‘We didn’t try to do anything’: Edmonton Elks ‘shutting it down’ after quiet free agency

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The Edmonton Elks were by far the quietest of the CFL’s basement dwellers through free agency, but head coach and general manager Chris Jones is ready to kick his feet up after a job well done.

“I believe we’re pretty much shutting it down. We like our football team,” Jones told 630 CHED after the free agent frenzy. “I’m not saying that there won’t be (any additions), there might be somebody that pops up, but we like our football team.”

Edmonton did much of its heavy lifting before the markets opened, bringing in former Grey Cup-winning quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson after his stint in the USFL and trading for all-star Canadian receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. Still, many expected the team to be active in free agency after posting back-to-back 4-14 records in Jones’ first two seasons back in charge.

Instead, just two new additions will join the Elks in 2024, both of which came on special teams. Boris Bede is expected to solidify the team’s pungent kicking game, while the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Special Teams Player, Javon Leake, should jump-start a return game that scored for the first time in eight years during the 2023 season finale.

According to Jones, that was all that his organization needed to accomplish because of a promising young roster.

“It wasn’t very busy. We didn’t try to do anything,” he said. “We knew what we were going after, we’d been talking about it for three months and we knew what we were doing. We had our targets and that’s what we went at.”

“If you look, we’ve got a pretty solid group of guys. We’ve got 18 first-year guys that will now be second year and then we’ve got 16 second-year guys that’ll be third year. We’ll get good quarterback play and I feel strongly that adding a kicker and adding a returner is gonna give us an opportunity to have better drive starts and to put both our offence and our defence in better positions.”

Critics have been quick to point out that the team has done little to upgrade its defence, which finished second last in points allowed last season. The Elks were also dead last when it came to defending the run and third worst in total yardage allowed, while generating the second-fewest sacks and fewest turnovers.

That situation only got more dire when the team shipped all-star defensive lineman Jake Ceresna to Toronto in order to acquire Gittens Jr. The team’s current defensive line room combined for just five sacks last year, with veteran defensive end A.C. Leonard still unsigned. There is hope that the 32-year-old could still be brought back to provide some sort of reliable production, but his coach doesn’t paint a rosy picture of a return.

“His agent wanted to look around there early, I talked to him about two weeks ago and he still wanted to kind of look around,” Jones said. “He was a guy that we would have liked to have kept but at this juncture, it is kind of late and we’re just seeing where he would fit in the cap.”

The Elks have yet to show signs of improvement since Jones returned to the organization in 2022 and remain in the darkest chapter in franchise history. The team has missed the playoffs in three consecutive years and has posted an 11-39 record since the pandemic-cancelled 2020 season, leading to dropping attendance and financial issues that will likely result in the club being sold to private ownership.

However, Jones feels that a turnaround on the field is imminent without the need for any more major acquisitions.

“We feel strongly that our draft classes have been pretty solid. We’ve got guys that have played a lot of football for us,” he remarked.

“Last year was the first time in my career where we had a whole host of (rookies), and the biggest majority of them were our Canadian kids, that played on special teams. At times, we stubbed our toe, but man, they gained a lot of experience and a lot of game time to improve. So we certainly feel that in Year 3, we’re in a better position than what we were in Year 1 and Year 2.”

The Elks will open the team’s 75th anniversary season on Saturday, June 8 by hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders.