The Edmonton Elks were easily the disappointment of the season in 2021 when they came in with expectations of being Grey Cup contenders only to fall flat on their faces, finishing dead last in the league. The only winning they did was earn the right to pick first overall in the CFL Draft later this winter, but even still, they have players on the roster who are scheduled to become free agents this February that they would love to have locked up for 2022.
5. Mike Jones, WR
This was a spot that took some time to decide. It belonged for a good while to fellow receiver Greg Ellingson, but after some thinking, it feels much more appropriate given this most recent season to put Mike Jones here. He’s not one of the flashy names like Ellingson or Derel Walker that the Elks went into last season with, but he was one of their most productive receivers and helped the offence just as much as those aforementioned big names.
There are a couple of reasons why Jones should be brought back by the Elks. First and foremost, he showed this past season that he is a talented player who can do a little bit of everything. He stepped up and played the role that he wasn’t expected to and gave Taylor Cornelius a reliable target. Another thing that makes him worth keeping around is his passport. The Toronto, Ontario native carries the National status and, of course, is helpful for the ratio.
Jones won’t turn 30 until the second of September this year. When you consider some of the things that he has done in the past, his nationality, and his age, Jones might be a sleeper player for the Elks to retain this offseason. In his increased role, he put up nearly 400 yards and two touchdowns in just 11 games. If he were to come back as the second or third option for the Elks next season, just imagine what the Canadian could achieve.
4. Sean Whyte, K
It’s not often that you hear kickers talked about as a team’s top player, but that is the case for the Elks. Whether that is because the Elks were as bad as they were last season or if Sean Whyte is just that good of a kicker, he’s here, and for good reason. Take a look over at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this season. They rotated kickers seemingly every other week until they found their guy, but they knew that they needed a reliable kicker before they made their way to the playoffs.
Reliable kickers aren’t easy to find, and when you have one, you don’t let them walk away for anything. What the Elks have right now is a consistent kicker who you know will make the key kicks far more often than he misses them. He might not be the league’s best kicker right now, but he’s still one of the best in the league.
Even though he is 36 years old and has seen his accuracy percentage drop ever so slightly in the past couple of seasons, Whyte has been more than good enough to be brought back. In 2021, Whyte made 28 of his 32 kicks, good for 87.5 percent. His long last season was 52 yards, and it’s certain that age hasn’t impacted his abilities yet. When the Elks need a long field goal to win the game in the dying second in 2022, there’s no one else they should want doing it rather than Whyte.
3. Mathieu Betts, DL
No one would argue that Mathieu Betts had a season to forget, but that shouldn’t make him expendable for the Elks this offseason. Most of what makes Betts a player the Elks should bring back comes from his short 2019 season. He only played six games in the season, but he was certainly productive. He picked up a couple of sacks and made the Elks’ defensive line more threatening.
Like Jones, both nationality and age help Betts continue to be an attractive piece going into free agency. A native of Montreal, Quebec, Betts spent his collegiate years with the University of Laval. In his final collegiate season, Betts was second in USports in sacks with nine and did enough to earn himself a three-year contract with the Elks as an undrafted free agent.
Yes, 2021 may not have been as fruitful as Betts or the Elks would have hoped, but he’s still young and there is still time for him to have a bounce-back season. It’s far too early to write off Betts in his career. He is a player that could be one of the best pass rushers in the CFL eventually. If they were to let him go, it could come back to be one of the most regrettable decisions the Elks have made since trading Ricky Ray. If he struggles against next season, it could be a different story, but for now, they need him back.
2. Matt O’Donnell, OL
Another Canadian on the list, Matt O’Donnell has spent his entire career with the Elks so far, but interestingly enough, it took him quite a while to settle down in the CFL. He was drafted by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2011, but after some looks from the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors of the NBA, O’Donnell set off for the NFL. He spent time with the Cincinnati Bengals before signing with the Elks in 2012. He got another look from the Bengals in 2015, but he ended up back in the CFL with the Elks.
O’Donnell has been a fixture on the Elks’ offensive line for a long time and the Queens alum has proven to be one of the best offensive linemen in the CFL for the past handful of years. If you’re wondering why a pair of NBA teams had any interest in an offensive lineman, it’s because he’s an absolute monster. He stands at 6-foot-11 and 350 pounds. Try knocking all of that over. It takes a special kind of human to beat someone like that.
His talent has been recognized by being named a CFL All-Star in 2017 and a CFL West All-Star in that season and in 2019. He has been an anchor on the right side of the offensive line for a long time and at the age of 32, there’s a good chance that he could be there for quite some time longer.
1. James Wilder Jr., RB
When James Wilder Jr. is on his game, there are few running backs in the league who could keep up with him. He looked like a star in the making in his rookie season with the Toronto Argonauts in 2017 after spending time with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills. In that rookie season, Wilder rushed for 872 yards and five touchdowns, winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award. His 2018 season was decent, but it wasn’t quite up to the same standard.
Wilder fell off a little bit in 2019 and was let go by the Argonauts. In that offseason, he signed with the Montreal Alouettes. Looking back on that, Wilder paired with William Stanback would have been an unstoppable duo that no one would have had an answer for. The 2020 season was eventually cancelled and Wilder announced his retirement from the CFL. When the league started preparing for 2021, he decided he wanted back in, and Edmonton was the place that gave him that chance.
In 2021, Wilder found his stride again and brought his name back into the conversation of the league’s best running back. In 12 games, he rushed for 770 yards and two touchdowns and made his mark felt on defenders by frequently picking up additional yardage after contact. There is one glaring issue for Wilder, however, and it’s his vaccination status. As of October, it was reported that he is unvaccinated against COVID-19. With restrictions around the country tightening once again, he could be left without a team, especially if unvaccinated people are not allowed back on airplanes or trains before the start of next season.
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