We recently put out our pre-season power rankings, and in the same theme, we want to rank the CFL’s starting quarterbacks heading into the season. This list is made slightly more complicated by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who don’t have their starter figured out yet as Dane Evans and Jeremiah Masoli need to do battle in camp before that can be handled. The solution for this is to rank both of them. The result, 10 quarterbacks.
Before we start, we want to say that a low ranking does not mean the player is bad. The rankings have taken multiple things into consideration, and players who have had multiple seasons at a good level were given the nod over a player who has one such season. Please be civil and feel free to leave your own rankings in the comments!
Now that the confusing part we need to explain is behind us, we can get right into it!
10. Nick Arbuckle – Toronto Argonauts
Nick Arbuckle is the only quarterback on this list without significant time spent as a starter but is not the only one who started the 2019 season as a backup. He has been touted as the next guy to make the leap to a starting job, something that has previously been bestowed upon Matt Nichols, James Franklin, and Dominique Davis. If we have learned anything, it’s that it doesn’t always work out, and for that reason, Arbuckle takes the 10th spot.
This is certainly not to say that Arbuckle is a bad quarterback that it will be impossible to win with, but we just don’t know yet. He only has 238 pass attempts to his name over his two years playing in the CFL with 2,247 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. It wasn’t his proven ability that brought him to Ottawa, but rather the Redblacks taking a gamble on a young talent they thought could develop enough to take them back to the Grey Cup.
Now, as a member of the Toronto Argonauts, Arbuckle has plenty of weapons and Calgary Stampeders connections around him that should help him along the way. He’s about to be thrown out to sea where we will find out if he sinks or swims.
9. Dane Evans – Hamilton Tiger-Cats
When Jeremiah Masoli went down with a season-ending injury in the Tiger-Cats week seven game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Dane Evans stepped in and was immediately met by questions about what they would do about missing their franchise quarterback. Little did everyone know at the time, Evans would be the answer to all of their questions.
Evans was fantastic in the 2019 season tossing 298 completions on 413 attempts for 3,754 yards to go with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Evans led the Ti-Cats to a 9-2 record as a starter before bringing them all the way to the Grey Cup. The team surrounding him was dominant all season long, that was until they met the Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup game.
It’s not on the shoulders of Evans, that is for sure, but he didn’t look settled at any point in the game. His offensive line broke down and couldn’t protect him much at all, and that stopped him from playing the game he wanted to play. Despite the rankings, the battle between Evans and Masoli is one of those storylines that you should be paying attention to no matter who you cheer for, and if Evans does take over the starting spot, he will likely shoot up this list.
8. Vernon Adams Jr. – Montreal Alouettes
Many people will forget that Vernon Adams Jr. didn’t go into the 2019 season as the Montreal Alouettes starter, Antonio Pipkin did. Pipkin was injured after going seven for 17 passing with 57 yards in the first game of the season in Edmonton. Adams Jr. stepped in and threw the ball well picking up 134 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He would never look back and would take over the starting position for the Als, given them something they hadn’t had since Anthony Calvillo retired, confidence in their starting quarterback.
Adams Jr. is the full package you are looking for in a quarterback in the CFL. He has the arm to make just about and throw and the legs to make plays with his feet when needed. From the outside looking in, the team galvanized around him and Khari Jones, the team’s Head Coach. It seems very similar to some situations in the NFL including the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills where a new quarterback comes in and plays great, and all of a sudden, a franchise who previously struggled for long periods of time is now winning and has complete buy-in from the players.
Adams Jr. was lights out in the 2019 season 3,942 yards with 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His legs picked him up a good chunk of yards throughout the season as well, gaining 394 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns on the ground. The Alouettes have found their quarterback and I expect him to be competing for a top-five spot on this list during the season
7. Jeremiah Masoli – Hamilton Tiger-Cats
The man who unseeded Zach Collaros as the starter in Hamilton is none other than former Oregon Ducks pivot, Jeremiah Masoli. People forget how good he can be. Masoli was injured in the Tiger-Cats’ sixth game of the season but went 5-1 in games he started in 2019. He is a dangerous playmaker that can score, but also has a riskier side that results in bad things happening at times.
If anyone in the CFL stands to benefit from the 2020 season never seeing the field, it’s likely Masoli. He missed nearly the entire 2019 season after tearing his ACL, an injury that likely would have played at least some kind of role in winning back his starting job. The risk of not being healthy before the 2021 season is likely minuscule at the very worst considering he has now had well over a year to rehab his injury.
There is a chance that Masoli could be the odd man out when the season starts, but he will likely get a chance to start in the 2021 season at some point in Hamilton or otherwise. We haven’t seen the last of Masoli, the talent is there for him to continue starting in the league, but Evans has turned up the heat on his seat in Hamilton and he could be elsewhere before we know it.
6. Cody Fajardo – Saskatchewan Roughriders
Hey! Put those pitchforks away, Riders fans! There won’t be any need for those! As I said in one of the first paragraphs, players who have had multiple seasons of success have been given the nod over players who have one, or even half a good season under their belt. Cody Fajardo ranks on the top of those players that we have classified “new starters”, players that have not yet gone into training camp as the number one option.
Fajardo’s 2019 season was one to remember. He stepped into the fold for the Riders after Zach Collaros was concussed on a high hit by Simoni Lawrence in week one, and much like Adams Jr., he took the position and ran with it, never relinquishing it the entire season. Fajardo, who spent three previous seasons in the CFL serving mostly as a short-yardage specialist showed off his arm going 338 for 473 with 4,302 yards and throwing 18 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He was also very effective with his legs, scampering for 611 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Can he do it again? That question is the reason that he comes in at number seven on this list. Everyone ahead of him has proven that they can, and now it’s his turn to do so. At the age of 29, Fajardo should be about to play his best football and will head into training camp as the Riders’ number one. Doing it again is all he will be looking to do.
