Sunday, February 22, 2015

REDBLACKS Receivers Have Plenty To Prove in 2015

According to the latest fan poll on, the Ottawa REDBLACKS went from having the worst receiving corps in the East Division to having the best after bringing in four new targets for Henry Burris this off-season.

In my opinion, that is simply not the case. It's also unfair to suggest that considering none of their new acquisitions have played a single down in Ottawa with the trademark 'R' on each side of their helmet.

When I look at the REDBLACKS receiving corps, I see several unproven players in Maurice Price, Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli and Ernest Jackson; who will all be granted bigger roles with Ottawa in comparison to where they were on the depth chart with their former teams. Ottawa went into the off-season with a need to bolster their receiving corps and brought in four potential, but unproven receivers for an expensive price.

As it stands, Ottawa has no go-to receiver that defences have to game-plan around. If you look around the Eastern Division, the Argonauts have Chad Owens; the Alouettes have SJ Green and the Tiger-Cats have Luke Tasker. Ottawa's receiving corps has other teams' third and fourth receivers who they are hoping can blossom in a bigger role. Price, Ellingson and Jackson have all shown flashes of becoming bona-fide receivers, but overall haven't been consistent enough during their young careers to achieve that potential.

Ernest Jackson had a brilliant month of October, amassing 438 yards and two touchdowns; good enough for Offensive Player of the Month honors. Despite those incredible numbers, Jackson only had a total of 813 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2014 over 18 games, which isn't all that good considering over 50% of that was achieved in 3 game stretch. Without his great month of October, I highly doubt Ottawa would have offered him anywhere close to the $130,000 he will be making in 2015.

Maurice Price was deemed expendable in Calgary after only appearing in 29 of a possible 54 games since 2012 due to injury. Price was usually productive when he was in the lineup, demonstrating some unique speed and big-play capabilities during his time with Kevin Glenn as his Quarterback. Despite that, his career high for receiving yards in a season is only 788 yards, and he will no longer be surrounded with the talent he once was in Calgary.

If the rumours of Ottawa signing former Tiger-Cat receiver Greg Ellingson for $310k over two seasons are true, then money-wise, that is the worst free agent signing of 2015. Ellingson was well on his way to rookie of the year honours in 2013 before missing 6 games due to injury, leaving him at an impressive 800 yards in his rookie year. What confuses things is that Ellingson slowly became an after-thought for the Ti-Cats in 2014 and followed up his great rookie campaign with only 429 yards as a depth receiver after Luke Tasker emerged. Ottawa will be hoping Ellingson can return to his rookie form and eventually build on it, as they're paying him like his sophomore slump never happened.

In my opinion, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats boast the most elite receiving corps in the East Division. They have a number one receiver in Luke Tasker and two solid national receivers in former 1000 yard Slot-back Andy Fantuz and newly-signed former-Argo Spencer Watt. Hamilton has two talented international receivers behind Tasker in Bakari Grant (should he be re-signed) and X-factor Brandon Banks, who could be in for a breakout season after signing a big extension in January. They also have some decent depth in Cary Koch, Terell Sinkfield and Quincy McDuffie.

When you compare the REDBLACKS' and Ti-Cats' receiving corps, it's Luke Tasker, Andy Fantuz and Spencer Watt that really give Hamilton the edge. Despite Tasker not eclipsing 1000 yards in his first season as a starter (he had 937 in 2014), I think the sky is the limit for the 26 year product of Cornell University. Tasker quickly became Zach Collaros' favourite target when he returned from a concussion and was one of the league's best receivers after the catch.

When you compare Hamilton's national receiving depth to Ottawa's, it's not even a competition. Hamilton has arguably the best national receiver in Andy Fantuz and a solid compliment to the former league all-star in the newly-signed deep threat Spencer Watt, who has put up consistent numbers as a depth receiver with Toronto. Ottawa's number one Canadian receiver is former Ottawa Gee Gee Quarterback-turned-Stampeders-receiver Brad Sinopoli. While I am a huge fan of Sinopoli, he is still completely unproven and hasn't really shown any signs of becoming the next Andy Fantuz or Chris Getzlaf while playing behind Anthony Parker and Simon Charbonneau-Campeau in Calgary.

