October 15, 2017

Bright Future: Breaking down the 2017 All-Rookie team

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

A few weeks ago I wrote about the race for Most Outstanding Rookie, outlining the top 10 players in the running for the prestigious year-end award.

This year’s pool of rookies is particularly deep, led by Ticats defensive back Richard Leonard and highlighted by many other big first-year stars, including receivers D’haquille Williams (Edmonton), Dylan Wynn (Toronto) and Marken Michel (Calgary).

Another rookie report will arrive later in October as I break down who’s achieved what over the last calendar month, but in the meantime, the CFL is about to reveal its team-by-team list of eligible rookies. I’ve gotten a sneak peak at the list that will go out on Tuesday and decided to have some fun with it.

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Richard Leonard headlines a long list of breakout performers in the CFL this season (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

(Disclaimer: I’ll note here that in the CFL, those who qualify as rookies have never suited up for a regular season game in a professional football league, hence the reason some players like Jackson Jeffcoat and Victor Butler won’t be eligible for the award come November. Practice rosters don’t count, and neither do pre-season games, meaning players like James Wilder Jr. and LaDarius Perkins do in fact qualify).

Before the season, I created an all-24-and-under team that included very few rookies because there simply wasn’t any track record for the recent draft picks. But the performances by this year’s newcomers indicate that the future is indeed very bright for three-down football.

Keep an eye out for the entire list of eligible rookies, but in the meantime, I play the role of armchair GM and set my 46-man roster, including the required 21 nationals and seven Canadian starters.

The most fun might be looking back on this in a few years and seeing how many of these players have become perennial CFL stars:

My roster considers both rookie contributions, nationality and upside, which is why Danny Vandervoort and Nate Behar both have a spot on the team despite limited playing time this season. They’re a big part of the future. Special teams also factor into some of the decisions, especially when it comes to the backups.

Unlike the under-24 team, where position scarcity caused some issues — especially on the D-line — the all-rookie team made some picks and omissions very difficult. Good starters have been left off the roster, especially with the need to meet ratio requirements.

Riders quarterback Marquise Williams and Stamps running back/return man Terry Williams were among the final cuts, but both have made my 10-man practice roster below:

Practice Roster

DL Junior Luke, BC
RB Terry Williams, CGY
DB Elie Bouka, SSK
QB Marquise Williams, SSK
LB Cameron Judge, SSK
DL Cory Johnson, WPG
LB Jovan Santos-Knox, WPG
WR George Johnson, MTL
DL Connor McGough, HAM
DB Alden Darby, TOR

With an influx of talented players at virtually every position, there was a lot of flexibility when it came to building the roster. I break down some of my choices below:

Quarterbacks

The most important position on the team is a little iffy here, granted, it’s unusual to find rookie quarterbacks with a proven CFL track record even this far into the season. Alex Ross, Matt Shiltz and Marquise Williams are the three leading candidates, and here I’ve decided to roll with the first two.

I thought Ross showed some nice composure in pre-season, and Wally Buono’s proven his keen eye for young quarterbacks over his time in the CFL (Casey Printers, Buck Pierce, Travis Lulay and Jonathon Jennings are good examples). As for Shiltz, he’s an unknown, too, but was the talk of Als camp in pre-season and even completed eight of 10 passing attempts in relief for Drew Willy two weeks ago.

There are a couple more rookie quarterbacks around the league but these are the two I’d trust the most if I had to start one today.

Matt Shiltz could be in line for some playing time over the final few games for the Als (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

Offensive Line

Teams generally err on the side of patience when it comes to their young O-line prospects, but a small handful of rookies have made an impact this season — including my two American tackles, William Campbell and Ryker Mathews. Ratio flexibility has allowed me to play two Americans, which helps when you’re dealing with a very young unit and both have done a nice job in their first season starting.

Inside is where it gets a little tricker, as I’m forced to lean on three recent draft picks with little CFL experience. Evan Johnson is listed as a guard but I’ve got him at centre, where reports indicate he’s practised a bit during Jon Gott‘s absence. At guard, meanwhile, Dariusz Bladek and Braden Schram are the 11th and 13th overall picks, respectively, and could have a long future in the league.

It’s not a deep O-line and there’s some big-time risk associated with an inexperienced unit. But hey, this is a rookie roster. It’s time to put trust in your highly-valued assets.

Riders 11th overall pick Dariusz Bladek is pictured before their home-opener back in July (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Running Backs

My lead back, James Wilder Jr., is an easy decision because the Argonaut has been a game-changer in his rookie season. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound back is a load to take down, averaging 7.3 yards per carry and bringing a struggling Marc Trestman run game to life in the middle of the year.

Martese Jackson faced difficult competition from fellow rookies LaDarius Perkins and Terry Williams, but in the end he gets the nod because of his importance in the return game. Williams was difficult to leave off the roster after his performance against Montreal in place of Jerome Messam, but it in the end it’s a numbers game — it’s hard to get three American running backs on a 46-man roster.

As far as the fullbacks, Anthony Gosselin and Oumar Toure haven’t touched the football much (or at all in Gosselin’s case), but both have seen substantial playing time and are earning the trust of their respective coaches. Gosselin was a second-round pick while Toure has easily exceeded the expectation of an eighth-round selection.

Breakout star James Wilder Jr. is the clear choice at running back among rookies (Johany Jutras/Argonauts.ca)

Receivers

Eric Rogers, Kamar Jorden, DaVaris Daniels and now, Marken Michel. It seems like every year the Stampeders are showing off a new star receiver, Michel being the latest to step into the lineup and produce immediately. He and Reggie Begelton have done a fine job replacing the injured Daniels and Jorden this season and would make a dynamic duo on the boundary side for any rookie team.

On the opposite side, D’haquille (Duke) Williams has somehow stood out this season in Edmonton despite an abundance of talented veteran pass-catchers around him. With 703 receiving yards and a 15.6-yard average, plus an awe-inspiring highlight-reel, Williams has put himself right beside Michel and Ticats DB Richard Leonard in the discussion for Most Outstanding Rookie.

While REDBLACKS rookie Josh Stangby moves over to field side outside slotback, three Canadians — Jimmy Ralph along with Nate Behar and Danny Vandervoort — could all see playing time beside him. Ralph hasn’t stood out but he has been reliable for the Argos, while the two first round picks can get their feet wet on special teams while easing their way into the offence.

D’haquille Williams has not been overshadowed by all pass-catching talent in Edmonton (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Defensive Line

Now we flip over to the defensive side of the ball, where we’re probably noticing more first-year contributors than on offence this season. To me, the DBs are the strength of this unit but the defensive line isn’t far behind, led by James Vaughters on the end and Dylan Wynn in the middle.

Vaughters, 24, has stepped in with six sacks in a reserve role for the Stamps this season, taking the place of Charleston Hughes when called upon. Wynn, also 24, has quietly been one of the best defensive linemen in the CFL this season, finding ways to make plays from his tackle position — often a rarity.

I’m starting four Americans here because my ratio flexibility allows it — but if needed, Canadians Kwaku Boateng, Justin Vaughn and first overall pick Faith Ekakitie are all fully capable of starting. Opposite Vaughters and Boateng, Avery Ellis and Tobi Antigha form a strong pass-rushing rotation off the edge.

Argos defensive tackle Dylan Wynn has quietly put up strong numbers in his rookie season (Larry MacDougal/CFL.ca)

Linebackers

Linebacker is by far the toughest position to fill here, not because of a lack of talent but instead the depth of talent at the position. Jameer Thurman and Branden Dozier have each made a strong case to start at WILL, but I really like Micah Awe, even with the small sample size he’s provided us after just recently taking over Tony Burnett‘s spot in BC.

Awe is a physically-dominant player with a very high ceiling, the 23-year-old having just recorded back-to-back nine-tackle games — although I do feel that I may regret leaving out Jovan Santos-Knox, who’s impressed after taking over the starting job in Winnipeg.

Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga has played both WILL and MIKE this season for the Eskimos, but I think that MIKE is a better fit for him with his skill-set. That’s also a spot traditionally filled by a Canadian, and he’ll be backed up by Jordan Herdman and Frederic Chagnon, both of whom have played well on special teams for Wally Buono’s BC Lions.

My options at SAM are far fewer, with Sam Williams and Qudarius Ford having spent brief time at the position. Williams gets the nod after starting there for the Riders early in the season, although it’s possible to move a DB into that spot which is essentially an extra pass defender.

Micah Awe has recorded back-to-back nine-tackle games on Mark Washington’s defence (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Defensive Backs

If the season ended today, Ticats defensive back Richard Leonard would probably win Most Outstanding Rookie. Not only has he been the top playmaker on Hamilton’s defence, he’s also mastered the transition from field corner to half — which is where I’d like the feisty 5-foot-8 defender in my secondary.

Leonard at half allows me to play a ratio-breaker at corner in Arjen Colquhoun, one of two nationals starting in the defensive backfield with Dondre Wright being the other at safety. Colquhoun was a second round pick in 2016 despite well-known interest from NFL teams that year, and the risk has paid off for the Eskimos. Wright, meanwhile, is a no-brainer at safety, as the 2017 third round pick has been a key cog on the Alouettes’ defence this season.

While it was tough leaving Mercy Maston and Chris Edwards off the roster, the boundary side brought even more competition for starting jobs. Sherrod Baltimore has become a standout on Ottawa’s defence since becoming a starter, yet he’ll back up promising 21-year-old rookie Brian Walker, who’s drawn rave reviews in the Manitoba capital.

Finally, at boundary corner, Corey Tindal has enjoyed a very solid season for the Ottawa REDBLACKS. Not hearing a player’s name all too often is a good thing for a corner, and that’s been the case for Tindal as Marcel Desjardins, Rick Campbell and Mark Nelson continue to churn out new starting-calibre defensive backs every season.

At this point, Richard Leonard appears to be the breakaway candidate for top rookie (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Special Teams

Louis-Philippe Bourassa makes the roster as the only eligible rookie who’s handled long-snapping duties this year. The running back was a fourth round pick by the REDBLACKS and has played 15 games for Ottawa, making four special teams tackles.

Kicker/punter Ty Long probably won’t win Most Outstanding Rookie, but his contributions have been valuable for the BC Lions. A longshot to even make a CFL team out of camp, Long put then-injured free agent signing Swayze Waters out of a job and now leads the CFL in punting average (48.3 yards) while making 32 of 37 field goals tries (86.5%).

Finally, the aforementioned Martese Jackson is probably the most dangerous player on the roster. Fumble issues aside (he leads all non-QBs with five fumbles this year), he’s been a revelation for Marc Trestman’s Argos, playing a role similar to that of BC Lions dynamo Chris Rainey. Jackson is fourth in the CFL with 2,066 combined yards, just 166 yards behind Rainey, the CFL’s leader.

This year, Martese Jackson has emerged as one of the league’s most explosive players (Johany Jutras/Argonauts.ca)

That rounds out my rookie roster for 2017, at least for now. Plenty can change in the next few weeks, while the award for Most Outstanding Rookie will be handed out in November.

In the meantime, let me know what you might have done differently with your roster either on Twitter or in the comments section.