Evaluating CFL West Division Quarterbacks

The 2022 CFL season is just around the corner, and it’s time to start thinking about the season, and more importantly, who will be taking the field for each team when kickoff does happen. In the CFL, you don’t get very far without a quarterback, and while there are some names that could be added to rosters, including Tre Ford who will likely be a relatively high pick in the upcoming draft, we have a pretty good idea of who will be on the roster come opening day.

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Starting in the West Division, we are going to go through team by team and dissect their quarterback room to get a better understanding of what they are bringing to the table. There are some changes to what we have seen in the past, most notably with Michael Reilly hanging up the cleats after a great career, but there are also some exciting young names, including a Canadian, that should get the chance to start this season.

BC Lions

Nathan Rourke, Michael O’Connor, Isaac Harker, Kevin Thomson

The BC Lions are likely to enter the season with the least experienced at the quarterback position. With Reilly calling it a career, they found themselves in a bit of a hole that they had a couple of options to solve. They could have gone after a veteran quarterback with players like Jeremiah Masoli or Trevor Harris, or they could do what they ended up doing and stick with Canadian Nathan Rourke and surround him with talent, in hopes that he can reach his sky-high potential.

Related: Evaluating Where Canadian Quarterback Tre Ford Could Be Drafted

No one is going to question if Rourke has what it takes to be a starting quarterback in the CFL. He has proven through his career at the University of Ohio that he has the arm and the legs to make things happen, but what people will question is if he is ready to be a starter now. It’s nearly impossible to know, especially considering we only saw Rourke in tiny slivers of action in 2021. There were moments where he showed what he was capable of, but there were just as many moments where he showed that he was a rookie.

BC Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke (12) throws the ball downfield during the first half of CFL football action. (Kayle Neis/CP)

Rourke has thrown just 82 passes in the CFL for 754 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions. The Lions have said they are committed to him as their starter this season, but there will be growing pains. He is going to make mistakes that a veteran quarterback might not make, and the Lions and head coach Rick Campbell need to be okay with that. They are taking a risk by naming Rourke the starter well before the season, but their concerns should go beyond just who is their number one.

It’s never a bad thing to pair up a young quarterback with a veteran player who has been around the block a couple of times and can share their experience and knowledge, but the Lions have gone nearly the complete opposite direction. Currently, it seems as if Michael O’Connor and Isaac Harker will compete for the backup job, and although both players have spent a couple of seasons in the CFL, neither have much experience with actually getting onto the field.

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In the event that Rourke struggles, who do the Lions turn to? O’Connor has the potential to be a solid quarterback in the CFL, not quite like Rourke, however, they would be turning to another player who has just 25 pass attempts in his career. They are no better off if Harker wins the job either, as he has only 97 pass attempts to his name.

After those three, the Lions have Kevin Thomson who they signed in the offseason. He played with Sacramento State University collegiately, and in 27 games, he threw for 6,424 yards, 52 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. It goes without saying that if he gets into a game this season, it likely means something has gone terribly wrong for the Lions, but with the level of inexperience in their locker room, it’s not impossible that Thomson could outplay O’Connor and Harker in training camp.

Should the alarm bells be ringing inside the heads of Lions fans yet? No, absolutely not, but, understanding that there isn’t a single veteran player inside the Lions’ quarterback room is important. Other players might need to step up and help out, but with plenty of experience and talent at receiver including Lucky Whitehead and Bryan Burnham, they have guys who can help guide their young quarterbacks through the water when it starts storming.

Calgary Stampeders

Bo Levi Mitchell, Jake Maier, Tommy Stevens, Chase Fourcade

Consistency and stability breed success, and there is no team in the CFL that has been more consistent at the quarterback position than the Calgary Stampeders. There were some questions surrounding who would be the starting pivot this season, but the Stamps have managed to retain their two best options, and for at least one more season, Bo Levi Mitchell will be back at the helm.

The 2021 season was nothing like Mitchell would have envisioned during the pandemic, but that shouldn’t fool people into thinking he’s washed up or incapable of coming back. There’s no question that he struggled last season, however, Mitchell has shown in the past that he wins games, and can be the best player in the league. Maybe he’s not the same player he was before, but still, the Stamps have to have confidence going into 2022 that they have the best option possible throwing the ball. If they can protect him and he has any kind of help from his receivers, expect a massive bounce-back season from the two-time Grey Cup champion.

Bo Levi Mitchell, Calgary Stampeders

Conventional wisdom would have told you that having Mitchell back would mean that Jake Maier, the team’s backup quarterback who many are calling the next man up, would be gone. Maybe no one was offering a starting job, or maybe Maier himself thought that another season with the Stampeders, even as a backup, would be the most beneficial, but he has returned for another season.

