New name, new coaching staff, new year. Some new players too.
The Edmonton Elks come into the 2021 season with generally high expectations. Aside from the betting sites, most observers agree that they are a strong bet for a playoff spot and, if things go well, may even contend for a West Division title.
‘Good on paper’ is obviously not the same thing as earning actual results, and that’s especially true with a first-time head coach in Jaime Elizondo. This is what the ‘paper’ currently looks like:
What’s good, what’s not so good?
Kwaku Boateng, Jake Ceresna, Mike Moore, Mathieu Betts. Edmonton has had some really nice defensive lines in recent years and the 2021 edition should continue the trend. It’s a young group, yet they’ve all earned a lot of respect already.
In reserve they’ve kept another trio of even greener players: Canadian Cole Nelson, American Christian Rector, and Global Tibo Debaillie.
I will be curious to see how co-ordinator Noel Thorpe utilizes this group. We may see an increase of four man pressure, trusting them to generate problems for offences on their own and keeping more guys in coverage.
Derel Walker and Greg Ellingson are a star duo. Then you notice Armanti Edwards and top Canadian Tevaun Smith flying out of the shadows.
Unusually, Edmonton only has those three American receivers on the active roster, though it’s as good a trio as you could ask for. Mike Jones and Shai Ross – who are less than a year apart in age, by the way – will be there with Smith to ensure the national component of the group carries its weight.
Brock Sunderland’s flashiest free agency move was the signing of James Wilder Jr. The unretired Wilder Jr. seems to be fully motivated to crush it, which is music to the ears of Edmonton fans who have rarely had a commanding presence at the position over the last decade.
Wilder Jr. will be complemented by Terry Williams, who adds a serious dynamic element, with rookies Walter Fletcher and Tarean Folston in the wings. Combined they might be able to hit 1,000 yards even in a shortened season.
Trevor Harris is a top tier starting quarterback with a vast batch of weapons from receivers, to running backs, to offensive line, to offensive mastermind coach. With decent health, this will be a top offence in the league.
Behind Harris, the Elks added Dakota Prukop to the quarterback room hours after his release from Calgary. He spent three years in Toronto previously and played parts of three games in 2019. Not what we would call ‘proven’, but perhaps a more comforting bet as a backup than the even less proven Troy Williams or XFL add Taylor Cornelius. I think this was an area of concern previously.
Edmonton has decided to rotate their quarterbacks through individual quarantine to ensure at least one is healthy at all times, starting with Williams.
Jonathon Mincy, Aaron Grymes, and Jonathan Rose are an elite trio. I’m saddened that Forrest Hightower will not be making it a quartet – Edmonton mostly avoided the worst with player retirements, but his was one that hurt.
Instead, 26-year-old Trumaine Washington will be the one to step in at halfback. He had some struggles as part of a tragically weak unit in Toronto, so hopefully he’s improved from two years ago and Thorpe can bring the best out of him.
At safety, it’s uncommitted between veteran Jermaine Gabriel and rapid riser Scott Hutter with Jordan Hoover out indefinitely.
The ever-reliable Sean Whyte returns for his sixth season in green and gold, partnered once again with Hugh O’Neill.
The changes come at long snapper and returner. To 35-year-old Whyte’s delight, Chad Rempel is the oldest player on the team at age 40 and he’ll take the place of Ryan King, who was with Edmonton from 2012 to 2019; and Williams should be the first choice to add a spark to Edmonton’s infamous return game.
To Be Determined
The Elks came into the summer with an almost uncountable number of tackles.
Then Tommie Draheim and Randy Richards retired. Derek Dennis is sitting out. Colin Kelly tore a pectoral muscle doing push-ups in his hotel room. And at the moment, SirVincent Rogers and Kyle Saxelid aren’t 100 per cent healthy, so they’re left with Justin Renfrow, Global Steven Nielsen, and CFL newcomers D’Antne DeMery and De’Ondre Wesley. It might all work out fine, but we’re in ‘wait and see’ mode.
The good news is the Canadian interior of Jacob Ruby, David Beard, and Matt O’Donnell is intact and ready to go.
They were short on recognizable players even before releasing Vontae Diggs and Kevin Brown.
Edmonton will start the season with a pair of rookies in Nyles Morgan and Keishawn Bierria. Hopefully Thorpe, Elizondo, and Sunderland’s assessment of the two is correct and they won’t be out of place in the starting twelve. There’s not a lot of experience behind them, though Brian Walker returns next to them as strong side linebacker.
Having an elite defensive line and steady secondary should help them transition to game speed.
Week 1 and beyond
Edmonton takes on Ottawa at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, August 7. We’ll see how good our forecasting is; the likeliest outcome is the Elks controlling most of the game, and while hiccups are to be expected a loss would be a big hit to their season-long aspirations.
A relatively easy start continues with Montreal, B.C., and Toronto next – teams six through eight in 3DownNation’s power rankings – and then it’s right to Labour Day by which time they will hopefully be settling in. Then we’ll learn better where the Elks stand between fearsome and paper tiger.