With all this being said, I do like what REDBLACKS general manager Marcel Desjardins has done with Henry Burris' receiving corps, I just don't think it's fair to suggest they now have the best group of pass-catches in the East despite not playing a single down or having a proven guy in the lineup. It was obvious very early on in the Ottawa Redblacks' inaugural season that they needed a lot of help at the receiver position and Desjardins did everything he could to take care of that problem. As it stands, how good Ottawa's receiving corps will be remains unknown, but it is a sure-fact that it'll be more productive than last year.

REDBLACKS fans have every reason to be optimistic and excited for the 2015 football season.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

When Will We See the Next Canadian Quarterback?

It's been about 19 years since the last Canadian Quarterback started in the Canadian Football League; undrafted Quarterback/Punter Giulio Caravatta started for the BC Lions in 1996 after being traded back to Lions as he refused to play for the Baltimore Stallions after being selected in their own "expansion draft."
This piece was submitted to me by fellow CFL fanatic Joe Pritchard  (You can follow him on twitter by clicking here) and includes his proposal on the next steps the league should take to encourage CFL clubs to sign Canadian Quarterbacks.
"When will we see the next Canadian QB in the CFL?"
It seems like this question is in the back of most CFL fans' minds, and the discussion always seems to follow about what has to happen for the CFL to look at Canadian quarterbacks and give them a chance. 
As an International myself, I see the issue more in pragmatic terms than patriotic terms. Right now, there is no incentive for a CFL team to take a chance on a National QB. No, that's not quite right. There's actually less than no incentive for a CFL team to take a chance, because the resulting media attention could be considered a distraction. 

What do I mean by this? Let's take a look at the current CFL gameday roster rules. 
Teams dress 44 of their 46 players on the active roster, which mean two players are inactive each game. Let's take them out of the discussion for the moment. There are 3 roster spots dedicated to quarterbacks. Let's also remove them from the equation for just a moment, but we'll come back to them. Teams must dress a minimum of 21 National players, and may dress a maximum of 20 International players. I would say the vast majority of the time, those are the exact numbers teams dress for a given game. There are also 4 "Designated Internationals," which may only substitute for other International players. This leaves 16 International players (minus quarterbacks) in a given starting lineup, at the most. With 12 players on offence and 12 on defence, if you take away the quarterback and the other 16 positions filled with International players, that leaves 7 places in the lineup for Nationals. Some teams can put more Nationals on the field from time to time, if they are very deep in Canadian talent, but most teams will start 1 Quarterback, 16 Internationals, and 7 Nationals. 

Let's come back to those three Quarterback roster spots. Let's face it, these days, they are pretty much guaranteed to be Internationals. While only one of the three can be on the field on offence at any given time, that makes, in reality, 17 International starters and 7 Nationals, and 23 Internationals dressed, with only 21 National players dressed. 
As you can see, there's very little incentive to try to fill a Quarterback roster spot with a National, as it would not help the ratio. My proposal is simple, and it just might provide enough incentive for a team to take a gamble on a National QB, especially an athletic one that can contribute on special teams or other positions initially. 

My proposal is to eliminate the 3 QB roster spots, and replace them with 2 International and 1 National roster spot. This would leave 22 of each type of player on a 44 man roster, or, if a team wanted to, they could have more Nationals than Internationals, but not the other way around. I would also propose the CFL move to 5 Designated Internationals, to keep the current balance of 17 Internationals and 7 Nationals in the starting lineup. That 5th designated import slot could be filled by the 2nd string International QB, assuming the 1st string QB is also an International. 

