While the MOP race is just heating up, plenty of interest also rests in the contest for Most Outstanding Rookie.
That honour has produced plenty of big-name winners since Chuck Ealey first won it in 1972, with DaVaris Daniels, Derel Walker, Dexter McCoil and Solomon Elimimian among the recent victors. This year’s winner probably won’t look out of place as many big-name players are in the running in their first CFL seasons.
With that, let’s look at the 10 leading candidates for Most Outstanding Rookie this season, followed by a team-by-team look at rookies that have contributed for their respective clubs.
This was a very difficult list to compile, especially towards the end of it where some strong choices just missed the cut.
In the CFL, those qualifying for rookie status have never suited up for a regular season game in a professional football league. CFL or NFL practice rosters don’t count and neither do pre-season games.
Please note that players listed below have not yet officially been qualified as rookies. An official list of those eligible for Most Outstanding Rookie will be released at a later date.
Top 10 Most Outstanding Rookie Candidates
1. Richard Leonard | DB, HAM
An elusive bright spot on the Ticats’ defence this year, Leonard has been all around the ball, intercepting three passes, forcing one fumble and scoring a touchdown in his first CFL season. While size could be a concern in tougher one-on-one matchups — he’s 5-foot-8, 173 pounds — so far Leonard has mastered the field corner position.
2. D’haquille Williams | REC, EDM
With four 100-yard games next to his name, D’haquille Williams has had no issue producing, despite a multitude of talented pass-catchers in the Eskimos’ offence. Williams is a big body with a unique skill-set that gives him a chance to win any one-on-one battle — as we’ve seen on several occasions this season.
3. Marken Michel | REC, CGY
An early-season injury to DaVaris Daniels opened the door for the next young Stampeders star receiver to emerge. Marken Michel is very much on the same trajectory as those young pass-catchers before him, including Eric Rogers, Kamar Jorden and the aforementioned Daniels.
4. James Wilder Jr. | RB, TOR
With 331 rushing yards over the last two weeks, James Wilder Jr. has put himself in the discussion among the league’s top running backs. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound wrecking ball is not your typical CFL back, making him one of the more intriguing prospects on this list.
5. Jameer Thurman | LB, CGY
With 35 tackles in 13 games, Jameer Thurman has done an admirable job of filling in for Deron Mayo while the veteran recovers from his season-ending knee injury last year. On a Stamps defence that is in a league of its own in 2017, there truly are no weak links. It’s hard to imagine Thurman coming out of the lineup.
6. Ty Long | P/K, BC
While Swayze Waters was a big-name signing for the Lions in the off-season, Ty Long quickly made the veteran kicker/punter expendable. Long’s 48-yard average leads the CFL but that’s not all — he’s also converted on 85.7 per cent of his field goals, good for third in the league. He’s the best dual kicker/punter in the game right now.
7. Martese Jackson | RB/RET, TOR
The Argos’ dynamic returner ran into some trouble last game, fumbling and then finding the bench against the Montreal Alouettes. Despite a couple of miscues with the football, Martese Jackson has become one of the CFL’s most dynamic returners — now he’ll look to take on a more prominent role on offence.
8. Dylan Wynn | DT, TOR
When the Boatmen ran into some early-season injuries on their D-line, Dylan Wynn provided some relief with his dominant play inside. Wynn has four sacks and 25 defensive tackles, an impressive line for an interior lineman, as he now teams up with Cleyon Laing.
9. James Vaughters | DL, CGY
While Charleston Hughes is one of the best, the drop-off from him to James Vaughters hasn’t been profound. Vaughters, 24, has five sacks as an occasional starter while helping the Stampeders lead the CFL with 38 sacks. One of the rare young defensive ends making an impact, Vaughters has a bright future.
10. Micah Awe | LB, BC
After establishing himself as a special teams ace, Micah Awe’s aggressive, hard-hitting style has carried over to the defensive side of the ball, where he’s overtaken Tony Burnett as the starter at WILL linebacker. Awe had a career-high nine tackles against the Ticats and could be a tackle machine on Mark Washington’s defence.
Now we take a team by team look at the rookies in 2017:
While Wally Buono has leaned on his veterans in 2017, a couple of new faces have established themselves as possible future franchise cornerstones.
Micah Awe is only 23 and could be the long-term answer for the departure of Adam Bighill. And if Ty Long doesn’t go to the NFL, he could be one of the CFL’s top kicker/punters for the foreseeable future. The international stepped in for an injured Swayze Waters and never looked back, owning a 48-yard average on punts and an 85.7 per cent success rate on field goals.
Quarterback Alex Ross has taken over primary backup duties following a season-ending injury to Travis Lulay. He’s had very little game action but will become relevant very quickly should anything happen to Jonathon Jennings. When it comes to Ross, it’s important to remember Buono’s track record involving young quarterbacks.