5. Matt Nichols – Ottawa Redblacks
Like Masoli, it is often forgotten just how good Matt Nichols actually is, but allow me to remind you, he’s really freakin’ good. His reputation has been a quarterback who is good, but can’t get you over the hump, and while that is fair in some ways, he was looking like he could change that in 2019 before he went down with a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery.
Under his leadership in 2019, the Blue Bombers were 7-2 having lost to the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts. Winnipeg would end the season 11-7 and had clearly lost something without Nichols. They would rebound from those issues after trading for Zach Collaros who would eventually lead them to a Grey Cup championship, but there is no question that a healthy Matt Nichols is a force in the CFL. But that’s the issue, since becoming the starter in Winnipeg, Nichols has only reached the 18 game mark twice with the last time being in 2017.
The talent is obviously there. In just nine games in 2019, he threw for 1,936 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions, three of which came in the same game, a loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In previous seasons, we have talked about Nichols as battling Trevor Harris for the right to call himself the third-best quarterback in the CFL. He is now reunited with Paul LaPolice on a team that has nowhere to go but up compared to their 2019 season, so you can bet that he will be looking to prove that he is more than his reputation.
4. Zach Collaros – Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Deciding between Nichols and Collaros was not easy, but one guy finished the season healthy and took the team to a Grey Cup win and one didn’t and I think I have to side with the one who did. It’s been quite the journey for Collaros to get back to glory in the CFL, and it is nice to see someone who has gone through so much reach the top of the football mountain to win the Grey Cup.
On October 9, 2019, the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers agreed to a trade that would send Collaros to Winnipeg with a fifth-round pick in exchange for a pick that would become a first-round pick after he re-signed with the club just one minute prior to the deadline. Had they waited just one minute longer, how would that have altered history?
The Bombers were Collaros’ third team on the season having already been traded from the Riders to the Argos and now from the Argos to Bombers. For a while, it looked like his career was over. After coming into the CFL and becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the league with Hamilton, injuries took over and never let go. Like Nichols, the talent is there for Collaros and it comes down to if he can stay healthy or not.
3. Trevor Harris – Edmonton Football Team
If you have ever listened to our show, you might know that neither of us would classify ourselves as fans of Trevor Harris thanks mostly to inconsistencies within his game, but on his day, Harris is one of the league’s best passers. He can throw the ball hard and accurately, picking up big yardage, but his inability to play at the upper echelon on his talent level each week holds him back from jumping into at least the second spot, if not the first.
One of the best examples of the extreme highs and lows in his play comes from the 2018 season when he was still with the Ottawa Redblacks. In the East Final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Harris had a record-setting performance throwing the football completing 29 of his 32 pass attempts for 367 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. He was absolutely dazzling and looked like he could do no wrong. but that fell to nothing in the Grey Cup game against the Calgary Stampeders just one week later.
In all fairness to Harris, the field conditions that day were borderline unplayable as many of the Redblacks’ players that day will attest to, but his performance was shocking for all the wrong reasons. Completing just 20 of his 38 passes for 288 yards for just one touchdown and three interceptions. This has become a bugaboo of sorts for Harris. You can usually tell what kind of game he is going to have when he steps onto the field and throws that first pass. When he’s on, he is an absolute rock star, but when he’s not, he is a shell of what he can and should be. The talent is there, but Edmonton needs to hope that he can use all of it week in and week out.
2. Mike Reilly – B.C. Lions
Mike Reilly had his worst season in a very long time in 2019 with the B.C. Lions, but that was more telling about how bad the team around him was rather than how good or bad he is as a quarterback. It is impossible to play at a high level when you are being hit as often as he was, and if the Lions have managed to find an answer to that over the past two off-season’s, they should be able to go a long way in the 2021 season.
At this point in his career, everyone knows what Reilly is and what he is capable of. He has always been in the conversation for the league’s best quarterback and is more than capable of reclaiming that title, although it looks pretty secure in the hands of the player we have given that honour to.
The key for Reilly this season with the Lions is going to be staying upright and limiting interceptions, but those two things will likely go hand in hand. In 2018 and 2019 combined, Reilly threw for 50 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. In 2019 alone, Reilly threw 20 touchdowns with 15 interceptions, a ratio that simply won’t do for a quarterback of Reilly’s prestige. You know that he is going to come back strong and be the ‘X’ factor that hopes to lead the Lions back to the Grey Cup.
1. Bo Levi Mitchell – Calgary Stampeders
The easiest spot on this list to decide was this one right here, putting Bo Levi Mitchell in the number one spot. It’s almost like he lives full-time in this spot. I recently said that Mitchell is one of the best, if not the best quarterback the CFL has ever seen, and people did not like that. I’m not going to back away from that statement. I firmly believe that when his career is over, he will be looked at in the same light as Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, Ricky Ray, and Anthony Calvillo.
Simply put, there is no one on the level of Mitchell in the CFL right now. There have been talks about the empty cupboards in Calgary and what Mitchell will be able to do with the weapons he has, but this isn’t the first time he will have to deal with this situation. It is almost a given that a player who is little-known on the Stamps will step up and become a star thanks in part to Mitchell.
He’s like the CFL’s version of Tom Brady. Where Bo goes, winning follows. No matter how you think the Stampeders will do this season, there is little doubt that Mitchell will have yet another amazing season. Even with a roster that is significantly downgraded on offence from 2019, you can bet that the Stamps will still be competing for their spot in the Grey Cup game.