This serves two purposes. It puts Nationals back on an equal footing in terms of ratio roster spots, and also creates an incentive to fill what would have been the third Quarterback roster spot, which would have been nearly guaranteed to be an International, with a National. The example that leaps to mind is Brad Sinopoli. He could be considered the team's third quarterback, which means he'd most likely get some reps in practice at QB in case of an emergency, and he could also continue to contribute as a National receiver, helping with the ratio in more ways than one. That extra National roster spot that is freed up if Sinopoli is pulling double duty could go to a player that would just miss the cut otherwise, maybe a dynamic special teamer, or a lineman that isn't quite ready to start, but shows potential. On the flip side, if a team decides to keep three International QB's, then they will have to drop an International player to compensate, and fill the roster spot with a National at another position. Either way, I think the change would help National players. I think this roster setup would make the Jim Popp's and Wally Buono's of the league start looking just a bit closer at National QB's, which is what we wanted to do in the first place. The first team to sign a National QB would have a step up on the other teams in terms of carrying an "extra" International somewhere else on the roster, which is exactly the type of incentive that would help when a team is deciding between a National and an International QB that show the same skill set. 
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe teams will just suck it up and dump a promising but raw International at another position over filling a "Quarterback" spot with a National. Maybe they would only carry two quarterbacks to begin with. I think the idea is worth a shot anyway. Let me know what you think. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Five Players Primed for a Bounce-Back Season

The 2014 season was dominated by defences around the Canadian Football League. Whether it was due to injuries surrounding many of the league's top players or others just having a down-year, the CFL saw only 4 running backs and receivers surpass 1000 yards and only 2 Quarterbacks throw for over 20 touchdowns. Since the majority of CFL offences are due for a bounce back year, I decided to narrow it down to a list of 5 offensive players who need to get back on track in 2015.
1.) Chris Getzlaf, Slotback, Saskatchewan Roughriders
Getzlaf followed up his second career 1000 yard campaign in 2013 with a rather underwhelming season in 2014 that saw the Most Valuable Canadian at 101st Grey Cup only haul in 36 passes for 591 yards and one touchdown. While I would agree that Getzlaf's poor play was impacted by the loss of Darian Durant to a season-ending elbow injury, it should be mentioned that the Regina Native only averaged 15 yards per game during the 10 games Durant started, including three straight games early in the season with zero receptions. At 32 years old, the Riders are looking for at least one more productive year from the Canadian they pay $220,000 annually.

A healthy Darian Durant will certainly help Getzlaf get back on track; however, I think it's the hire of new offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine that will help Getzlaf the most. "Air Chap's" offence is expected to be pass first with many high completion percentage short routes. Durant very well could be dropping back 35-40 times each week; a significant increase compared to the run-heavy offence George Cortez ran for two years that saw Durant attempt around 25 passes per game. Getzlaf will get plenty of targets while also playing the entire season in a more familiar role behind Weston Dressler as the number two receiver.

2.) Andrew Harris, Runningback, BC Lions
The entire BC Lions offence had a down-year in 2014. Despite missing 6 games with an ankle injury, Harris was very productive, amassing 1,181 total yards and six touchdowns. Harris' 652 rushing yards are low by his standards, but a large part of that is due to BC giving both Harris and Stefan Logan similar touches and utilizing them both heavily in the passing game.

Newly hired head-coach Jeff Tedford decided to bring in George Cortez from Saskatchewan to run BC's offence, which seems to be a perfect fit for Harris as Cortez's offence is primarily run-first. Cortez's Roughriders were the league's third best team running the football in 2014 and also led the league in rushing attempts with 417. Harris was already on pace for 972 rushing yards in 2014 before the injury bug hit him, so I have no doubts that Harris will shatter the 1000 yard mark next season under George Cortez where he will get double the carries and spend less time lining up in the slot. If I had to pick one player who has the best shot at dethroning Calgary's Jon Cornish as the league's Most Outstanding Canadian, it would Winnipeg-native Andrew Harris.

