TORONTO — While Marken Michel and Duke Williams have excelled catching passes this season, the race for Most Outstanding Rookie may come down to a running back and a defensive back.
Ticats defensive back Richard Leonard absolutely must headline any conversation about the best rookie in the Canadian Football League, but a new contender has emerged over the past month in Argos running back James Wilder Jr.
The son of former NFL running back James Wilder, Wilder Jr. is a heavy hitter that is about the best there is at compiling yards after first contact. He’s also done a nice job catching passes out of the backfield, producing 442 receiving yards on 44 catches.
» View the full list of eligible rookies in 2017
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It’s not a stretch to say that the Argos’ 25-year-old running back, whose unorthodox size and running style both provide a difficult challenge for opposing defences, has transformed Marc Trestman’s offence right before our eyes.
With the regular season winding down and awards season upon us, I take another look at which rookies have stood out across the league in 2017 (the September rookie report can be found here).
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.
Top 10 Most Outstanding Rookie Candidates
1. Richard Leonard | DB, HAM
It’s telling when a field corner is able to stand out and make plays on ‘Z’ island, which the Ticats’ top defensive back has done throughout most of 2017. Last month, however, the Ticats trusted Leonard with the more challenging field halfback spot, and Leonard has rewarded their faith. Filling in for Emanuel Davis, Leonard is proving he’s one of the CFL’s most versatile defenders with a knack for making big plays.
2. James Wilder Jr. | RB, TOR
It took a little bit of patience from Head Coach Marc Trestman, but eventually James Wilder Jr. took the starting running back job and ran with it in a really, really big way. The Tampa, Fla. native is averaging 7.08 yards per carry in his rookie season, amassing 1,178 yards from scrimmage while helping the once-miserable Argos’ ground game climb to 86.4 yards per outing. Consider him a threat to do what Andrew Harris just fell short of this year: the first 1,000/1,000-yard season (rushing yards/receiving yards) in CFL history.
3. Ty Long | K, BC
After winning the job from an injured Swayze Waters, Ty Long has become the best all-around kicker/punter in the three-down game. The 88.6 per cent success rate (second among full-time kickers) is impressive in itself, and that’s before acknowledging that he leads the CFL with 47.9 yards per punt. Forgive the six missed converts (six points, the equivalent of two missed field goals), as the 24-year-old has a very bright future on Canada’s west coast.
4. Marken Michel | WR, CGY
Just like those before him, Marken Michel hasn’t missed a beat filling in for the wounded Stamps and running with the No. 1 offence. Michel has a special set of skills with the way he can run routes and high-point the football, helping him earn the trust of Bo Levi Mitchell very early on the way to 780 receiving yards and an eye-popping average of 19 yards per reception.
5. D’haquille Williams | WR, EDM
D’haquille Williams has had to play behind some pretty big names on the Eskimos’ depth chart, yet the 24-year-old has found a way to contribute in his first CFL season. Williams is a big man (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) who has come up on the winning end of many jump balls from Mike Reilly, helping him enjoy a very productive season despite often slotting in at field wideout.
6. Jameer Thurman | LB, CGY
It appears that Deron Mayo‘s return isn’t about to sideline rookie linebacker Jameer Thurman, who’s been an integral part of DeVone Claybrooks’ league-leading defence. Calgary’s front seven, in particular, has been lights out this season, and Thurman has fit like a glove, recording 49 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble. Terrific start for the 22-year-old, who should be around for a while.
7. Dylan Wynn | DL, TOR
If Dylan Wynn weren’t overshadowed by his star teammate in James Wilder Jr., he’d probably be next in line for the Argos’ top rookie award. Wynn has quietly gone about his business for the Argos, registering 33 tackles and six sacks on an active Corey Chamblin front. The 6-foot-2, 283-yard product of Oregon State has formed a strong inside duo with Canadian Cleyon Laing.
8. Martese Jackson | RB/RET, TOR
The Argos’ best return man since Chad Owens back in his MOP days, Martese Jackson has enjoyed a strong debut in Double Blue this year. Diminutive at 5-foot-6, Jackson is easily the most electrifying player on the field when he’s out there, and his role in Marc Trestman’s offence is growing. Fumbles might hold him back from winning an award: Jackson has coughed up six of them, leading all non-quarterbacks this season.
9. Micah Awe | LB, BC
The thing that stands out about Lions rookie linebacker Micah Awe is that ball-carriers better know where he is on the field at all times. Awe is a heat-seeking missile, reminding me, at least, of a young Solomon Elimimian back when he entered the league. Awe plays fast and intense and will bring a lot of energy to Mark Washington’s defence in 2018.
10. Christion Jones | RET, SSK
Second in the CFL in punt return touchdowns (2) and punt return average (14.7 yards), Christion Jones is the definition of an X-factor for Chris Jones’ Riders. The Alabama alum jump-started the Riders’ stunning 30-7 road win over Calgary two weeks ago and is a threat to score any time he touches the football. It’ll be interesting to see if the Riders look to use his skill-set on offence at all down the road.
