With the CFL’s new CBA settled, teams have started to hit the field, and there’s no better time to thrust yourself into all the action! From quarterback battles to running back troubles, teams around the league all have interesting storylines to watch in their respective camps. As camp rolls along and preseason games start to be played, here’s one thing you should be watching from each CFL team.
BC Lions – Protecting Nathan Rourke
On paper, the BC Lions have had good football teams ever since signing Michael Reilly before the start of the 2019 season, but in that time, they could never keep their start pivot off the turf. In turn, this cost the Lions a chance at the playoffs in both seasons, and they never reached their potential. Now with Reilly retired, Nathan Rourke is stepping up to the plate for his first season as the starting quarterback for a CFL team.
During Free Agency, the Lions did little in the way of adding to their offensive line, meaning they will come to training camp with much of the same unit that gave up 35 sacks in 2021. While that number alone left them tied for fourth-fewest sacks allowed in the league, it is a touch deceptive, as they allowed pressure far more frequently than Reilly would have hoped.
The big news for the Lions’ offensive line is the departures of Hunter Steward to the Ottawa Redblacks, and Ryker Matthews to retirement. Not having replacements solidified for those two players is quite scary, but the Lions do have a couple of guys they can lean on. They open camp with Sukh Chungh, Joel Figueroa, and David Knevel as their top options, but it could take some patchwork to fill in the remaining holes.
After two seasons where keeping the quarterback upright was the Lions’ biggest problem, Rick Campbell knows that he needs to correct that problem for his team to be competitive in a West Division poised to be a dog fight. With a rookie quarterback like Rourke, providing him with that extra split second to make his reads could be the difference between a playoff appearance and missing for the third-consecutive season.
Calgary Stampeders – Bo Levi Mitchell Vs. Jake Maier
While it’s not entirely similar, the Calgary Stampeders head into training camp in a situation like what the Hamilton Tiger-Cats went through last season. In Hamilton ahead of the 2021 season, they had to choose between two qualified quarterbacks. The veteran who has shown plenty capable of leading the offence, and the young gun poised to earn the job soon. The battle between Jeremiah Masoli and Dane Evans isn’t the same that the Stamps will see between Bo Levi Mitchell and Jake Maier, but how this competition settles will be incredibly interesting.
The biggest thing that separates Calgary’s quarterback conundrum from Hamilton’s is the fact that their week one starter isn’t really in doubt. No matter how good Maier is in camp, it’s incredibly unlikely that Dave Dickenson would ever dream of opening the season with anyone other than Mitchell under centre. This battle of the wily veteran and the green-thumbed youngster is less about the immediate future, and more about next season, five years from now, and potentially as far as 10 years from now.
Coming off a season where he was never really right, Mitchell has an air of uncertainty around him in 2022. Dickenson believes that the shoulder that held Mitchell back in 2021 is mended, but he hasn’t yet seen how it can hold up over the duration of training camp, let alone the load of a full season. Mitchell even went as far as to say that retirement “very well could be the next step,” leaving his football future in a state of limbo.
That’s where Maier factors in. After a 2021 season that saw him throw for 1,211 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions, Maier was re-signed by the Stampeders, making their intentions clear. The Stamps likely believe that Maier can be the future of the franchise, and after allowing Nick Arbuckle to leave, they ensured their future was secure.
In theory, the plan would be to ride out the end of Mitchell’s career, but what if that doesn’t happen? What do the Stamps do if their present and their future collide? What happens if Mitchell struggles? Could they pull the plug early? There are plenty of questions, but Maier first needs to prove that he’s more than a flash in the pan.
Bonus – The quarterbacks might provide the most entertaining story for the Stampeders, but the most important one is their offensive line. If they can’t adequately figure that out after two of their draft picks retired before the season, they could be in deep trouble.
Edmonton Elks – Who’s Your Quarterback?
The Edmonton Elks are in a very interesting spot heading into the season. When you have a battle for the starting quarterback position, it’s typically between two guys, but not this year. The Elks have three players who they believe could be their starter this season, and none of them come with much of anything in the way of career starts. Between Nick Arbuckle, Taylor Cornelius, and J. T. Barrett, they will need to find someone capable of going up against the likes of Cody Fajardo, Bo Levi Mitchell, and Zach Collaros.
The Elks hold a pair of distinct advantages compared to the rest of the league when it comes to making their decision. Unlike the rest of the league, their veteran quarterbacks were allowed to participate in rookie camp due to a “pattern of retribution towards players by team management.” Additionally, while every team outside of Alberta was on strike for the first four days of training camp, the Elks were on the field getting an early look at who their starting quarterback will be on week one.
