Nobody in the CFL has their eyes firmly locked forward the way the Edmonton Elks do.
New managers Chris Jones and Geroy Simon are in place and are pushing into the 2022 season. How much work do they have in front of them? That’s what we’ll start to get a feel for.
Here’s a bare-bones depth chart of players the Elks have under contract (with pending free agents removed) as of this writing:
You can see the full list of free agents for the Elks and the entire league here, noting that re-signings are ramping up in advance of the February 8th frenzy.
Quick hits: what’s decent, what isn’t?
We’ll analyze more closely as we approach free agency opening, but it’s worth doing a brief breakdown of roster gaps before sliding into the dreamy fantasies of shiny new toys.
To my eye, the defensive line and defensive backs have the largest disparity of talent with several very good players yet a big hole in each unit. Everyone under contract on the line is a quality player, though obviously something needs to be done at one end spot with Kwaku Boateng and Mathieu Betts both expiring and now in the middle too after the shocking Mike Moore trade.
In the secondary, there’s a strong foundation intact even after the release of Jonathan Rose. Aaron Grymes, Jonathon Mincy, and late-season starter Nafees Lyon are likely to take up a few spots, while Trumaine Washington is the most important potential departure.
The linebackers and quarterbacks fit under ‘firmly OK’. You won’t be uncomfortable about sending Keishawn Bierria or Nyles Morgan on the field, but you would like to insulate them by ideally retaining Derrick Moncrief and possibly adding one more player. Nick Arbuckle should have a good chance to finally establish himself, but there will need to be a strong backup plan in case of injury or failure to meet his potential.
The ‘skill’ positions are in clear need of an overhaul with decisions to be made on Derel Walker, Greg Ellingson, and James Wilder, though Walter Fletcher and Jalen Tolliver are looking like very nice pieces. And the offensive line has clearly been made a high priority; several departing tackles and the fresh signing of veteran David Foucault plus Tony Washington acquisition make that obvious.
Of the Elks’ pending free agents, my top targets are Moncrief, Washington, and at least one of Boateng and Betts. I’d also be interested in re-signing Ellingson for another year – despite the Elks’ incredible struggles, he paced for his usual 1200 yards in 2021 – as well as fellow receiver Mike Jones, who had a very fine season before a late injury.
I would have loved to somehow see Terry Williams back for another go as kick returner and general weapon despite his release, because there is zero chance the special teams issues were his fault when the Elks haven’t had a competent unit in over half a decade beyond their hopefully-retained kicker Sean Whyte. But with Martese Jackson coming in from Montreal, that can probably be ruled out.
Walker and Tevaun Smith could still be good players, but they carry a lot of risk coming out of a lacklustre 2021. And offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell, turning 33 in March, might simply come down to cost for a veteran leader.
Now the fun part: which new players might end up in green and gold in 2022?
Big and bold
Bryan Burnham, B.C., receiver
Monday crushed my dream of Lucky Whitehead, who would have been perfect for a team in need of offensive juice. I would love to know how much Geroy Simon had to do with bringing Whitehead to B.C. originally and whether his involvement could have given Edmonton a leg up in acquiring Whitehead’s services.
Instead, his 2021 Lions teammate Bryan Burnham bumps to the top of the list, on the off-chance he’s looking for a late-career change of scenery. A core of Burnham-Tolliver-Ellingson sounds very nice to me. If that’s not enough…
Jaelon Acklin, HAM, receiver
Acklin is one of those high quality players who seems poised to break out to even greater heights, similar to the freshly re-signed Kyran Moore in Saskatchewan. They’re both young, in their mid-20s, and either would serve as a strong No. 2 to a Burnham-type even if they keep a fairly flat trajectory.
I’m particularly fond of Acklin, who Marshall Ferguson’s target charts show to have been Hamilton’s short-range passing specialist:
2021 #Ticats receiver target charts..
Comparing Speedy's 2019 to 2021 is interesting, but let's all pause and appreciate the greatest target chart of all time: Jaelon Acklin.#MontreALS | #CFL | #RoadToTheGreyCup | @CFLonTSN | @CFPerspective pic.twitter.com/n4RvOoeapL
— ???????? Marshall Ferguson ???? (@TSN_Marsh) November 27, 2021
If that’s not a perfect fit for an Arbuckle offence, I’m not sure what is.
Ryker Mathews, B.C., offensive tackle
Winnipeg recently made sure Jermarcus Hardrick stayed off the market, so how about a 2019 East All-star instead? Mathews was hurt for most of 2021, but if healthy he would be very much the type of anchor Edmonton needs.
Ucambre Williams, CGY, offensive tackle
Williams finished 2021 protecting Bo Levi Mitchell’s blind side, but he has a history of playing all over the offensive line. Why wouldn’t I be on board with raiding the Stampeders’ system? Especially for, as mentioned, such a position of need.
Mike Rose, CGY, defensive tackle
After blowing a hole in the defensive line by trading Moore, poaching Rose would be a spectacular turnaround. He was brilliant in 2021, even earning a CFL all-star selection. The only way it doesn’t make sense is if the entire point of the trade was to save money, but regardless they’ll need to make up the talent.
And of course, the Stampeders should be doing a lot to make sure Rose doesn’t leave.
Cameron Judge, TOR, linebacker
I’m far from the first to suggest the Judge/Jones pair continuing. Between Saskatchewan and Toronto, they’ve spent close to three seasons together since Judge was drafted by the Riders in 2017. The Elks could use some star power at linebacker, so why not target a ratio-breaker who the coach already knows and loves?
Josh Johnson, WPG, defensive back
Johnson was excellent for Edmonton in 2019 but missed almost the entire 2021 season with injury in Winnipeg. Still, if Washington ends up being too expensive to hang on to, Johnson would be a splendid replacement at boundary halfback – and as he showed in 2019, he is extremely versatile, which is a trait Coach Jones loves in his players.
Daniel Petermann, OTT, receiver
For whatever reason, I’ve liked Petermann since I wanted Edmonton to draft him in 2018. He didn’t get many targets in Ottawa but was excellent with what he did get, and given a bigger role could be a nice Canadian complement in a receiving core. He happens to stand out delightfully in Ferguson’s production grade chart too:
— ???????? Marshall Ferguson ???? (@TSN_Marsh) January 10, 2022
Another backup quarterback, TBD
The problem is there’s not a lot of opportunity for value in the free agent group of passers. Everyone on the list will probably either be seeking starter money, like Zach Collaros and McLeod Bethel-Thomson, or hasn’t shown they can even be a No. 2. The only possible exceptions to that are Trevor Harris, who seems like an unlikely choice, or Michael Reilly if he gets released for money reasons, which would also be a surprising return. Fair game in a ‘wish-list’ I suppose.
We’ll have to wait and see, but Jones has already said he’s looking at other quarterbacks from outside the CFL too. The Elks may just end up standing pat and spend elsewhere.
He’s teasing right? Yeah, he was teasing.
I wonder what’s going to be the big splash in #CFL free agency
— Willie H. Jefferson III (@Stmn_Willie_Bmn) December 31, 2021
They say guys love to play for Coach Jones. But no, it was Bombers fans rejoicing late Thursday last week when Willie Jefferson extended in Winnipeg. Maybe next year.