Finally, the Lions’ 2017 draft picks have yet to make a significant impact, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a bright future. Jordan Herdman has made 15 tackles on special teams; Junior Luke recorded his first sack in Week 8 vs. the Riders; Frederic Chagnon has eight special teams tackles; Danny Vandervoort, used mostly on special teams, has one catch for 25 yards.
If the season ended right now, it would be a tough call between Micah Awe and Ty Long for the team’s Most Outstanding Rookie.
Leading Nominee: Micah Awe
A rash of early-season injuries was frustrating from the Eskimos’ perspective, but in the end it may pay off for a team that has had to lean on rookies in crucial roles.
The aforementioned Duke Williams is a front-runner for Most Outstanding Rookie, while Mike Moore, Mercy Maston, Chris Edwards and Canadian Kwaku Boateng have contributed on the defensive side of the ball. As the Esks get healthier, Head Coach Jason Maas now has proven and tested backups for whatever’s thrown his way down the stretch.
Canadian content is key to a promising 2017 crop of rookies out in Edmonton. Boateng, a highly-touted prospect who fell in the 2017 draft, is playing with something to prove, recording four sacks in a meaningful role on the Eskimos’ defence as a 22-year-old; injuries have allowed Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga to take on a starting role in the Esks’ defence, where he’s recorded 15 tackles and three sacks in 12 games; safety Jordan Hoover has gotten his feet wet on special teams; first round pick Nathaniel Behar has dressed in six games but hasn’t yet made an impact.
In the end, no Edmonton rookie can match the contributions of Williams, who’s got a unique skill-set and a bright future as a CFL receiver.
Leading Nominee: D’haquille Williams
Much like in Edmonton, injuries have led to the reliance on some new faces on Dave Dickenson’s league-leading Stampeders. As per usual, the ‘next-man-up’ mentality in Calgary has produced a few new future stars.
Marken Michel is a legitimate candidate for Most Outstanding Rookie, while defensive contributors Jameer Thurman and James Vaughters are also in the mix. Thurman has done a nice job filling in for Deron Mayo, who the Stamps are easing back into the lineup after a season-ending knee injury last season. Vaughters, meanwhile, has stepped in for Charleston Hughes, chipping in five of the Stampeders’ league-leading 38 sacks.
In the early going, it looks like John Hufnagel got a steal in 25th overall pick Tunde Adeleke, who’s scored on a punt return and also held his own while starting at safety in place of Josh Bell; first round pick Randy Colling has only dressed in two games; Julan Lynch has one catch for eight yards in five games of limited action; and finally, undrafted free agent Riley Jones has been a pleasant surprise for the Stamps, recording nine special teams tackles and two defensive tackles while playing all 13 games.
In the big picture, there may not be any doubt who will get Calgary’s nomination for Most Outstanding Rookie. Following in the footsteps of Eric Rogers, DaVaris Daniels and Kamar Jorden, Marken Michel has established chemistry with Bo Levi Mitchell and become one of the veteran quarterback’s go-to receivers at age 24.
Leading Nominee: Marken Michel
While the Riders are still a fairly young team, all of their current starters have at least a year or two of CFL experience.
One player to keep an eye on is Tobi Antigha, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end who’s been able to make an impact in a rotation with A.C. Leonard and Willie Jefferson. Another converted receiver, Antigha is a very gifted athlete, and has recorded five sacks in 11 games.
Chris Lyles started at halfback early in the season while Sam Williams played SAM linebacker, but both have since landed on the six-game injured list and may not be back. Interior lineman Nick James played a few games for the Riders along with receiver Antwane Grant. Explosive Alabama receiver/returner Christion Jones has returned kicks for the Riders.
At quarterback, Marquise Williams showed promise in pre-season and training camp — enough to maintain a roster spot despite the presence of Brandon Bridge and the addition of Vernon Adams Jr. However, given the amount of movement at the position by Chris Jones over his first two years, Williams may not want to get comfortable.
While the Riders’ 2017 draft class hasn’t made a significant impact, 2016 draft pick Elie Bouka could play a pivotal role down the stretch after returning from the NFL. He never dressed for an NFL game and is considered a rookie.
Dariusz Bladek has dressed in 11 games for the Riders on the O-line; linebackers Brandon Bartlett (supplemental draft) and Cameron Judge have played in three and four games respectively; sixth-round pick and receiver Denzel Radford has played 11 games after being acquired from the Als; Eddie Mieredith, Jeremy Zver and Emmanuel Adusei have yet to play.
Leading Nominee: Tobi Antigha
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
This year’s Most Outstanding Rookie is unlikely to come out of Winnipeg. But that doesn’t mean rookies haven’t contributed to the Bombers’ 2017 success.
For a 21-year-old, Brian Walker’s ability to take over a starting role right out of college is impressive. The Bombers are high on Walker, who could be a long-term answer in a secondary that’s seen a lot of shuffling over Defensive Coordinator Richie Hall’s time in Winnipeg. This season, Walker has 28 tackles and an interception in nine contests.
