There’s a player declaring for the 2023 NFL Draft who has already taken snaps of professional football.
That player is J-Min Pelley, a defensive lineman from the University of Calgary who spent the 2022 CFL season with the Edmonton Elks. Selected in the Supplemental Draft after being given early eligibility prior to the 2023 CFL Draft, Pelley starred at the U Sports ranks for the Calgary Dinos, being named a second-team All-Canadian and helping lead his team to the Vanier Cup, the Canadian equivalent to a national championship.
At 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, Pelley has an NFL-ready frame and has impressive tape, both in college and at the CFL level. He could still return to the CFL, but by declaring for the NFL draft, he opens up his options. A player with his talent will certainly generates looks from NFL teams, assuming the Elks release him from his contract upon either being drafted by or signing with an NFL organization.
Pelley spoke with Windy City Gridiron about his unique situation, representing Canada at the NFL level, maintaining his level of athleticism at his size, and much more.
JI: For those unfamiliar, can you break down your eligibility situation for the NFL Draft?
JP: Yeah, so actually, during COVID, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go continue in school. At the time, I just had kids...I had my first one when I was about 18 right out of high school, and then I had my second one about five days before training camp for [the] University of Calgary. It’s kind of hard to having two kids at that time, while being in school playing football, doing everything I was doing, and I was working, also. It’s tough doing all that stuff, so I just wasn’t able to do it. Especially when COVID happened, I needed to work, and I was working more hour, so it just didn’t work out with school. I ended up not playing with school during that 2021 COVID year, so with that, I didn’t know what what to do. I reached out to my coach at university; he was very supportive of me, and he connected me with an agent.
With that, my agent was like, “here’s a thing we can do with the supplemental in the CFL”. I talked to a whole bunch of league people doing that and got into the supplemental, and then, yeah, I was selected with that. We always really talked about possibly getting into the NFL Supplemental Draft, or even the real draft with my agent, just because we knew that if I had played one more year of university, I would have been able to go to like the East-West Shrine game and stuff like that. I was definitely getting looked at from the NFL, so he looked into it. As you discovered that, just because of the university stuff, that’s why I wasn’t able to go talk to NFL teams or go to any January workouts a lot of CFL guys do. I wasn’t able to do that just because I haven’t been through the job process yet. I was able to apply as an undergrad, whatever billing they gave me, so that’s how that’s how that happened. But with that, it’s just kind of rare because I already play pro, so that’s one thing that a lot of people have been talking about is that I already get paid to play football professionally, so they don’t understand that situation.
JI: Can you speak to the advantage your pro football experience gives you over other draft prospects?
JP: I honestly don’t think the pay portion gives me any advantage, but definitely the competition that I’ve been playing. When I’ve been playing in CFL, I play against guys that have been in the NFL, and I play against guys who have been in the CFL for a very long time. That kind of competition, I think that’s what sets me apart. Like a guy that backs me up [on the Elks], the guy that did sit behind me on the depth chart, he actually holds the NFL Super Bowl [sacks] record: Kony Ealy. That’s one thing that I feel separates me is that I do have good experience against good talent. Many of the other people in the draft go into like good Division I colleges, but as a Canadian kid, that separates me apart [from other players].
JI: Canada’s really becoming a hotbed for NFL players.
JP: I’ve definitely noticed, and I do actually know a couple of them personally. There’s two people with the Chargers that I played with. There’s one guy that I [played] university with, and then the other guy I played on Team Canada with, and I played against him my whole life, so it’s pretty cool seeing all those guys in the NFL now. It’s also like, for me it’s not enough, because even in the CFL, it’s not like a totally Canadian-dominated sport. For me, I’m always proud to represent Canada.
JI: Which guys on the Chargers?
JP: I know [cornerback] Deane Leonard, and I know [linebacker] Amen Ogbongbemiga. I played Team Canada, Team Alberta, and we call it midget football, but it’s just amateur football, I played with [Deane]. The other guys on the team is Amen Ogbongbemiga. I played against him in high school. We played Team Canada together in Texas, so I played a lot with these guys, and we’re all from the same city and grew up playing in the same amateur sport organizations. It’s pretty cool to see where those guys are, knowing that I feel like I can be there with them, just because I played with them my whole life. I can do it, I can do it: that’s my kind of mentality, in a level-headed way.
