Preseason preview: eight rookies to watch in Elks vs. Stampeders

Photo: AP/Ron Schwane

The CFL preseason is time of renewal and opportunity. Hundreds of new faces arrive in Canadian training camps eager to make their mark, battling it out for a handul of open jobs. For most, the stay will be brief. For others, it will be their first step towards a prosperous career.

With all preseason games now available to stream live, determining which unfamiliar names actually merit close attention is a daunting task for fans. As always, 3DownNation will have you covered with a cheat sheet of first-time CFL players to watch ahead of each exhibition contest.

On Monday, Edmonton will visit Calgary at 4:00 p.m. EDT to kickoff the preseason. The host Stampeders will be fielding plenty of starters, including quarterback Jake Maier, while the Elks are rolling into town with a relatively inexperienced group. Here are eight rookies I’ll be watching for.

*denotes National player

Edmonton Elks

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Ed Zurga

#24 Jordan Lucas, DB, Penn State University

Players arriving in the CFL with 50 games of active roster NFL experience are pretty rare, let alone one with a Super Bowl ring under his belt. That’s what Lucas, a former Kansas City Chiefs’ starter, can bring to the table in an Edmonton secondary desperately needing improvement. At six-foot-one and 190 pounds, he has the requisite size and athletic ability to be an impact performer this season but will have to prove he can pick up the nuances of the Canadian game at 29-years-old. A start at halfback on Monday will be his first real test.

Photo courtesy: LU Communications and Marketing

#29 Kai Gray, DB, Lincoln University (PA)

A Chris Jones special, Gray is long at six-foot-one and 215 pounds with a physical edge and a checkered past. He was well on his way to becoming an impact player at Rutgers before charges of credit card fraud and possession of a controlled substance saw him dismissed from the team in 2018, leaving him to finish his career at Sam Houston State (FCS), Tabor College (NAIA), and Lincoln (D2). The talent is still there to be unlocked and the Elks appear to be attempting to use it in an unconventional way, moving Gray from his natural safety spot to give him the first crack at the open cornerback job — if the depth chart is to be believed.

Photo courtesy: Pittsburgh Steelers

#89 Sammie Coates, REC, Auburn University

After two years languishing on Saskatchewan’s suspended list, Coates finally showed up to a CFL training camp in Edmonton and will draw the start in the Elks first preseason game. Cracking the Green and Gold’s star-studded receiving corps will be an uphill climb for the former NFL third-round pick but his pedigree and elite athletic traits make him worth watching. The question will be whether a 30-year-old can keep up after a couple of years away from the game.

Photo courtesy: Incarnate Word Athletics

#76 Olivier Charles-Pierre, DT, University of the Incarnate Word*

Conservatively listed at six-foot-one and 375 pounds, Charles-Pierre was never drafted despite being an elite run stuffer at the University of Houston because his enormous size and skillset weren’t viewed as a fit for the CFL. The native of Laval, Que. flashed a little more pass rush ability after transferring to Incarnate Word for his final year of COVID eligibility and he will get plenty of time to prove his worth inside against the Stamps. Though mobility is an issue, Charles-Pierre’s size makes him a potential CFL unicorn and Edmonton needs to find out if he has the juice to be a compliment for another Canadian behemoth in J-Min Pelley.

Calgary Stampeders

Photo: Dave Eggen/South Dakota State

#49 Michael Griffin, DB, South Dakota State University

The only first-year player drawing a start for the Stampeders in the preseason opener, the five-foot-11, 217-pound Griffin will be slotting in at a strongside linebacker position that is tailor-made for his skillset. The former Jackrabbit was tackling machine in college with great ball skills and impressive explosiveness, reportedly posting a 43.5-inch vertical and 11-foot, five-inch broad jump at his pro day. He won’t unseat Titus Wall yet, but Griffin could lock up a depth spot with a solid outing.

Courtesy: Mississippi Valley State Athletics

#76 Ronnie Thomas, DE, Mississippi Valley State University

The Stampeders are thick with second-year breakout candidates at defensive end but Thomas generated as much hype as any of them at the collegiate level. The five-foot-10, 244-pound tweener was a HBCU darling with a dominant 10.5 sack senior year for the Delta Devils, flashing impressive get-off despite average size and physical tools. There is shades of the departed Folarin Orimolade to his game but he’ll have to unseat an incumbent to prove he deserves the same chance to develop that the CFL’s new highest-paid defensive end received.

Photo: AP/Ron Schwane

#82 Rysen John, REC, Simon Fraser University* 

After playing four-down high school ball in B.C., NCAA football at SFU, and bouncing around the NFL, Monday will mark John’s first live reps playing Canadian football. The Stamps have waited patiently for their 2020 third-round pick to make his way home and he could press for early playing time, depending on how quickly he reshapes his body for the demands of the CFL. After trying to make it down south as a tight end, the 25-year-old is listed at six-foot-seven and 246 pounds and could be a true size mismatch for opponents so long as his speed doesn’t suffer.

Photo courtesy: Coastal Carolina

#38 Tyler Roberts, REC, Coastal Carolina University

More than any other team, the Stampeders seem to disregard college production when evaluating receiver prospects — just look at 2022 break-out star Malik Henry, who barely topped 400 yards at Div 2 West Georgia. Though built very differently than the speedy Henry, the six-foot-three, 196-pound Roberts is their latest traits-based project. He had just 162 yards and three touchdowns in two years with the Chanticleers, but boasts intriguing athleticism for a big man, great body control and sticky hands that will get a look on the outside.

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.