When you consider the amount of injuries quarterbacks in the CFL sustain during the course of a season, it’s important to have someone who can come in and give your team a chance to win for at least a couple of games each season. Maier has been described as more than that, even with his lack of experience, but there aren’t many teams around the league that can compare to what the Stampeders have.

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Maier provides more than just a security blanket for the Stampeders, however. With both Mitchell and Maier up for contract at the end of the season, they will be competing for the starting role in 2023. Mitchell needs a bounce-back season, but Maier will be there to push him every step of the way. Internal competition can bring out the best in a player, and Mitchell has made it clear that he wants to be in Calgary in past off-seasons, but if he can’t have a redemption season, he might not even have that chance.

One of the other quarterbacks on the roster right now for the Stampeders is Tommy Stevens, the former Mississippi State starter. Including three seasons at Penn State before he transferred, Stevens completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,459 yards, 15 touchdowns, and six interceptions. His odds are likely bleak to crack the roster, but he could be useful for the Stamps when they potentially lose one of Mitchell or Maier for 2023, so there is reason to put serious effort into developing him.

Edmonton Elks

Nick Arbuckle, Taylor Cornelius, J.T. Barrett, Mike Beaudry, Keon Howard, Kai Locksley, Khalil Tate

In the West Division, we know who will be the starting quarterback (with some degree of certainty) for everyone except the Edmonton Elks. Currently, it seems like it is likely down to two options, but there could be a surprise third option that could steal the spotlight, even if not in the season opener. The Elks were reportedly heavily involved in the Masoli sweepstakes, but fell short of acquiring his services as he headed to the nation’s capital, and now, there is some uncertainty of who will be their starting quarterback this season.

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At the top of everyone’s mind right now is former Toronto Argonauts quarterback, Nick Arbuckle. The Elks acquired him via trade towards the end of the 2021 season, but he never suited up in a game for the team. He was signed to a one-year contract extension, but that was before Chris Jones joined the team as both the head coach and general manager. Arbuckle struggled at times in 2021 and lost the starting job to McLeod Bethel-Thompson before being traded. Through 43 total CFL games, Arbuckle has thrown for 3,405 yards with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and he comes into training camp as the Elks’ most experienced quarterback by some margin. Jones’ efforts to sign another quarterback suggest that he isn’t settled on having Arbuckle be his starter, however.

The other obvious option to start is Taylor Cornelius. His rookie season was somewhat underwhelming after he was forced into action much too quickly thanks to an injury to Trevor Harris, but as the season went on, he showed that he can play at the professional level. He had a stretch of four games that came after he was settled in, and before the three games in seven days stretch that hurt everyone on the Elks where he completed 77 of his 127 passes for 984 yards. He also threw six touchdown passes and just one interception in that time. Overall, the 2021 season saw Cornelius throw for 1,785 yards with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Oklahoma State alum.

Taylor Cornelius, Edmonton Elks – The Canadian Press

In a since-deleted article from 3 Down Nation, Elks assistant general manager Geroy Simon said that J.T. Barrett could compete for the starting job in Edmonton. There will be plenty of adjusting to do before he could possibly steal the job, but it doesn’t have to happen overnight. In his college career at Ohio State. Barrett completed 63.5 percent of his 1,211 passes for 9,434 yards. He also threw for a whopping 104 touchdowns against just 30 interceptions across his four seasons of action. On the ground, Barrett scrambled for 3,263 yards on 656 attempts with 43 touchdowns.

It’s open season on who will start for the Elks this season, even more so because Jones has a way of marching to his own drum and making decisions that no one else feels comfortable making. Things are still evolving, however, and there are even more options for the Elks who would more than likely serve as depth on the team’s practice squad if they hang around.

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Keon Howard spent five seasons at the University of Tennessee Martin, but threw fewer than 60 passes in all but two seasons. Kai Locksley is another option for the Elks, but playing college football at UTEP, he showed to be more of a developmental piece at the next level. Finally, Khalil Tate comes into the picture. Of these three players, Tate seems like the most likely to be something at the next level. In four seasons playing college football with Arizona, Tate threw for 6,318 yards with 57 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. He was impressive with his legs, running for 2,285 yards with another 18 touchdowns.

Right now, the Elks quarterback room seems to be split into two different categories; those who are competing for the starting job, and those who are competing to be on the practice squad. They probably won’t be able to keep all seven, and Edmonton could be a potential landing spot for Ford in the draft, so they could have way too many mouths to feed in camp. Reps will come at a premium, but it will be a good competition to see who comes out as the starter.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Cody Fajardo, Mason Fine, Jake Dolegala

Despite a 2021 season that fell somewhat below the lofty expectations set on his shoulders after an impressive 2019 season, Cody Fajardo is back as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ starter. There were some struggles last season, but Fajardo still helped bring the Roughriders to the West Final and within four points of an appearance in the Grey Cup. Fajardo can be best described as a winner. He does everything it takes and is willing to put his body on the line for the extra yard when he needs to get to the sticks, and while he hasn’t gotten the Roughriders over the hump yet in his two seasons as a starter, he is the emotional leader in the locker room that players would run through the wall for.