Brandon Alexander has also earned a starting role, drawing regular assignments at corner, while Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson (and his two sacks) has been an important part of the rotation on the inside of the Bombers’ D-line.
With the Bombers’ impressive depth of Canadian talent, Faith Ekakitie has been used sparingly this season. Look for him to get more involved as his rookie season progresses. No other 2017 draft picks have been able to get on the field for the Blue and Gold.
Look for Walker to make a bigger name for himself in the final month of the season, but for now, there’s no clear-cut Most Outstanding Rookie in Manitoba.
Leading Nominee: Brian Walker
Outside of Richard Leonard, one of the CFL’s leading candidates for Most Outstanding Rookie, the Ticats have not gotten substantial contributions from their rookies this season. That could change in the final month of the season though, depending on whether their playoff hopes fade or remain intact.
On the topic of fading, Damarr Aultman has quieted after a fast start to his rookie season, now going three straight games without a reception. Ryker Mathews has moved into the starting role at right tackle as the Ticats look for consistency on their O-line. Jason Neill has suited up in the middle of the Tabbies’ D-line.
Fourth overall pick Connor McGough leads a promising crop of 2017 draft picks that could make a greater impact down the stretch for the Ticats. Both he and fifth round pick Justin Vaughn have a bright future on the team’s defensive line.
Also: Thirteenth overall pick and offensive lineman Braden Schram has played nine games as a rookie; Felix Faubert-Lussier has also played in nine games; and finally, Mitchell Baines and Sean-Thomas Erlington are being eased into the Ticats’ lineup.
Leading Nominee: Richard Leonard
At 6-7 and leading the CFL’s East Division, the Argos have been a pleasant surprise in their first season under Marc Trestman and Jim Popp. Part of that has been the team’s reliance on rookies, who, in turn, have rewarded Trestman’s faith.
The Argos won a Grey Cup in 2012 with a number of rookies on offence and defence, including receiver Dontrelle Inman, linebacker Marcus Ball and defensive end Armond Armstead. This year, Martese Jackson, James Wilder Jr., Dylan Wynn, Alden Darby and William Campbell have all played a crucial role in the team’s success.
While Jackson and Wilder form a dynamic duo of offensive playmakers, with Jackson emerging as one of the CFL’s best returners, Wynn has stepped up on the Argos’ interior defensive line while Darby has earned a starting role at corner in a deep Argos secondary. Campbell, meanwhile, has shown a certain level of comfort protecting Ricky Ray‘s blindside.
As far as Canadian content goes, Robert Woodson made Matt Black expendable before Jermaine Gabriel‘s injury; Nakas Onyeka and Justin Herdman have contributed on special teams; undrafted free agent Jimmy Ralph has provided depth at receiver, making 12 catches in 12 games; Evan Foster has played in five games; second round pick Mason Woods has yet to play in a game.
If Wilder Jr. continues running the football like he has the past two weeks, he may just run away with the Most Outstanding Rookie Award.
Leading Nominee: James Wilder Jr.
Championship teams are often hit with losses in the off-season, and the 2016-2017 Ottawa REDBLACKS were no exception. But while plenty of talent headed elsewhere, GM Marcel Desjardins had a game plan, replacing his departed stars with reliable contributors.
Avery Ellis has made a strong impression at defensive end, recording five sacks, 21 tackles and a defensive touchdown in 12 games this season. Also on the D-line, Jake Ceresna has made a strong impact in the middle with two sacks in 13 games.
Not to be outdone, Sherrod Baltimore and Corey Tindal have emerged as regular starters in the secondary, on a defence that continues to improve. Tindal has made 45 tackles in 12 games starting at corner, while Baltimore has 34 tackles in nine games at half. Adrian James has taken over as the team’s starting SAM linebacker, while Dominique Rhymes has made a minimal impact as a pass-catcher.
From a Canadian content perspective, first round pick Evan Johnson has played all 14 games this season and seen time at guard and centre along the REDBLACKS’ injured O-line; second round pick Anthony Gosselin has played in four games; Louis-Philippe Bourassa has four special teams tackles in 12 games.
It may be between Ellis, Baltimore and Tindal for Ottawa’s Most Outstanding Rookie nominee.
Leading Nominee: Sherrod Baltimore
Despite some wholesale changes last off-season, the Alouettes still have one of the CFL’s more experienced rosters. That means not a lot of playing time for rookies.
The departure of Bear Woods has led to some playing time for rookie linebackers Branden Dozier and Anthony Sarao. The former has an impressive 46 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a defensive touchdown in 13 games this season, recording six or more tackles on five different occasions.
While second round draft pick Fabion Foote has played in only three games, third round pick Dondre Wright has flourished, making 47 tackles from the safety position following a season-ending injury to Chris Ackie. If Ackie can come back healthy in 2018, the Als could have two promising ratio-breakers on their back end with Wright’s strong rookie campaign. Finally, eighth round pick Oumar Toure has found regular playing time on the Als’ offence.
Leading Nominee: Branden Dozier