December 12, 2012

Competition looms among RB’s in coming year Staff

TORONTO — It’s always amazing how quickly things change in the CFL, but nothing compares to the recent shifting landscape at the running back position.

In a span of just a few years we’ve shifted from the likes of Joffrey Reynolds, Fred Reid, and Wes Cates as the league’s premier backs to a younger cast of backs across the league – one that now features two Canadian running backs along with several rookies also making a big splash.

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Some argue that there is an all-time high in running back depth across the league, and competition for carries in a league that focuses more on throwing the ball in the first place, isn’t exactly a stretch.

In 2012, injuries played a key role in opening up opportunities for lesser known backs like Chad Simpson and Chevon Walker, who sprinted onto the scene with sights set on stardom.

But a year later, as players return from injury and newer competition looks to enter the fold just like every other season, there appear to be few guarantees when it comes to depth charts across the league at the position.

In the last year, we’ve seen some of the past decade’s top runners let go. Meanwhile this season, the league’s leading rusher at the time Cory Boyd was released and replaced by the guy that went on to win Most Valuable Player of the Grey Cup game.

The very same Boyd is now looking for a team, after being released by the Eskimos for the second time this season.

Here’s an overview of each team’s running back situation, and who we can expect to see getting the ball out of the backfield in 2013.

BC Lions:

This is one of the simpler situations, with Andrew Harris coming off a career season and leading his team not only in rushing, but almost in receiving yards, too.

While Harris can do it all, his backup Tim Brown is a quality second option, and can be used in multiple situations as a threat to score on any given play.

Edmonton Eskimos:

The Eskimos had arguably the trickiest situation in the backfield last season, but it appears as though they’ve reached a simpler time following the recent release of Cory Boyd.

Hugh Charles surprised everyone out of training camp by earning the starting job, then surprised even more with a fantastic regular season. But the team added Boyd in August with hopes of boosting an offence that was struggling, and then added another star runner in Jerome Messam, who returned late from an NFL tryout.

The three-headed monster, although high on star power, was a bust for the Eskimos, if only because there weren’t enough footballs to keep all three runners satisfied.

Boyd was eventually released later on in the regular season, but re-joined the team late in the season when Charles was injured, eventually creating a crowded backfield once again by playoff time.

With a Messam-Charles one-two punch, the Esks appear to be in great shape at the position heading into 2013. Messam is a non-import, which means the team is free to play both at will – meanwhile their diverse running styles give the team a change of pace when necessary.

The only question remaining is whether and where Boyd will pop up again in the CFL, just four months after being released despite sitting as the league’s leading rusher.

Calgary Stampeders:

Near the end of 2011, the Stampeders turned over the keys to the running game to Jon Cornish, who faced the pressure of replacing the team’s all-time leading rusher in Joffrey Reynolds.

Cornish performed admirably last season in his first full year as a starter, breaking the single-season rushing record for a Canadian while also earning the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian honour.

LaMarcus Coker is the other import back who earned some playing time last season, but make no mistake, if Cornish is healthy, he’s the one getting the ball.

Saskatchewan Roughriders:

The Roughriders are the best example of fresh blood at running back, deploying three import backs below age of 28 throughout last season – including rookie sensation Kory Sheets, who finished second only to Jon Cornish in rushing yards this season.

Brandon West and Jock Sanders make for a crowded backfield in Riderville, and even with Sheets running the way he did last season, the team was often eager to get multiple backs involved.

The competition there will likely remain between West and Sanders, although the latter also spent time as a slotback last season before getting injured.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers:

This is one of the more interesting situations heading into 2013, with three import running backs potentially entering what could be open competition for not only a chance to start, but also for a roster spot.

Chris Garrett was the team’s big breakout star at running back in 2011, but after he went down with a season-ending knee injury in training camp last year, Chad Simpson emerged as not just a reliable starter, but as one of the league’s most explosive runners.

Simpson runs with power and finesse, and showed a wide range of skills en-route to a 1,000 yard season despite missing the first three games with an injury. Meanwhile, late in the season, another option emerged for the Bombers in rookie Will Ford and Carl Volny remains an option as well.

It’s likely the Bombers will continue to deploy two import running backs as they did towards the end of last season, with the question being who makes it onto the roster and earns the majority of carries.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats:

The situation in Hamilton appears no less cloudy than in Winnipeg, with three proven import running backs in the fold and all likely looking to be the number one guy.

A season ago, the Ticats parted ways with star veteran running back Avon Cobourne and signed 26-year-old free agent Martell Mallett, a former BC Lion who returned from a stint in the NFL. Mallett suffered a season-ending injury before the season even began, leading the team to bring back Cobourne.

Cobourne was beaten out in camp by a rookie running back by the name of Chevon Walker, who quickly won fans over with his breakaway speed and ability to score on any play – as evidenced in the first two weeks of the season, with a pair of scoring plays each over 80 yards long.

But a sudden twist arrived by mid-season following an injury to Walker, as Cobourne quickly proved he was still a capable running back, too, eventually overtaking Walker for the starting position.

The Ticats appear to have three starting-caliber running backs, but the Hammer likely ain’t big enough for the three of ‘em.  

Toronto Argonauts:

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it might not be. The Argos appear to have a perfect fit for Scott Milanovich’s style of offence in Chad Kackert, who continues to develop his skills in pass-blocking and is very talented as not just a runner, but as a pass receiver.

Kackert was one of Ray’s go-to guys in the receiving game, and in the playoffs it showed, as he turned a number of second-down conversions into first downs.

Meanwhile, the eventual Grey Cup MVP also had an underrated season, leading all starting running backs in yards per carry.

The curveball here is that his contract is up in February, and he’s yet to reach an extension with the Boatmen. General Manager Jim Barker has stated that he’s not willing to overpay his players, but when it comes to the team’s list of pending free agents, Kackert might be the biggest priority.

Should Kackert not return, the biggest question is which other team he might end up with, as most other clubs appear to already have capable backs on the roster.

Meanwhile, Gerald Riggs Jr. continues to wait in the wings, as a player that had mixed results in limited playing time last season.

Montreal Alouettes:

Brandon Whitaker should be back and healthy, looking to return to his 2011 form heading into next season – yet the Alouettes’ situation in the backfield isn’t so cut-and-dried.

Yes, Whitaker can do it all, whether it’s on special teams, pass protection, catching the ball, or running it. But after missing a good chunk of the regular season with a devastating knee injury, the Alouettes were given a solid look at Victor Anderson and Chris Jennings, both of whom impressed.

Jennings is an athletic back with a solid combination of size and speed and may have the most potential of the bunch, while Anderson showed shiftiness and an ability to adapt quickly and fill the void left by Whitaker.

It’s going to be interesting to see what transpires in camp, especially if Whitaker doesn’t appear to return from injury with the same kind of dominance he had heading into the start of last season.