New general manager Shawn Burke has his work cut out for him when it comes to overhauling the Ottawa Redblacks’ roster. If Burke wants to avoid a third consecutive season of missing the playoffs and finishing last in the East Division, a few glaring roster deficiencies must be addressed.
Significant upgrades on the offensive line (especially at tackle), a game-breaking receiver or two, an elite edge rusher, and a more explosive running back must be added via free agency, trades or the draft.
What isn’t essential is a veteran quarterback. That’s because in limited action, 23-year-old Caleb Evans has proven that he has the skills to thrive in the CFL. The catch is that he needs better talent around him.
In the seven games he started in 2021, Evans averaged seven yards per completion and connected on 59 percent of his pass attempts for 1279 yards, five touchdowns, and nine interceptions. While those numbers aren’t exactly stellar, it’s not like he got much help from the players around him nor his coaching staff.
What offsets the mediocre passing stats is the fact that Evans’ mobility presented a huge problem for opposing defences. When the Louisiana-Monroe product took off, he averaged 8.2 yards per scramble, amassing 345 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 44 carries. The only quarterback who finished with more rushing yards was Cody Fajardo and he started almost twice as many games.
While the stats themselves are useful insofar as they provide a glimpse of what Evans is capable of doing on the field, what really matters is how he grew into the position. After being thrust into the starting job mid-season following injuries to Matt Nichols and Dominique Davis, Evans showed clear progression as he developed.
It’s worth mentioning that he did so despite many training camp reps. In a normal year, the third and fourth-string quarterbacks are given limited snaps in practice and pre-season games, in a year coming off COVID, with a shortened camp and zero pre-season action, even less so.
Obviously there were rocky moments — rookie quarterbacks don’t arrive as polished products — but as he continued to get reps, Evans cut down on turnovers and the big mistakes occurred less frequently. This culminated in the last drive of the season, when he directed a 12-play, 89-yard drive to not only score the tying touchdown with 35 seconds left on the clock, but also throw the go-ahead game-winning points on the two-point convert.
— CFL (@CFL) November 20, 2021
I know some of you reading this aren’t convinced so let’s take a look at the veteran options Burke could bring in to start as we go from west to east.
Michael Reilly isn’t set to become a free agent and despite his injury-riddled 2021 campaign, should be back with the Lions unless he retires. Plus, his family lives in Seattle, so his interest in coming to Ottawa would likely be lukewarm at best. Furthermore, for the first time in his career, Reilly started to look his age in 2021.
Calgary recently restructured Bo-Levi Mitchell’s contract, so he’s not going anywhere. Ditto Jake Maier, who recently re-signed with the Stamps. Nick Arbuckle just got some guaranteed money from Edmonton, while Cody Fajardo is the face of the franchise in Saskatchewan where remains under contract for 2022.
Zach Collaros is scheduled to hit the open market come February but it doesn’t seem likely that the Blue Bombers would let him walk. If he does, disregard this entire article because Burke should make a full-court press to sign him if available.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson had a statically underwhelming season in Toronto and has never shown an ability to get his team over the hump in the biggest games. It’s also worth considering that Winnipeg moved on from Bethel-Thompson when he was in Winnipeg together with LaPolice.
Hamilton just extended the contract of Dane Evans through 2023 and there’s simply no way Montreal would consider trading Vernon Adams to anyone, let alone a divisional rival.
The name that will garner the most consideration given Burke’s past is Hamilton pivot Jeremiah Masoli.
Although he boasts a storied resume, at 33, Masoli has struggled to stay healthy and play at a consistently high level.
There’s also the fact that he is reportedly unvaccinated. At the most basic level, he cannot currently fly or take a train in Canada. Who would sign a quarterback only capable of only playing home games? That should immediately be off-putting to any GM.
Trevor Harris has been available for any team to sign since he was released by the Montreal Alouettes in early December. But the Redblacks have been there, done that with the 35-year-old and the results were mediocre.
Finally, Chris Streveler’s name has been mentioned as of interest to head coach Paul LaPolice, but Burke should not be tempted to indulge his coach. At best, Streveler is a limited passer and a gimmicky runner.
The point of this breakdown is to show that although there are options available to Burke, most of them aren’t realistic. And really, is bringing in a quarterback in their mid-30s, whose best days are likely behind them, a smart allocation of cap resources?
Does it make sense to pay someone like Harris, Bethel-Thompson or Masoli close to $400,000 to come in for a season or two? It wouldn’t be a long-term solution by any means and in twelve months the Redblacks could be once again hunting for another starting quarterback.
Or, would Ottawa be better suited rolling with Evans on his entry-level deal and sinking a few hundred thousand dollars into beefing up his protection, giving him weapons and boosting their pass rush? Brandon Revenberg, Kamar Jorden, Bryan Burnham and Caleb Evans sound much better than Masoli and only one of those other names.
After all, prior to coming to Ottawa, Paul LaPolice was renown for his offensive prowess. Surely if anyone can develop a young quarterback of the future, it’s him. And even if Evans gets hurt or falters, there are two other young quarterbacks in Devlin Hodges and Taryn Christion who will also have a full off-season with the playbook and training camp under their belts.
To me the choice is obvious. Instead of putting money towards a quarterback with a more established name, the Redblacks would be better served sticking with the young quarterbacks they already have under contract and building around them.