JI: You move really well for a big guy. Can you speak to how you’ve improved in speed while maintaining that bulk?
JP: I used to play basketball a lot when I was growing up. We thought that was gonna be my sport that was gonna be able to play. I thought I’d be performing basketball when I was a kid, [but] I was getting too big to be like a basketball player. So then, when I fully transferred over to football — I played ball with my whole life — but when I fully took football, it just kind of came like a second nature to be [at] my quickness, if that makes sense. I always knew I had my size and the speed. For that, I think it was just something growing up like playing basketball and playing multiple sports, I think that really helped with the athleticism, especially with basketball. I was always playing defense on guys, so I had to move laterally to keep up with them. That really helped me with the speed.
Also, a lot of people people won’t really notice — I don’t think they will — is that I’m also playing on a CFL field, which is a lot bigger. For me to be as quick as I am, I’m also doing it on a bigger field than what I would be doing it [in the NFL]. In some of my film, I do show that [sideline-to-sideline] speed, chasing the ball down. That’s also like a big thing for me, that I like to say that what I do good: chase the ball, move laterally, things like that.
JI: How do you like to spend your free time outside of football?
JP: I have three kids — three daughters — that is most of my life. Other than that, I have a dog; I take my dog out for a walk. I play video games; I know that’s something that I really do like, and I’m part of the generation that grew up on video games.
JI: What kind of dog do you have?
JP: I have a Great Dane. He’s a big boy (laughs). I like to chill out with him and hang out. I’m not [living] a typical 25-year-old lifestyle or even anything [close] to it, with the kids and stuff like that. That primarily plays most of my time; it’s mostly being home with them.
JI: I can imagine having three kids that early matures you in a sense.
JP: I’ve had them all at different stages of my life. I had one when I was freshly out of high school, just like a young adult, new to the world. It was really, really tough. And then, of course, the university stuff, just because I had to stay on top of school, stay on top of work, and then also just being home with two kids. That was tough. My third one, I actually had in my CFL season, and it was right after a game. I left for the game while my wife was in labor — not active labor, but she was in labor. I came back after the game that we played that night, and I came back at 2 a.m., and they had to drop me off with the team bus from the airport, they dropped me off at the hospital. That was a pretty significant thing. I’ve learned a lot of lessons, and it’s been a good learning curve for me all stages that I had my kids.
JI: That’s really cool they dropped you off right from the game.
JP: Yeah. It’s pretty hectic, a little bit stressful, going into the game, knowing that my wife was at the hospital and gonna have a baby pretty soon. It was just a very stressful situation, and then playing in the game. It was good, though. I was happy I did it, because it showed me that I could do it. There’s just a more mental side that was challenging, if that makes sense.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
JP: You’ll be getting a player that wants to do anything he can to make a name for himself and for his family. I’m very, very hungry, and I’m very team oriented. Anything I can do to help the team, I’ll do, for sure. Even with this year, I did my whole rookie training camp in my main camp going into the season in the CFL, I did my whole entire first year as an offensive lineman. That’s all I played all of camp. Five minutes before the game, the first time I was told I was saying D-line was five minutes before preseason games. One of our guys went down in warmups with a lower cramp or something. They went down, and I was practicing O-line that whole time. I was gonna play O-line in the game. Three, four or five minutes before the game, they came in and they’re telling me that I’m gonna play D-line. I didn’t even know any of the plays. It’s pretty cool that I’m doing that here at the CFL level, just going in, and the coaches are telling you just to go upfield whenever I can...it was pretty cool. That’s the kind of player I am; I’ll do anything that they need. What they needed during camp was an offensive lineman, not knowing it, never playing it before. That’s what I did. I’ll do whatever it takes for the team to win and win at all costs. That’s definitely my biggest thing is that I like winning, and I like having a successful team, no matter what I’m doing.
Janae Rose Comia-Pelley, the youngest of J-Min’s three children mentioned in this interview, passed away suddenly on Feb. 23. A GoFundMe fundraiser has been started in the Comia-Pelley family name. Please consider donating to assist in covering out-of-city transportation cost, funeral expenses, and financial support for the family.