Ranking the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookies of the 21st century (No. 20-11)

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

The CFL recognizes one first-year player each season as the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie. Only players who have not previously dressed for an NFL regular season or post-season game are eligible for the award.

Some of the players below built on strong rookie years by having Hall of Fame-calibre careers. Others struggled to make an impact beyond one strong initial season.

Over the next 24 hours — ten today and ten tomorrow — I will rank all twenty winners of the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award of the 21st century. Let me know your thoughts on the order in the comment section below.

20. REC Frank Cutolo, B.C. Lions (2003)

The Eastern Illinois University product caught 64 passes for 908 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, also chipping in 1,246 return yards and one score. He was released by the Lions after his numbers dipped in 2004 (786 receiving yards, 302 return yards) before one final unproductive season with Ottawa in 2005.

19. RB Martell Mallett, B.C. Lions (2009)

The Arkansas native exploded onto the scene with the Lions, recording 1,672 yards from scrimmage (1,240 rushing, 432 receiving) and eight touchdowns as a rookie. Sadly, he would dress for only three more CFL games (Calgary, 2014) after a few short stints on NFL practice rosters (2010-2011) and suffering a torn Achilles in training camp with Hamilton (2012).

Photo courtesy: Calgary Stampeders

18. LB Nate Holley, Calgary Stampeders (2019)

It’s tough to place Holley on this list considering he’s played just one CFL season. The Kent State University grad was an impact player for the Stamps on defence and cover teams, recording 78 defensive tackles, 22 special teams tackles, one sack, and one interception. He is currently on the Miami Dolphins’ practice roster after opting out of his CFL contract.

17. RB James Wilder Jr., Toronto Argonauts (2017)

The six-foot-three, 225-pound ball carrier recorded 1,405 yards from scrimmage as a rookie (872 rushing, 533 receiving) with five touchdowns. His numbers dipped over the next two years but remained fairly strong, adding another 2,109 yards from scrimmage and nine scores. He recently retired from the CFL, citing the league’s sluggish decision-making regarding the 2020 season.

16. REC/RET Albert Johnson III, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2000)

The speedster was named a league all-star in his first full CFL season, recording 778 receiving yards and five touchdowns (three receiving and two on returns). He dressed for five games over three years in the NFL (2001-2003) before returning to the Blue Bombers (2006-2007) for two more respectable seasons.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

15. K Lewis Ward, Ottawa Redblacks (2018)

The Ottawa native has broken a number of records in just two CFL seasons. He set a new professional football record for consecutive field goals (69, 2018-2019), a CFL record for best single-season field goal percentage (98.1 percent, 2018) and an Ottawa team record for longest field goal ever made (56 yards, 2019).

14. DL Gavin Walls, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2005)

The two-time East Division all-star posted a career-high twelve sacks as a rookie and continued to produce for years to come. He recorded another 35 quarterback takedowns over the next four seasons, finishing his tenure in Winnipeg (2005-2009) with 47 sacks and 200 tackles. He was traded to Montreal in 2010 but was released just days after the deal was finalized.

13. REC DaVaris Daniels, Calgary Stampeders (2016)

The University of Notre Dame product fought through injuries as a rookie, dressing for just 11 games. He still managed to post 51 receptions for 885 yards and nine touchdowns, numbers he’s come close to replicating over three seasons since. Daniels signed a big-money free agent contract with Toronto in February 2020 and will look to stay healthy when the league returns to the field in 2021.

12. DL Aaron Hunt, B.C. Lions (2006)

The five-time West Division all-star was one of the CFL’s top interior pass rushers during his tenure with B.C. (2006-2011). He posted 14 tackles and nine sacks as a rookie, eventually leaving the team with 177 tackles and 41 sacks. Hunt would sign with Montreal in 2012 but was released by the team after dressing for just four games.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

11. REC Derel Walker, Edmonton (2015)

The Texas A&M product was named a CFL all-star in his first two seasons, recording 198 receptions for 2,699 yards and 16 touchdowns. Walker left for the NFL in 2017 but returned to Edmonton after he was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 29-year-old has missed time due to injuries in each of the last two seasons but was still named a divisional all-star in both years.

Editor’s note: check back tomorrow for part two of the list (No. 10-1).

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.