Chris Jones’ Global folly could come back to bite the Elks against B.C.

Photo courtesy: Paul Yates/B.C. Lions

Since the Edmonton Elks last faced off against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver — a 59-15 drubbing in their season opener just 56 days ago — head coach and general manager Chris Jones has made 83 separate changes to his team’s roster.

A revolving door depth chart has long been the trademark of a man who would cut his mother if it meant securing a win and frankly, it’s hard to blame him. Despite any promises of victory from president Victor Cui, the Elks are a 2-5 team looking up at the rest of the West Division and Jones has yet to craft a winning formula from the wreckage left by the organization’s previous regime.

Every one of those roster moves will play a small role in determining the outcome when these two teams meet again on Saturday night and in many ways, things are looking up for the Elks.

Undeniably improved and getting healthy for the first time, this is a game that could be much closer than the double-digit spread would suggest. However, Edmonton will enter BC Place at a slight disadvantage thanks, in part, to one of Chris Jones’ roster moves from long before the current campaign ever kicked off.

That’s because, for all his in-season wheeling and dealing, the Elks will be playing a man short at BC Place.

On paper, the above statement is provably false but in practice, there is no other way to describe a depth chart that features three kickers.

In addition to Sergio Castillo and new punter Jon Ryan, the Elks will be forced to dress Australian Ryan Meskell on Saturday. A career 26-of-39 on field goals at the University of Hawaii, his best bet is to contribute as a kickoff specialist — something he did well in college, but brings little of value to a professional roster.

Love it or hate it — I’ll make no attempts to convince you either way in this article — the CFL’s Global initiative makes clear that one international player must be on the game-day roster of every team. With Danish offensive lineman Steven Nielsen battling illness, the team had no option but to choose between Meskell and Brazilian kicker Rafael Gaglianone for the final spot in the lineup.

With Tomas Jack-Kurdyla dressing to replace Nielsen as the sixth offensive lineman, Edmonton will have one less body available to cover kicks for what has been a questionable special teams unit. However, it didn’t need to be this way.

All the way back on February 28, in one of his first moves as the team’s general manager, Jones cut three players from the Elks roster. All three were Globals and all three had previous game experience.

The message was clear: Jones would tolerate Nielsen as a depth piece — his college pedigree and prior NFL interest guaranteed that — but he had no desire to humour any other Global position players. He reinforced that opinion in the 2022 Global Draft when he and assistant GM Geroy Simon, fresh off being B.C.’s director of Global scouting, selected kickers with all three picks and spent their first-rounder on 30-year-old punter Ben Griffiths, who never showed up to camp.

It is easy to dismiss those decisions from Jones and there are undoubtedly many Elks fans who share his ambivalence towards Global players. Nevertheless, three years of data have shown us that this is the worst type of strategy to employ with the mandatory roster quota and a failure to stock up on capable special teams bodies is now coming back to bite Edmonton.

All of this would hardly be worthy of a footnote in the game preview if not for a fortuitous twist. On that fateful day in February, the Elks released Mexican receiver Diego Viamontes and French linebacker Maxime Rouyer, both of whom might have been nice to have right now. However, the third player cut will actively get the chance to hurt them on Saturday.

Belgian defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie, an unheralded third-round Global pick out of Towson University, had played three games in 2021, recording a single tackle in extremely limited reps. Few fans would know his name, a player so inconsequential that he found out that he was released by reading a Dave Campbell tweet. Elks’ management claims they tried to contact him via multiple avenues, but Debaillie never received their communication.

“I’ve never talked to Chris Jones about that. I’ve never met him, I’ve never spoken to him at all. One night I came back from the gym and I was on the couch, just chilling with my dad and my mom, and all of a sudden I see on Twitter that I got released,” the native of tiny Gistel, Belgium told me last week.

“I’ve never heard anything from Edmonton. Not a text, not an email, not a phone call.”

It seemed clear Debaillie’s CFL adventure was over and he signed with the Potsdam Royals of Germany. That was until the B.C. Lions emailed him, desperate to replace departed Global special teamer Niklas Gustav.

With all due respect to Thiadric Hansen’s ability to get garbage-time sacks and cover kicks, what Debaillie has managed since has been the best performance to date by a Global position player. He has played roughly half the Lions’ reps at nose tackle through six games, recording nine tackles and a sack. He often sees the field in key moments and goal line situations, receiving a level of complete trust no other international player has.

Meanwhile, Edmonton has struggled to find a competent American defensive tackle to plug a gap. Isn’t irony delicious?

As heart-warming as his story has been, Debaillie’s presence won’t win B.C. the game and playing short-handed won’t cost Edmonton. However, either through flawed evaluation or lack of effort from the Elks, the Lions picked up an impact player off the scrap heap that the green and gold could have desperately used.

In an industry where the margins of victory are as thin as they are in pro football, sometimes that’s what separates the good teams from the bad.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the Edmonton Elks’ assertion that they attempted to contact Debaillie to inform him of his release.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.