3.) Henry Burris, Quarterback, Ottawa REDBLACKS
Burris was brought into Ottawa before their inaugural season to provide instant stability at the Quarterback position. While numerous factors played into Ottawa's offensive woes such as former offensive coordinator Mike Gibson's awful play-calling, it's safe to say Burris did not get the job done or live up to expectations. Ottawa finished last place in the CFL with a 2-16 record and a large reason for that is due to them having the league's worst offence that only averaged 15.4 points per game. Burris only threw 11 touchdowns versus 14 interceptions despite starting all 18 games; his worst statistical season as a starting Quarterback in his Hall of Fame career. It all starts with the Quarterback, so Ottawa will be looking for Burris to turn this team around on a much shorter leash in his final year under contract.

 Ottawa GM Marcel Desjardins did his part in Free Agency, signing three receivers in Ernest Jackson from BC, Greg Ellingson from Hamilton and Brad Sinopoli from Calgary to help bolster the CFL's worst receiving corps in 2014. Desjardins also traded for veteran speedster Maurice Price from Calgary, so don't expect there to be any more dropped touchdown's at TD Place in 2015. Burris will also have more time to throw as Ottawa signed Left Tackle SirVincent Rogers from Toronto and will also hopefully have projected first overall pick Brett Boyko in the lineup as well. Burris has no excuses to not have a good year in Ottawa. If he doesn't, I wouldn't surprised if Ottawa gave him the hook in favour of who they hope is their franchise Quarterback, Thomas DeMarco.

4.) CJ Gable, Runningback, Hamilton Tiger-Cats

It appeared as though we were only witnessing the tip of the ice-burg of CJ Gable's full potential in his rookie season, where the USC product amassed 1,380 total yards with 12 touchdowns and East Division All-Star recognition. Yet only 10 months later, several Ti-Cats fans figured they found an upgrade over the now-injury-prone Gable in Nic Grigsby; who, similarly to Gable, was voted an East Division All-Star in his rookie season. Gable's injury riddled sophomore season allowed Grigsby (who was signed mid-season after demanding a release from Winnipeg) and back-up Mossis Madu to showcase their talents. If the Ti-Cats do decide to re-sign Nic Grigsby, I would expect a competitive pre-season between the two former Division All-Stars.

5.) Nick Moore, Slotback, Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Winnipeg's prized Free Agent acquisition in 2014 just couldn't stay healthy during his first season in the Blue and Gold. Moore was solid in the nine games he did play, catching 44 passes for 553 yards as Willy's main target. If only Moore could have stayed in the lineup, he definitely could have broke the 1000 yard plateau for a second straight season as he was on pace for 1,106 yards. Moore proved to be a big time player for Winnipeg early on, providing a spark to the offence with a pair 50 yard receptions against Ottawa and Montreal when his team needed them most. Moore is also yet to find the end zone as a Bomber, so a few touchdown's early in 2015 would already be an improvement over his first season in Winnipeg.

Moore will be in a good situation with Winnipeg next season. Drew Willy will only get better in his second year as a starter and will also have more time to throw now that GM Kyle Walters decided to re-tool the offensive line by bringing in a trio of guys in back to back CFL All-Star Left Tackle Stanley Bryant from Calgary, Saskatchewan's 2014 Most Outstanding Lineman in Centre Dominic Picard and serviceable Right Tackle Marc Dile, formerly of the Tiger-Cats. Moore will also be paired beside Clarence Denmark, who eclipsed 1000 yards for the first time in 2014. Winnipeg will need Moore to live up to his salary of $185,000/year if they want to make a serious run at winning the 103rd Grey Cup on home turf in November.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Argos in the Same Boat as Last Season

In a year dominated by defences in the CFL, the Toronto Argonauts were one of the few teams, if not the only, to heavily rely on their offence to win games. Ricky Ray had another big season, yet the Argonauts missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 despite having the league's best passing attack. After another quiet Free Agency that saw GM Jim Barker lose more players than he signed, it's beginning to appear as though the Argos could be in the same boat as last season in 2015.

