What the Eskimos need to figure out at training camp

Injuries were the story of the Eskimos 2017 season, but the green and gold still managed to post the second highest win total in the league (12). All the setbacks Edmonton suffered last year seemed to be an anomaly with over $1 million dollars doled out to injured players, setting a new CFL record.

The injuries were never used as an excuse, but it was astonishing how well the Eskimos did despite the onslaught of players to the trainer’s table or doctor’s office. Nevertheless, Brock Sunderland and Edmonton’s personnel staff spent the off-season getting younger while seeking to improve the roster.

All-Star calibre athletes such as C.J. Gable, Derel Walker and Aaron Grymes – the latter two tried the NFL in 2017 – are going to be with the Eskimos for the entire campaign after extending their respective contracts. 2012 CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player J.C. Sherritt is fully recovered from a torn Achilles suffered in the 2017 season-opener. Ratio-breaking Canadian linebacker Adam Konar was re-signed and is healthy and 27-year-old pass rusher Alex Bazzie was added – much younger than the 35-year-old John Chick who retired.

There are, however, some key spots to fill left by the departure of elite players on either side of the ball. Brandon Zylstra led the CFL with 1,687 receiving yards in 2017 which earned him an NFL deal (Minnesota Vikings). Meanwhile, fellow 2017 CFL All-Star Kenny Ladler signed an NFL pact (Washington Redskins) and he was arguably the best strong-side linebacker in the three-down game last year. Standout left tackle Joel Figueroa left for the B.C. Lions in free agency, long-time Eskimo Adarius Bowman was released, landing with the Blue Bombers and rising defensive lineman Da’Quan Bowers suddenly retired days before reporting to the Alberta capital.

The vacant holes left by that group of players are the focus for Edmonton in training camp.

Who fills the void left by Brandon Zylstra and Adarius Bowman?

The last two CFL receiving champions are gone but the man feeding the rock to both Zylstra and Bowman remains. Mike Reilly had a CFL MOP season in 2017 and there are familiar targets who he should have varying levels of comfort throwing the ball.

Bryant Mitchell played the boundary slotback spot when Bowman was out of the lineup last year and the 25-year-old proved to be productive with 482 yards and three touchdowns in seven games – a 1,000-yard pace. Reilly has singled out Mitchell as a favourite to breakout this year.

If healthy, Vidal Hazelton would’ve cracked the 1,000-yard mark in 2017, grabbing 55 balls for 709 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games while seeming to develop a strong rapport and trust with Reilly. The 30-year-old was mostly the short side receiver until Derel Walker came back north last season but does have the ability to play elsewhere.

Physical specimen Duke Williams possesses the most intriguing potential of the group. Williams saw 83 targets from Reilly nabbing 46 of those for 715 yards, eight plays of 30 or more yards and four touchdowns, all ranked second on the team a year ago. Just 25, Williams is young and quickly got a feel for the CFL game: increased targets could make him a star.

Veteran CFLer Kenny Stafford and Juron Criner are two players who could factor into the mix at receiver and newcomers Shaq Hill and Torrance Gibson are worth keeping tabs on.

Regardless of the receiving group, Edmonton will have an ultra-productive pass offence with Reilly pulling the trigger.

Who replaces SAM linebacker Kenny Ladler?

Ladler had been a mainstay at the difficult strongside linebacker position for two seasons in Edmonton until his stellar play earned him an NFL contract. Now the Eskimos are searching for a replacement.

Chris Edwards is the man being tapped to step in at SAM linebacker. Ladler was listed at six-foot-one, 207 pounds while Edwards is six-foot-two, 217 pounds so he brings a bit more size to the position along with athleticism. He played various positions in the secondary during his first season in the CFL and returned punts so it appears Edwards has the requisite traits to fit the demands of SAM.

Brandyn Thompson started the lone game Ladler missed in 2017, which could present a possible backup option for defensive coordinator Mike Benevides. Outside that it’s always possible an unknown quantity stands out at training camp or rises during the season.

How does the offensive line shake out?

Offensive tackle Colin Kelly was solid on the right side in 2017 and could get the first chance to shore up the blindside of reigning MOP Mike Reilly. The Eskimos gave up a league-low 27 sacks in 18 regular season games last season, due in large part to the offensive line play, but Reilly’s mobility helped too. Kevin Palmer could be the first-team right tackle while recent signee Tommie Draheim has experience playing tackle in the CFL. If newcomers Andrew Peterson and Chauncey Briggs – each have size at six-foot-six and around 300 pounds – can progress quickly that could make for stiffer competition at the tackle spots.

The Eskimos are loaded with national offensive lineman and some have the size to play tackle – particularly Jacob Ruby and Mason Woods – so the Eskimos might be able to toy with playing four Canadians up front. Edmonton loved Woods in the 2017 CFL Draft but the Argos selected him and the Esks got the Idaho product in the James Franklin trade. David Beard, Justin Sorenson and Matt O’Donnell appear to be the starting Canuck trio in the middle.

Who gets to play alongside DT Almondo Sewell?

After Da’Quan Bowers retired unexpectedly to take a coaching job at Clemson University where he played collegiately, the Eskimos are in need of a capable possibly every-down player to pair with the perennial league all-star Sewell on the interior defensive line.

That could be Jake Ceresna who was acquired in the Odell Willis three-team trade from Ottawa. The six-foot-five, 295-pounder has a year of CFL experience, playing 14 games making 18 tackles and two sacks. General manager Brock Sunderland was familiar with Ceresna from his time with the Redblacks and that’s why he targeted the 23-year-old.

Mike Moore is the only other bigger-bodied defensive lineman currently on the roster and the Eskimos liked what he showed as a rookie. If he can continue to progress in year two Edmonton could have a pair of young players to compliment Sewell, especially considering Benevides likes to rotate his defensive lineman in order to stay fresh.

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