Chris Jones’ plan for Edmonton Elks in free agency: get players with ‘game behind their name’

Courtesy: Brett Holmes/CFL

The Edmonton Elks entered free agency needing an infusion of talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

The Elks have had one of the CFL’s worst offences for the past couple of seasons, including the lowest-scoring attack in 2022, which is part of the reason the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2019.

The team has a young roster that features quarterback Taylor Cornelius and a pair of emerging stars in running back Kevin Brown and receiver Dillion Mitchell, so it made sense for the franchise to pursue some veteran help.

And help they found.

The Elks added some considerable upgrades at receiver, adding Steven Dunbar Jr. from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Kyran Moore from the Saskatchewan Roughriders and reeling in free agency’s biggest fish, Eugene Lewis from the Montreal Alouettes.

Finding some players who have been productive in the league was a goal of head coach and general manager Chris Jones during free agency.

“We still have a lot of young players and we needed some direction,” Jones told the media. “We went out and that’s who we were trying to bring in, some guys with a little game behind their name.”

In Dunbar Jr., Moore and Lewis, Jones found a trio of players that have plenty of game behind their names.

Dunbar was a burgeoning star the past two seasons with the Ticats, catching 116 passes for 1,630 yards and 10 touchdowns in 29 games in black and gold, becoming one of the team’s most explosive weapons in the process.

Jones likes the big-play ability and versatility Dunbar brings to the lineup.

“When you’re averaging upward of 14-plus (yards per catch), that’s a big plus in our league,” Jones said. “He can play in the slot, he can play on the line, he can get his own release. He’s a guy that we can move around and match up.”

Moore might only have played seven games a season ago with the Riders, catching 36 passes for 295 yards, but Jones still likes what the diminutive speedster from Bessemer, Ala. can bring to the table.

“He brings a lot of options to our offence and our special teams,” said Jones, who coached Moore in Saskatchewan during the receiver’s rookie season. “Swerve is going to be in the slot, for sure, and he’ll be our punt returner and our kick returner.”

Lewis joins the Elks after a stellar five seasons in Montreal. The 29-year-old was a finalist for Most Outstanding Player after finishing the 2022 season with 91 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns, ultimately losing out on the award to Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ quarterback Zach Collaros.

The man in charge of the Elks was more than happy to make Lewis the highest-paid non-quarterback in the CFL after watching him torch his team a year ago despite his best efforts to stop it.

“We had to defend him this past year and we had to double-team him a bunch in order to keep him off the board,” Jones stated.

Even with double teams and extra attention, Lewis was able to make plays, including one Jones remembers vividly. He referenced a one-handed touchdown catch Lewis made against the Elks in the second quarter of last October’s game between the Elks and Alouettes. It was one of many highlight-reel plays Lewis made during his M.O.P.-calibre season in 2022.

“He can make contested catches. He can highpoint the football. Even when he’s covered he’s got the ability to still make football plays,” Jones said. “That’s kind of what we’re going to need out of that group.”

One receiver who will not be in the Elks’ receiving group in 2023 is veteran Derel Walker. The 2015 Most Outstanding Rookie has spent six of his seven CFL seasons in green and gold, but he won’t make it to a seventh season with the team.

“It’s time to go in a different direction and that’s kind of what we decided long ago,” Jones said about Walker possibly returning to the team in 2023.

The 31-year-old pass-catcher didn’t resemble the game-breaker he was earlier in his career, catching 65 passes for 874 yards and one touchdown this past season. With the team bringing in three new receivers to pair alongside last season’s breakout star Dillon Mitchell, there was just no room left for the two-time CFL all-star.

With the three high-priced newcomers with big names and a lot of game joining the fold, the Elks are ready to put the past behind them and look to a more promising future.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.