With a handful of key additions including Mark Korte, Tony Washington, and potentially most notably Kenny Lawler, the Elks have a team that should at the very least be competitive. Fans have made their voices heard that a repeat of their dismal 2021 season isn’t acceptable, and choosing the right pivot is critical for their success.
Arbuckle should likely be the favourite for the starting job, but Chris Jones has never done things by the book. Cornelius and Barrett will also be in the conversation, but Tre Ford is waiting in the wings for the call. The Elks’ first-round pick in the 2022 CFL Draft probably isn’t ready to start yet, but fans are waiting to see what the Waterloo Warriors alum can do at the next level. Unfortunately for the Elks, the cards are stacked against them, even if they do make the right choice.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats – Stepping Up at Receiver
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have represented the East Division in the past two Grey Cup games, but they went through a bit of a transition period over the offseason. With numerous veteran players who had previously been key parts of their team becoming free agents, they had to choose between running it back or moving forward with their young players who had previously been used in different roles. At multiple positions, the Tabbies elected to go with their youth, one of which was wide receiver.
From their 2021 roster, the Tiger-Cats have lost both Jaelon Acklin and fan favourite, Brandon Banks. Although some have diminished the impact of what losing those two players will be for Hamilton, there’s no hiding the importance of both was in 2021. Acklin and Banks both ranked inside the Tiger-Cats’ top four receivers in terms of yardage last season, and the same can be said about touchdowns. Acklin and Banks were first and third respectively on the Tiger-Cats in targets, showing how appreciated their hands were by Jeremiah Masoli, Dane Evans, and David Watford.
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom for the black and gold when it comes to their pass catchers. Their leading receiver from 2021 Tim White is back in the fold, and at just 27-years-old, there’s plenty of football still in the tank. Steven Dunbar Jr. also had a breakout season in 2021, finishing the season third in receiving yards for the Cats. Finally, a healthy Bralon Addison coming back into the fold will give the Cats their number one option, assuming he can return to the form he found in 2019.
It’s not a question of if the Tiger-Cats have the top options to do damage, but rather if they have the players to step into the roles their now top options vacated. They will need a collective effort from David Ungerer, Lemar Durant, Tyler Ternowski, and Papi White to fill in the gaps. If that happens, they will be just fine.
Montreal Alouettes – Can Adams Jr. Rebound?
In 2019, Vernon Adams Jr. showed the world what he is capable of, gloriously arriving with the Montreal Alouettes, and providing hope that their search for a quarterback that has been ongoing since Anthony Calvillo retired was over. In that season, Adams threw for nearly 4,000 yards, with 24 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. On the ground, he was also very effective, rushing for nearly 400 yards and another 12 touchdowns. In 2021, things didn’t go quite as well, but still, Adams turned in a respectable season.
Adams only played nine games in 2021, after he was unfortunately injured in week 10 and missed the remainder of the season. Although his numbers were down, Adams still had a decent season, throwing for 1,949 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His production on the ground dropped significantly, however, particularly in the touchdowns department. Despite rushing for 298 yards, Adams didn’t score a touchdown.
In the past two seasons, Adams has shown the ability to lead his team, and this season, there is likely another level of motivation for him. The Alouettes elected to keep veteran Trevor Harris around, something that came as a surprise for Adams. As such, Adams took to social media to express his displeasure, saying it’s “2019 vibes, back to work.” With some pressure on his shoulders, can he rebound and regain the form that made the Alouettes believers in 2019?
With a freshly-changed number three on his back, Adams needs to get that swagger back, both for himself to ensure his job security, and to help the Alouettes contend in what looks like a very competitive East Division. He has the talent, and now it’s up to the man they call “Big Play” to do just that, and lead Montreal back to their former glory.
Ottawa Redblacks – Gelling Quickly?
There is no one with more new faces in the locker room than the Ottawa Redblacks. A new quarterback, a slew of new receivers, a new, but familiar face at running back, and an entirely rebuilt offensive line make up the offence. There have been plenty of changes on the defensive side of the football as well, but questions have been asked about how quickly the team will come together at the start of the season.
After a season far below the team’s expectations, the Redblacks now enter the 2022 season with a new-look roster, and a hope that they can get back to the level they were at during their Grey Cup runs shortly after being awarded an expansion team. For that to happen, they need to come together as a team quickly, and create chemistry much like the 2015 team did.
While there is a fair amount of former Hamilton Tiger-Cats following Shawn Burke to the nation’s capital, they will be playing a different system with different surroundings. It will be imperative that Masoli find chemistry with his new receivers as soon as possible. There is plenty of talent on the roster, including Darvin Adams, B.J. Cunningham, Jaelon Acklin, Ryan Davis, R.J. Harris, and more, so there is no shortage of options for Masoli to get the ball to.
