Storylines to watch in Edmonton Elks training camp

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

Chris Jones’s favourite time of year has arrived, and that means dreams coming true for some and heartbreak for others.

The Edmonton Elks certainly won’t have a quiet spring, with a good list of storylines to keep an eye on. That includes them being one of just two teams who will take the field for a few days of camp practices before being eligible to join other provinces in a player strike.

Here’s what the rough training camp depth chart looks like, as of writing. With the cuts Saturday evening, the list of quarterbacks is no longer running off the page.

Draft recap

The Elks did indeed manage to hit every position group in the draft: quarterback Tre Ford, running back/fullback Jean-Paul Cimankinda, receiver Gavin Cobb, offensive lineman Marc-David Bien-Aimé, defensive lineman Jacob Plamondon, linebackers Wesly Appolon and Nate Edwards, defensive backs Enock Makonzo and Jeremie Dominique, and lastly long snapper Peter Adjey representing the specialists. You can learn a bit about each of them here.

The most interesting of the group are the two first-rounders Makonzo and Ford — especially Ford. Edmonton got him not from a slide to the third round, but from a draft-eve trade where they sent two well-regarded Nationals in linebacker Grant McDonald and offensive lineman Kyle Saxelid to Hamilton for the 8th and 28th overall picks. It was a bold choice from Chris Jones and company, but not one without potential.

I still think the trade was a net loss, but I can get behind the idea of aiming for the moon rather than playing it safe. This is also what they chose to do by trading down from first overall to fourth overall and picking up Carter O’Donnell’s CFL rights from the Alouettes.

O’Donnell, currently with the Indianapolis Colts, may never end up in the CFL, but the value ceiling is much higher if he does come north than adding something like a second-round pick to drop three spots. Evidently, the Elks were not as high on Tyrell Richards as most of us expected, and thus they believed that the chance of seeing O’Donnell was worthy compensation for the coveted top pick, making up for any difference between the two defenders Richards and Makonzo.

The quarterbacks

Many words have been spent on the topic so I’ll keep it brief. Who is going to edge ahead of the pack and ultimately seize the reins for June 11? I hope for the sake of all parties involved that Nick Arbuckle plays up to his potential and proves himself indispensable.

The ‘safe’ pick — not that there is one — is that Arbuckle starts and Taylor Cornelius backs up, with Tre Ford hanging around the roster for general utility purposes.

If not, your guess is as good as mine for who earns the first opportunity.

The linebackers

Deon Lacey is likely to take the starting role in the middle but outside of that, it’s very uncertain.

Edmonton is in the process of finding a new strong-side linebacker after the departure of Derrick Moncrief and there’s no clear frontrunner — one of the new defensive backs will likely slot in. Further, Chris Jones has emphasized multiple times that the weak-side linebacker’s job has suddenly become very similar to the strong-side linebacker’s with the adjustment of the hash marks. Now both players are responsible for a very wide chunk of field, which requires greater athleticism — or perhaps more accurately, greater agility — and at least partly explains the decision to draft the slimmer Makonzo over Richards.

I can guarantee that more than three players will see field time between those three spots, even in a given game. 2021 rookie of the year nominee Nyles Morgan is still lurking in the background as well.

A veteran trio

First up is defensive back Ed Gainey, who was a big get in free agency. He’s expected to fill the gap left by Trumaine Washington at boundary halfback. Gainey turns 32 in early June and he should have at least a good year or two left, but there’s always a chance someone unexpected usurps him in the secondary.

Aaron Grymes looks like the only lock of the defensive back group, though I will give an honourable mention to second-year man Nafees Lyon at one of the cornerback spots given his excellent performance late last season. Quarterback is the easy answer to “position that will be the most fun to watch”, but I think the secondary takes the top spot, with a huge number of permutations in play. 

Similar to Gainey, offensive lineman David Foucault is 33 years old and will be attempting to fend off Tomas Jack-Kurdyla, among other youthful challengers. David Beard and Mark Korte are as close to locks as it gets, so only one National lineman spot is realistically up for grabs.

Also worth a comment is Adam Konar, who is pencilled in as a starter at linebacker. This circles back to the athleticism consideration mentioned earlier, with Konar being a much larger body than the rookie Makonzo. Would Edmonton cut Konar and start a rookie with little experience behind him? Unlikely, but it would save a good pile of cash as Konar did not come cheap. Though, I can imagine a scenario where Lacey and Morgan both start with Makonzo rotating in.

Cutting long-time safety Jordan Hoover makes it seem slightly more possible, not that they need to be related. It simply sets a precedent for letting go of a pricy, veteran Canadian defender.

Talented Depth

Receiver and running back both have pretty clear frontrunners, with James Wilder Jr. supported by Walter Fletcher in the backfield, and  Kenny Lawler, Derel Walker, and Jalen Tolliver at receiver with two of Mike Jones, Tevaun Smith, and Shai Ross. It would be a surprise to see any of them left off the roster, but we’ll see who else can unexpectedly sneak onto the depth chart. Otherwise, it will just be a couple of skill position players landing on the practice roster.

The defensive line is similar, where Jake Ceresna will anchor the middle and Makana Henry, Thomas Costigan, and Tobi Antigha will most likely be in the main rotation. There is a lot at stake for everyone lined up behind them, however, especially with the surprise release of last year’s Trevor Harris trade compensation Antonio Simmons.

Specialists

One would think Sergio Castillo will be the placekicker come mid-June. He’s undeniably top tier and was key to the Blue Bombers repeating as champions. The punter though, that’s very up in the air, as is the primary kick returner role.

A group of punters will be duking it out, while Martese Jackson is the familiar returner name and the presumed favourite. Charles Nelson has experience in that role from his time in Winnipeg as well and there’s always a chance someone brand new draws attention, such as 2022 draft pick Gavin Cobb.

Game time

The Elks have preseason games scheduled against the Blue Bombers and Stampeders, assuming the collective bargaining agreement mess gets settled. Quarterback reps are the easiest to notice and will no doubt be focused on the most. As we’ve seen though, things are set up for intrigue all over the place, and we can never rule out a big shock or two.

Soon enough it will be June 11th and Edmonton will be squaring off with the B.C. Lions in Week 1.

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.