Redblacks’ Bob Dyce happy to pay premium for ‘infectious aggressiveness’ of OL Drew Desjarlais

Photo: AP/Michael Dwyer

It is hard to put a cap on the value of quality homegrown offensive linemen in the CFL, but more than a few eyes bulged around the league when the Ottawa Redblacks signed guard Drew Desjarlais this offseason.

The Redblacks won the bidding war for the 25-year-old’s services after his return from the NFL, making him the CFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman with a deal worth $250,500 plus all-star incentives next season. That deal is scheduled to jump to $260,000 in year two.

While several other teams were willing to pay that much or more to acquire the young blocker, some analysts have questioned the value of dedicating that much salary cap space to what is generally regarded as a non-premium position. For new head coach Bob Dyce, that wasn’t even a consideration.

“We believe you really build the team starting with the offensive and defensive lines and a talent like Drew doesn’t come around all that often,” he told 3DownNation.

Desjarlais was the fourth-overall selection in the 2019 CFL Draft out of the University of Windsor. He established himself as a starter at guard for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the midway point of his rookie season and continued to start in 2021, earning West Division all-star honours.

The Belle River, Ont. native helped Winnipeg’s offensive line allow a league-low 16 sacks that season and produce a league-high 14 rushing touchdowns en route to winning a second consecutive Grey Cup.

The following offseason, the six-foot-two, 314-pound guard signed with the New England Patriots and spent time on the team’s practice roster. He later joined the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad but saw his contract expire following the season. While he could have waited for more opportunities south of the border, Desjarlais opted to return to Canada and will now bring his physical style of play to the nation’s capital.

“Having the opportunity to talk to Drew and then watching the film of him playing in the Grey Cup versus Hamilton, just conversing with him and seeing the type of person he is. Kind of that same dog and infectious aggressiveness that he plays with, that’s the physicality that we’ve tried to have on special teams in Ottawa and that’s what we want to bring to the whole team,” Dyce explained, drawing on his experience as the team’s long-time special teams coordinator.

“When you have players like Drew and Jacob Ruby leading the way along the offensive line of scrimmage, it helps you with your quarterback play, it helps with your run game. We want to be a physical team in Ottawa and so a player like that is extremely valuable to us.”

The Redblacks have made improving their offensive line a priority in recent years, after enduring a brutal 2021 season in which they surrendered a league-worst 53 sacks. While the team’s record on the field didn’t improve last season, the big men up front did, finishing third in the CFL with 34 sacks allowed.

Some of that investment has come in the form of free-agent signings like Desjarlais but the team also spent considerable draft capital on the position a year ago, taking University of Ottawa product Zack Pelehos with the second overall pick before doubling back to select Cyrille Hogan-Saindon from Université Laval in the second round.

Both players served primarily in depth roles as rookies but are expected to press for more playing time in year two. Pelehos will reportedly get a chance to compete for the job at right tackle and right guard, while Hogan-Saindon is pencilled in as the team’s Day One starter at centre.

“If you look at the end of last year, Cyrille was starting for us and did a really good job. He kind of fits that same mentality of a fighter that I talked about, a guy who competes at a high level all the time. Zack now going into his second year is going to have every opportunity to become a starter,” Dyce said.

“Really in both situations, it’s in their hands and what they do with the opportunity. Both those guys, we’re very happy with their development and as they work forward, the natural progress would be for them to start.”

Ottawa holds the first overall pick in the 2023 CFL Draft due to their disappointing 4-14 record last season but is unlikely to go back to the offensive line well. The team is more than comfortable with their current crop of young Canadians.

“We’re blessed to be in the situation, adding a guy like Drew Desjarlais and having Jacob Ruby on the offensive line, and then you’ve got young players like Cyrille and Zack Pelehos sitting behind there,” Dyce said. “Whatever the position is, we feel we can use that pick to take the best player available.”

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.