The CFL is back and ready for action. The league will kick off on August 5th and pick up exactly where it left off with a rematch of the 2019 Grey Cup between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Before that, we will get a feel for what each team will look like heading into the season as training camps are underway.
We are entering unprecedented times for the league this season, and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Players who haven’t participated in other leagues will be looking at almost a two-year layoff since the last time they saw the field for game action by the time Week 1 rolls around. There will be a lot of rust to shake off for some guys, and injuries are already abound in training camps as the Roughriders lost four players to Achilles injuries alone.
In addition to these challenges, teams will not have preseason games this season, making the jump from practice to game action even more significant. These challenges keep pointing me to believe that one factor in building all teams this season will be more critical than ever. Experience. And not just football experience, but experience specifically in the CFL. This has already proven true through the preliminary cuts in camp. Of the 25 offensive skill position players cut so far, only three of them (Kenny Stafford, Shakeir Ryan, and Rodney Smith) had a single game of experience in the CFL. All three were also cut from Edmonton, which is stacked at wide receiver. Stafford is the only one that had considerable experience.
We constantly hear from players with all levels of experience that making the transition from American-style football to the CFL is more challenging than anticipated. Former NFL first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch intimated that earlier in camp this season and veteran CFL QB Trevor Harris had also mentioned that it took him a solid year in the CFL before he began to feel comfortable.
Considering this key factor, I wanted to analyze the amount of experience each team has on its rosters in training camp before final cuts are made and which teams may have this advantage on offense.
Quarterback Combined CFL Experience
The Ottawa Redblacks lead the way in the form of total games played at QB this season, thanks to the addition of former Winnipeg QB Matt Nichols. Nichols’ 114 games played ranks fourth-most amongst active CFL QBs. Nichols rejoins Ottawa head coach and OC Paul LaPolice, whom he spent four seasons with in Winnipeg between 2016-2019. Nichols had a career year in 2017 under LaPolice, throwing for 4,472 yards with 28 TDs and eight INTs. The biggest issue for Nichols has been the ability to stay healthy, which is concerning coming off such a long layoff. He’s managed just two full seasons of 18 games as a starter in his eight-year career. He played just nine games in 2019 but was on pace to set a career-high in TDs.
Calgary leads the league in career passing TDs thanks to longtime franchise QB Bo Levi Mitchell. His 169 career passing TDs are the most of any active CFL QB, and his 136 games played are second-most behind just B.C. veteran Michael Reilly. Reilly pads the stats for BC when it comes to experience. He leads the league with 155 games played, 2,496 completions, 3,734 attempts, and 31,522 passing yards. A two-time Grey Cup champion and former Most Outstanding Player, Reilly’s rushing ability is what separates him from the pack. Reilly leads the league amongst active players with 52 career-rushing TDs. His 3,366 rushing yards are more than any three active CFL QBs combined.
Looking at the bottom of this list, we find the Saskatchewan Roughriders. While they may not have the longstanding veteran presence of Calgary and B.C., they have proven recent performances with Cody Fajardo under center. Fajardo led the league with 4,302 passing yards in 2019 while being named West division All-Star, CFL All-Star, and the West Division’s Most Outstanding Player.
Wide Receiver Combined CFL Experience
There is an obvious tier at wide receiver with Edmonton at the top. The Elks have an embarrassment of riches at wideout, with Derel Walker, Greg Ellingson, and Armanti Edwards coming off 1,000-yard campaigns in 2019. Ellingson leads all active WRs with 107 career games played, 502 receptions, and 7,265 receiving yards. Ellingson and Walker rank first and second in career yards after the catch amongst active WRs, while Edwards is just one yard shy of ranking inside the top five. Walker leads all active CFL WRs with 82 yards per game. You can regularly find the Elks as a consensus top bet to make the 2021 Grey Cup as sportsbooks continue to list them with some of the most favorable odds in the league in the +1000 to +1400 neighborhood.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats feature the current career league leader in TDs as Brandon Banks’ 42 TDs is one better than Ellingson. The Ticats also feature Bralon Addison, who makes up for his lack of experience with a booming 2019 stat line. Addison put up a 95/1,236/7 line over 16 games in 2019, which assisted in him earning a brief stint with the Minnesota Vikings in 2020.
At the bottom of this list, we find the Roughriders and Stampeders. Neither of these teams features a wideout who ranks inside the top 25 when it comes to games played. Shaq Evans of Saskatchewan has the most experience amongst wideouts on these teams, with 35 games played. Kamar Jorden leads Calgary in experience with 32 games played and 15 TDs but sat out the entire 2019 regular season rehabbing from a knee injury.
One of the numbers that stick out the most here is Ottawa’s lowly 13 career TDs. Anthony Coombs is the team leader in career TDs with just six TDs over 69 games played. Dominique Rhymes was the team leader in receiving in 2019 but was lost to B.C. in free agency. Simply put, the Redblacks lack height in their WR corps. Of their nine WRs with CFL experience, only Jerminic Smith and Wesley Lewis are over six feet, and neither of them has a TD in the CFL. The duo combines for just nine games of CFL experience. Ottawa will have to look to some of its newcomers to step up immediately. One player I like the prospects of here is Jordan Smallwood. He brings recent playing experience as a member of the Wildcats in the XFL in 2020 and came into form just before the league shut down. Smallwood brings minor NFL experience, having played in the preseason for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018.
Running Back Combined CFL Experience
Much like the tier at WR being dominated by the Elks, the top tier at running back is dominated by one man, Andrew Harris. Harris has more career rushing yards (9,038), and rush TDs (48) than any two active CFL RBs combined. He leads the league with 565 career receptions (63 more than Greg Ellingson), and his 5,107 receiving yards are top five amongst all active players (WRs included). His numbers are just absurd.
Williams Powell (SAS) and John White (TOR) are the only other RBs in the league with double-digit career-rushing TDs. After these three, there is a steep dropoff in experience. In fact, the combination of Harris, Powell, and White combine for twice as many career-rushing TDs than the rest of the league’s RBs combined.
We find the Stamps at the bottom of this list as well. They were at the bottom of the league in 2019 with just 1,283 rushing yards and did nothing to remedy that for this year. They recently brought former Minnesota Viking Roc Thomas into training camp, but this offense will struggle without a consistent running game.
Ottawa is another candidate to rank last in rushing yards. Their four career rushing TDs are all owned by Timothy Flanders, who has just 19 games played and 99 rushing attempts to his name. However, Flanders hasn’t seen action since 2018 as he spent 2019 on Calgary’s practice squad. He has a connection with Paul LaPolice as a backup in Winnipeg. Ottawa’s backfield could form into some sort of committee or hot-hand approach, but the prospects there do not look great on paper.
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