Ten way-too-early candidates for Most Outstanding Rookie in 2021

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

The week of CFL kick-off is a time for bold predictions and you’ll see plenty of prognostication from across the media landscape.

Everyone will boldly tell you who they expect to see win the Grey Cup or fearlessly deliver their expected final standings. They’ll anoint the potential winners of Most Outstanding Player or Most Outstanding Canadian and present you with break out stars, but there is one prediction that absolutely no one is willing to touch: Most Outstanding Rookie.

Selecting the CFL’s top rookie ahead of time is a losing proposition. More than likely it will be a player no one has ever heard of and maybe even one without a roster spot in Week 1. But predictions are no fun if you aren’t dead wrong every once in awhile, so I’m diving head first into the great unknown to project some award candidates before they’ve ever played a game.

Being a first year CFL player isn’t good enough to be considered a CFL rookie, to be eligible for the award you must have never dressed for an NFL game either, though XFL or AAF experience doesn’t disqualify you. With that criteria in mind I’ve assembled a list of 10 eligible rookies who could be contenders come season’s end — one for each CFL team plus a dark horse I have my eye on.

Canadians denoted by *

B.C. Lions — Jordan Williams, LB, East Carolina*

After he blazed a 4.48 forty-yard dash at the only regional combine held last year, the B.C. Lions traded up to first overall in the 2020 CFL Draft to get their hands on the freakishly athletic Williams and have reshaped their linebacking corps around him. It was unquestionably a gamble on a player who hasn’t played since 2017, but by all accounts he’s lived up to every single bit of hype in training camp. He’ll start in the middle for B.C. and should put up big numbers in a high volume position.

Edmonton Elks — Nyles Morgan, LB, Notre Dame

Beat out a former Most Outstanding Rookie candidate, become a Most Outstanding Rookie contender. The surprising release of Vontae Diggs came down to the fact that Morgan simply beat him out in training camp for the weakside linebacker job. The former top 50 high school recruit will be in the mix so long as he stays on the field.

Calgary Stampeders — Sean Riley, REC, Syracuse

Calgary has a handful of potential candidates that should see their roles grow as the season progresses, but Riley will be getting touches from the opening kickoff… literally. The diminutive receiver has claimed the Stamps’ returner job and has the twitchiness to do damage in the wide open Canadian game.

Saskatchewan Roughriders — Keion Adams, DE, Western Michigan

A seventh-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, injuries kept Adams from ever playing an NFL game. He was hurt for a good part of Riders’ camp as well, but flashed so much early that he was all reporters could talk about. If he even half fills the shoes of Charleston Hughes, he’ll win this award with ease.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers — Jontrell Rocquemore, LB, Utah State

An injury to Kyrie Wilson will get Rocquemore onto the field in Week 1, but it may be awful hard for the Bombers to get him off of it. A productive college safety who can excel on special teams and is already pushing veterans for play-time at linebacker? That sounds a lot like 2019 Most Outstanding Rookie Nate Holley.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats — Mason Bennett, DE, North Dakota*

Hamilton doesn’t have many rookies poised for an early impact, but Bennett should become a familiar name in the defensive line rotation. The ninth overall pick in 2020 will get a chance to rush the passer whenever an aging Ted Laurent needs a breather and was a nightmare for FCS quarterbacks in the NCAA.

Toronto Argonauts — Shawn Oakman, DT, Baylor

While former NFLers Shane Ray and Kony Ealy have made headlines for earning jobs on the Toronto defensive line, internet meme Shawn Oakman has quietly carved out a role as well. The six-foot-eight, 290-pound goliath put up 11 sacks as an NCAA junior, but went undrafted in 2016 while facing sexual assault charges. He was found not guilty in 2019 and will be part of a Argos pass rush that is scary on paper.

Ottawa Redblacks — Ryan Davis, REC, Auburn

The Redblacks better hope they have 25 candidates for this award if they want to contend, but right now Davis looks like potentially the most intriguing. The all-time career receptions leader for the vaunted Auburn Tigers, he’s a likely day one starter in Ottawa and has the type of versatility in space that Paul LaPolice could fall in love with.

Montreal Alouettes — Marc-Antoine Dequoy, DB, Montreal*

A defensive back hasn’t won Most Outstanding Rookie since Steve Muhammad in 1998, but Dequoy could well be in the mix, even if the team inexplicably opts to start Ty Cranston at safety in their opener. The apple of Danny Maciocia’s eye had a stellar U Sports career with the Carabins and ran a 4.35 forty at his pro day, earning a brief training camp shot with the Green Bay Packers last season.

Dark horse — Peter Nicastro, OL, Toronto Argonauts (Calgary)*

Since the Most Outstanding Rookie award was first awarded in 1972, only one offensive lineman has ever taken home the hardware. In fact, only four have ever been finalists. With a bunch of teams set to lean on young tackles, that could change in 2021, but the dark horse resides on the interior. Toronto’s seventh overall pick in the 2021 CFL Draft, Nicastro is a technically sound player who will start at either guard or center and has a touch of nasty. Just like Brett Jones, who was the lone big man champion back in 2013.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.