The Argos had one of the worst passing defences in the CFL in 2014 and ranked in the bottom four for the majority of all defensive passing statistics, including last place for giving up the most passing touchdowns with 30, eight more than the 8th ranked Blue Bombers. The Argos brought back defensive end Ricky Foley from Saskatchewan via trade to hopefully take some pressure off the secondary, but also lost defensive back Jalil Carter to the NFL; a bad trade-off considering they had to give up middle linebacker Shea Emry to acquire the 32 year old Foley, who they deemed expendable just two years ago. Toronto is also betting a lot of chips on former third overall pick Cory Greenwood, who signed with the Argos mid-season after stints with Kansas City and Detroit down south, to replace Emry in the middle and maintain the Argonauts' fourth ranked run defence. If defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo can build off an impressive rookie campaign that featured 12 sacks, the Argos' front seven that now includes Foley will be decent, but is still missing the support from their secondary they need to get home to opposing quarterbacks. While the boatmen's defence will feature some new players, the results may still be same as 2014, putting the pressure back on Ricky Ray's offence to have another big year.

Much like in 2014 when more than half of his receiving corps went down with injuries, it won't be easy for Ricky Ray to deliver another terrific season. He'll be without national receiver Spencer Watt (signed with Hamilton), John Chiles (NFL), Darvin Adams (signed with Winnipeg) and possibly Jason Barnes, who is still a free agent but is expected to re-sign with Toronto at some point. The Argos will also have someone else protecting Ray's blindside as left tackle SirVincent Rogers bolted for Ottawa on day one of Free Agency. Of course, Ray still has Chad Owens and Andre Durie to make plays, as long as they stay healthy which recently has been the problem. They also have 2014 first round pick Anthony Coombs, who is expected to have a breakout year while getting snaps at slotback and runningback after showing flashes of potential early in 2014 before suffering a season ending shoulder injury.

Without Chiles, Maurice Mann, Watt, Adams and Barnes, the Argos are really betting on Owens and Durie, who will both 33 during the season, to stay healthy for 18 games. Unless the Argos finally take Owens off special team's to protect their number one target, I'm not sure if that's possible. Ricky Ray's health is also vital as it's unrealistic to envision Trevor Harris, who looks promising, to deliver the offensive production Toronto needs to win games. Jim Barker better find some gems in open tryouts down south as for now, the Argos' season very much may dwell on the health of one of two players.

With the rest of the East Division struggling mightily in the first half of the 2014 season, the Argos had plenty of opportunities to run away with the division but, ultimately, still failed to even make the playoffs due to West Division's BC Lions crossing over and claiming the third seed. 2015 is expected to be equally as competitive with Hamilton and Montreal both boasting solid rosters, and one out of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders or even the BC Lions pushing for another cross-over as well. In order to make the playoffs, Toronto will likely need at least 9-10 wins, an improvement over last season's 8-10 record, to fend off the cross-over and claim third in the east.

Since I have a hard time betting against a Hall of Fame Quarterback like Ricky Ray, I do believe the Argos will still have at worst a top 4 passing attack in 2015. However, even with the league's best passing game, the boatmen did not play a game after week 20 in 2014. General Manager Jim Barker certainly has some scouting to take care of if he hopes to improve his defence and see the Double Blue playing football in November. As of right now, the Argos find themselves sailing the same ship as mid-season last year when Ricky Ray was throwing touchdowns to receivers no one had ever heard of yet they were still losing games. 2015 could be no different, or it could be the year Ricky Ray cements his legacy as one of the greatest to ever take a snap in the CFL and carries the Boatmen into the playoffs.

I guess we'll have to find out.