Unquestionably, the Redblacks are now right up there in terms of raw talent and on-paper roster. With numerous high-profile free agents making their way to Ottawa, they have put themselves in the conversation of contenders to win the East Division, and if they can keep out of their own way, a return to the playoffs seems entirely possible, if not likely.
Saskatchewan Roughriders – Running Back Search
In the offseason, the Saskatchewan Roughriders opted to allow William Powell to hit the open market. When he signed with the Ottawa Redblacks, it left the Riders in search of a new running back. Their search didn’t get resolved quickly, and frankly, it never was resolved. Heading into camp, the Roughriders bring five running backs in, including Shaq Cooper, Kienan LaFrance, Jamal Morrow, Frankie Hickson, and Troymaine Pope.
If you’re going by names, Cooper is the one that is going to catch your eye. The Roughriders inked Cooper in early April, but he’s far from a guarantee to be a productive every-down back this season. Throughout his four CFL seasons, Cooper has rushed for just 638 yards and three touchdowns on 123 carries. In 2021, Cooper split time between the BC Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, playing in just seven games.
Their most experienced back is actually LaFrance, who has spent six seasons in the CFL. Despite the time he’s spent in the league, LaFrance has never been the starting back for any of the teams he has played for outside of the occasional start due to injury. Now at 31 years old, he could have a decent role with the Riders, possibly as a power back.
Their final option (barring a surprise from a rookie) is Jamal Morrow, the now second-year back for the Riders. Morrow only got nine carries in 2021, rushing for just 41 yards, but this season, he could be given the chance to breakout and tout the rock far more frequently. Whoever the Riders pick, it can be done knowing that the passing game will carry the load, and Cody Fajardo’s legs can take the pressure off of their back by keeping defences on their toes.
Toronto Argonauts – Is Bethel-Thompson the Guy?
It’s crunch time for the Toronto Argonauts and their veteran quarterback, McLeod Bethel-Thompson. Bethel-Thompson first emerged as a starting quarterback in 2018, when he showed enough for the Argonauts to keep him around for the 2019 season. They were quickly proven right, as Bethel-Thompson threw for over 4,000 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He looked like he could be the answer to the Argos’ quarterback woes, and was brought back for the 2021 season.
The league wasn’t so kind to Bethel-Thompson in 2021, and he regressed. His numbers came crashing back down to earth, throwing for 2,303 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 14 games. He started the season better than he finished, and the Argos flamed out in the East Final against the Tiger-Cats.
The Argos once again have an offence that, on paper, has the chance to be one of the league’s better units. With names like Brandon Banks, Markeith Ambles, Juwan Brescacin, DeVaris Daniels, Eric Rogers, and Andrew Harris, failure could be the thing that ends Bethel-Thompson’s run as a starter in Toronto, if not the CFL.
It’s make or break for Bethel-Thompson, but if he can’t regain his 2019 form, the Argos are in trouble. Behind him are Antonio Pipkin and Chad Kelly, neither of whom have much experience. The Argos need Bethel-Thompson to have a good season if they hope to compete, but a repeat of 2021 might leave them languishing towards the bottom of the East Division.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers – Augustine or Oliveira
It’s odd that two teams who are bitter rivals would have the same kind of issue to sort out, but much like the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers head into the 2022 season with some uncertainty at the running back position. Andrew Harris wanted to stay with the blue and gold, but eventually, he found his way to Toronto, paving the way for two youngsters to make their mark on the Bombers’ offence this season.
Between Johnny Augustine and Brady Oliviera, the Blue Bombers will need to decide who replaces Harris in a critical position for the Bombers. During Harris’ absence in 2021, it was Oliviera who stepped up and plugged the hole for the Blue Bombers. On 94 carries, Oliviera rushed for 429 yards and two touchdowns, finishing second on the Blue Bombers roster in rushing yards.
Augustine also put up solid numbers in his time rushing the ball, although it came in a smaller sample size. On just 40 carries, Augustine averaged 7.1 yards per rush, finishing the campaign with 285 yards, although 55 of those yards came on just one rush. Augustine’s career features just 85 carries to date, lagging not far behind Oliviera’s 94.
Neither back comes with much experience, and with Oliviera being just 24-years-old, and Augustine being 28-years-old, the edge could be given to the younger Oliviera. It’s possible that the Bombers opt to go with a tandem until one or the other stakes their claim to the number one spot, but it will be a good battle to see who gets the bulk of the reps at the start of the season.
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