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo Throws a pass against the BC Lions in CFL action at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, SK, on July 20, 2019. Photo Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

At times, there were people among the Roughriders fan base who questioned if Fajardo should remain the team’s starting quarterback, however, the Riders made the right choice in the offseason by keeping him. He has the talent to win a Grey Cup, and even though he may not be the best quarterback in the league, if he is surrounded with enough talent, he can get the job done. There are concerns with the Roughriders and their offensive line and running backs, but there couldn’t be much more help for Fajardo with receivers like Duke Williams, Shaq Evans, and Kyran Moore.

Fajardo’s name is written in permanent ink in the starter’s job, but there should be a battle for the backup role between two players with little to no experience in the CFL. They allowed Harker to walk in Free Agency, likely in hopes that Mason Fine would be ready to take the backup job this season. Fine has little experience in the league, however, especially when it comes to actually seeing game time. He completed just five passes in 2021 for 64 yards. Fine’s experience comes from college with North Texas where he was the starting quarterback for four seasons, throwing for 1,655 yards, 93 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions. It’s clear that the Riders like Fine and they think he could be something in the CFL, but to outsiders, they have seen nothing to prove them either correct or incorrect.

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His competition for the backup job is former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, Jake Dolegala. Dolegala never attempted a pass in a regular-season NFL game, and the last time he started was with Central Connecticut State in 2018. In college, Dolegala started 35 games, throwing for 8,129 yards with 48 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. If there’s one thing about him that stands out, it’s his size. There is clearly something about the Roughriders and big quarterbacks after they brought in a giant in Paxton Lynch last season, but with him now gone, they have opted for another massive player with Dolegala who stands at 6-foot-7.

As of now, betting odds should favour Fine being the backup quarterback, but it might be slightly concerning for the Riders knowing that in the event that Fajardo gets injured at some point, they don’t have much of a security blanket. It’s not like there are many veteran options left either, and unless they want to bring in Matt Nichols later in the season, they will have to hope that one of Fine or Dolegala can swim if they are tossed off the deep end. No reason to panic, but Fajardo’s health is key this season.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Zach Collaros, Dakota Prukop, Dru Brown, Chase Litton

In 2019 when the Blue Bombers traded for Zach Collaros after Matt Nichols was injured earlier in the season, there’s no way they thought he would become the answer to all of their problems. Years of being good, but never being able to get over the hump were washed away, and now, the Bombers are back-to-back Grey Cup champions, and favourites to win their third consecutive championship in 2022.

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With an elite offensive line, Collaros has re-emerged as one of the league’s best quarterbacks, and has given the Bombers confidence in him. In the 2021 season, Collaros threw for 3,185 yards with 20 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Those 20 touchdown passes were good for the league lead, and were a large part in ensuring the Bombers finished the season at the top of the CFL’s overall standings.

Zach Collaros of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

It goes without saying that the Blue Bombers are set with Collaros, but in the event that he goes down during the season, what’s there to help out? The backup spot has been upgraded compared to last season, but there are still question marks surrounding the new backup, Dakota Prukop. Prukop spent the 2021 season with the Edmonton Elks, where he threw just 26 passes for 183 yards. In his career, he has just 56 pass attempts, for 467 yards, four touchdowns, and four interceptions.

For four seasons, Prukop has sat on the bench as either the backup, or the third-string quarterback. This season, he will be the clear favourite for the backup spot, but it’s still up for debate if he is ready to take on starting duties, if the need presents itself. Currently, the team’s only other option is Dru Brown, but that isn’t particularly enticing.

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Brown has attempted just 14 passes in his CFL career, completing seven of them for 49 yards. There isn’t much experience in the quarterback room, outside of Collaros, for the Blue Bombers. If they happen to need one of their backups to step up and start, things could get ugly. They made the right choice to bring Prukop into the fold, however, as he was one of the best available backups on the market this past offseason.


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2 thoughts on “Evaluating CFL West Division Quarterbacks”

  1. I would say Bombers QB situation is the most precarious of the Western teams. Collaros is playing on borrowed time if they have to go back up they are done.

  2. Keon Howard actually played his 5 college seasons at 3 different schools, with UTM being his team only for 2021. It’s still true that he only hit 60 passes in 2 of those 5 seasons, but transferring twice definitely played a role in that and ought to be noted.

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