFL teams

The old saying goes that the Canadian Football League season doesn’t start until Labour Day and while that date came up much quicker in the shortened 2021 season, last week’s traditional rivalry games were as exciting as ever.

As the league enters Week 6 and the second part of those rivalry home-and-home series, it’s worth checking in on how the CFL’s Global players are progressing. Each of the league’s nine teams is required to dress one international athlete per game and so far 15 different players have succeeded in living their pro football dreams.

For a look at how each of those active roster participants has fared, here is a look at their performances from West to East.

Niklas Gustav, DE, B.C. Lions (Germany) – The last pick of the 2021 Global Draft was forced into the Lions lineup by a perfect storm of circumstances in Week 3. One week later, he began to make his mark, recording a pair of special teams tackles in a win over Ottawa.

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 the aforementioned Gustav performed well, making Ford’s roster status a question mark since his return.

Steven Nielsen, OT, Edmonton Elks (Denmark) – The first position player taken in the Global Draft at second overall, Nielsen has been in the Edmonton lineup every week as the sixth offensive lineman. Injuries forced him to start at right tackle against Montreal in Week 2 and he performed admirably, proving that Global players can be more than simply special teamers.

Tibo Debaillie, DT, Edmonton Elks (Belgium) – Debaillie made the Elks’ active roster out of training camp, dressing in the team’s first two games and playing on special teams without making a mark on the stat sheet. The roster shuffle has seen him on the practice squad since, but the former Towson Tiger remains a viable option for Edmonton.

Belgian DL Tibo Debaillie

Cody Grace, P, Calgary Stampeders (Australia) – Nicknamed the ‘Thunder from Down Under’ during his time at Arkansas State, Grace has been solid punting for the Stampeders. His 45.6 yard average sits fifth in the league.

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.

Chris Ezeala, FB, Saskatchewan Roughriders (Germany) – The Riders’ top Global draft pick arrived during the team’s Week 4 bye after staying in Europe for the birth of his first child. The former Baltimore Raven immediately drew into the lineup last week with just a handful of practices under his belt and should see a larger role in the future.

Thiadric Hansen, DE, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Germany) – Still the best Global player in the league, Grey Cup hero Thiadric Hansen sits second in the CFL with seven special teams tackles in five games. He had only two in 21 games back in 2019. Hansen’s also seen more defensive reps in recent weeks, providing solid pressure and two tackles on the league’s most talented defensive line.

Les Mauro, LB, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Japan) – Winnipeg is the only team to have dressed multiple Global players in every game this season and Maruo is the reason why. The Japanese linebacker has posted four special teams tackles over the last two weeks and even pinch hit on defense to end last week’s Labour Day Classic.

Japanese LB Les Mauro

Joel Whitford, P, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Australia) – The Washington product has been slightly more inconsistent than some other Global punters, but he’s improving weekly. He has a 44.1 yard average and a long of 67, while also being the only Aussie to record a famous rouge, sending two kicks into the endzone for points.

Valentin Gnahoua, DE, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (France) – Hamilton’s top Global from 2019, Gnahoua has returned to the lineup the past three games with the trust of his special teams coordinator Jeff Reinbold. The Frenchman has yet to get on the stat sheet but that should soon change.

Asnnel Robo, RB, Toronto Argonauts (France) – Toronto surprised many by making their Global player 5’7 free agent signing Asnnel Robo instead of top draft pick and former Cleveland Brown Tigie Sankoh. Robo has proved his worth, however, using his considerable speed to record a pair of tackles on special teams.

Tyron Vrede, LB, Ottawa Redblacks (Netherlands) – The Redblacks have been downright bad to start the season, but Tyron Vrede has delivered in his role on special teams. The Dutch linebacker out of the University of North Dakota has four special teams tackles in four games.

Dutch LB Tyron Vrede making a tackle

Joseph Zema, P, Montreal Alouettes (Australia) – Among the Global punters, Joseph Zema has been the top man. Montreal’s new leg has a 46.6 yard average that puts him fourth in the league.

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.