Why dumping Nick Arbuckle would be the wrong move for the Elks

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

You can’t win in the CFL without a quarterback. … The thing is, you can’t just magically have one, but you have to figure out a way to have one to win with.”

Edmonton Elks general manager and head coach Chris Jones, January 2022.

Based on virtually every insider report, Jones and the rest of the Elks brass are not too fond of Nick Arbuckle. Or at least, they don’t think keeping him and his contract on the roster for the 2022 season — or possibly even including him in training camp — is in their best interest.

Personally I think that’s ridiculous, so I will present an argument for why releasing him — or less likely, trading him — would be a serious mistake by the Elks.

Who is Nick Arbuckle?

Arbuckle is a 28-year-old quarterback seeking his first steady job since leaving Calgary following the 2019 season to compete for a starting job. You would think he’s a lot older given how he’s talked about, and with that I will point out he is ten months and a day younger than Vernon Adams Jr.

Also, if you want a precedented best-case scenario, remember that Michael Reilly was barely 28 when he was traded from B.C. to Edmonton in 2013.

 

He’s been hard at work in California this offseason, leading a wide-ranging group of players. It’s fair to say he had a sub-par 2021, enough so that the Argonauts were willing to break up their duo and run with McLeod Bethel-Thompson full-time. But even then, other than Zach Collaros, virtually every quarterback struggled at some point through the season.

Let’s also not forget Arbuckle’s excellent 2019 showing during which he averaged just under 300 yards per game with a 73 percent completion rate and an 11-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio in place of an injured Bo Levi Mitchell.

At one point during the last few months I pulled up this game recap to look a bit more closely at him, and it shows the established high-water mark that Arbuckle can hit. He went 31-of-36 for 370 yards and four touchdowns, all but 23 yards of that in regulation within an overtime loss.

That’s a fascinating quote from Edmonton’s head man. I won’t act like Arbuckle doesn’t have flaws — there were certainly times last year where he made bad or bizarre decisions with the football. He also hasn’t been great at throwing out routes, though he’s still fully capable of improving and may settle in nicely given a stable environment.

My favourite Arbuckle factoid is that he was the only quarterback in 2021 to lead a team to a win over the full-throttle Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who were considered to have one of the best defences in modern CFL history.

The quarterback alternatives

The biggest question is: if not Arbuckle, who will be playing quarterback for the Green and Gold when June 11 rolls around?

It’s well-known that Jones pursued Jeremiah Masoli heavily in free agency before Masoli chose Ottawa, but obviously that’s out.

Quality players rarely become suddenly available, and casting an eye around the league there isn’t any clear suggestion on who else the Elks could pursue. John Hufnagel won’t trade Jake Maier north — Jones has said as much outright — and Hamilton’s Matthew Shiltz is hardly a sure improvement on what they already have.

Edmonton has six other passers under contract at the moment, most notably 2021 part-time starter Taylor Cornelius and former Ohio State star J.T. Barrett. Given that quarterback is arguably the most important single position in professional sports, how could Jones and his braintrust possibly be comfortable going into camp with their most notable quarterbacks being Cornelius and Barrett?

Elks fans are familiar with Cornelius and all the good and bad he demonstrated last year. It’s reasonable to think he’ll be better after a full training camp and preseason, but by how much? Can he cut down his interceptable pass rate enough that his physical talents can shine through?

Barrett could be a year one phenom, but it’s definitely not reasonable to bet on him being anywhere close to a league-average starter as a rookie of the three-down Canadian game.

There is one quarterback on the roster with a remotely acceptable performance floor, and that’s Arbuckle. Speaking of incomplete training camps, he had one to lead off an injury-hampered 2021, which I’m not willing to weigh any more heavily than his previous action.

The dollars

Arbuckle is currently signed to a deal through the 2022 season at a hard money value of $340,000, which is the eighth-highest of nine projected starters in the CFL. $100,000 of that has already been paid as a signing bonus, so he would count for another $240,000 if he played the full season in Edmonton.

That compares to the $65,000 rookie contracts of Cornelius, Barrett, and the others, which means the Elks would be able to spend roughly $175,000 more elsewhere around the roster if they kept a tandem of (for example) Cornelius/Barrett versus Arbuckle/Barrett.

That money would most likely be split across the depth chart rather than in one or two places, although if Kenny Lawler somehow had a disastrous enough camp to merit a cut maybe it would be an easy call.

What that all means

It’s always a question of value and dollar efficiency when it come to building a roster. In some positions you choose to spend big on high level or elite players and you make up for it by finding cheaper players who can make meaningful contributions at other positions.

On that topic, Jones spending $300,000 on Lawler makes it harder to understand why he wouldn’t be willing to put a few more funds into his signal-caller unless he is truly that low on his capabilities.

A quarterbacking problem is something that can rarely be solved mid-season. You don’t need to have a high-paid quarterback to have success — frankly, Arbuckle isn’t even that — but you need to be darn confident that you’ll be getting basic competence out of the position. If there’s one position where you can’t afford to let a group of unestablished players duke it out to fill a question mark, it’s quarterback.

If Arbuckle gets his promised chance to go through camp and performs poorly, then fine — cut him and say the quarterbacks you’re keeping give you the best chance to win. Anything short of that is beyond comprehension.

For what it’s worth, most Ontario sportsbooks have Edmonton () as longshots to win the West at this current point in time, although the person taking snaps under center could have an impact on those odds.

Mike Ludwig enjoys math, chess, and football, all of which are kind of related. He lives in Edmonton and does not endorse Rod Black's metaphors. Follow him on twitter at @CityOfChamps14.