While I’m happy with this talent-laden top-10, here are the other names I strongly considered: Chris Mulumba-Tshimanga, Tunde Adeleke, James Vaughters, Tobi Antigha, Jovan Santos-Knox, Brian Walker, William Campbell, Sherrod Baltimore, Avery Ellis, Corey Tindal, Dondre Wright, Branden Dozier.
Now let’s take a team by team look at the rookies over the last month:
The aforementioned Ty Long and Micah Awe have enjoyed standout seasons for Wally Buono’s team, with both making an impact on special teams and Awe specifically on defence.
In October, linebacker Frederic Chagnon increased his special teams tackles from eight to 10 in his rookie season, while Jordan Herdman has dressed for every game this season and recorded at least one special teams takedown in all but three games.
Seventh overall pick Junior Luke made his first career start at nose tackle in the win over Winnipeg, recording his second career sack in the process. With the successful debut, Luke may be around to stay as a starting defensive tackle for Wally Buono’s club.
While third overall pick Danny Vandervoort has only made one catch in his rookie season, the Barrie, Ont. native will be a candidate to slide into retiring Marco Iannuzzi‘s spot next training camp. Look for him to play in the season finale against the Argos, and the same goes for rookie quarterback Alex Ross.
At the end of the day, Long and Awe have been equally impressive for the Lions, although Long has been there from the start so he gets the nod for Most Outstanding Rookie for the Lions. With that said, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Awe. He’s a lot of fun to watch.
With the number of injuries they’ve had — and successfully endured — the Eskimos have had plenty of high-impact rookies on all sides of the ball in 2017.
D’haquille Williams, listed fifth on my list, made short work of the learning curve in the Canadian game, quickly grabbing a starting spot on the way to 715 yards and four touchdowns. In two October games, Williams hauled in four passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. However, Williams’ upside is even bigger than the numbers indicate. Esks fans should be thinking big.
In the wake of some key injuries on defence, Chris Edwards and Mercy Maston have started at times throughout the 2017 season, with the former also making an impact as a kick returner. Edwards also scored on a pick-six vs. the Als on Thanksgiving, while Maston hasn’t played since Sept. 9.
After a strong start to his CFL career, former NFL prospect LaDarius Perkins is unlikely to see the field following the trade for C.J. Gable.
Perhaps most impressive has been the development of the team’s Canadian content. The team’s top two draft picks from this year — WR Nate Behar and OL Jean-Simon Roy — have not made an impact, but others have, including Kwaku Boateng (four sacks, one forced fumble), Jordan Hoover and starting linebacker Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga.
Boateng has recorded three tackles in four games this month, while Mulumba-Tshimanga has four tackles and a forced fumble in addition to two special teams tackles. Hoover notched a pair of special teams tackles in a win over the Lions on Oct. 21.
Last year’s second round pick Arjen Colquhoun signed this season and has also enjoyed some success, starting games at field corner while chipping in with 22 tackles and an interception in eight games. He has eight tackles over his last two games since returning from injury.
While injuries have frustrated the fans and coaching staff, in the end, the Eskimos may be better for it. Duke Williams has to be the obvious choice for Eskimos Most Outstanding Rookie.
For a team that leads the CFL with a 13-3-1 record, the Stampeders have had no issues leaning on first-year players this season, led by Marken Michel and Jameer Thurman.
Both players made my list of top rookies this season, although Michel’s status is unknown moving forward after suffering a leg injury vs. the Riders nearly two weeks ago. Thurman continues to thrive, piling up 11 tackles in three games in October.
Despite the return of Charleston Hughes, James Vaughters remains an important part of the rotation on the Stamps’ D-line, racking up three defensive tackles in three games this month.
Reggie Begelton had four catches in October in a limited role for the Stamps, but could get a closer look with injuries to Michel and veteran receiver Marquay McDaniel. Much like Eric Rogers, DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden and, most recently, Marken Michel, all Begelton needs is a chance.
Riley Jones continues to play special teams (two special teams tackles in October), while Patrick Levels has been on and off DeVone Claybrooks’ defence throughout 2017 — but the 23-year-old is game-tested and ready if called upon.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on Justin Renfrow, who made his first career start at left guard vs. the Eskimos.
Michel barely edges out Thurman for Stamps Most Outstanding Rookie.
From the Riders’ perspective, the last month has been all about Christion Jones, whose 61-yard punt return touchdown helped end the Riders’ long losing streak at McMahon Stadium. Jones has become one of the CFL’s premier return men and will be one to watch heading into the playoffs.
Jones is the latest in a list of impressive new kick returners across the league.
Dariusz Bladek has been a rotational guard for the Riders as Chris Jones eases his 2017 11th overall pick into the lineup, while the same goes for defensive end Tobi Antigha, who failed to record a sack this month but was able to rack up an impressive nine tackles in four games.
Defensive lineman Antonio Longino has been used sparingly this year but did play in a blowout win over the Alouettes, recording a defensive tackle in the process. With Sam Williams (and Otha Foster) out, Derrick Moncrief has enjoyed his time at SAM with 11 tackles in four games.
The Riders didn’t expect to get 2016 third round pick Elie Bouka, who had NFL aspirations, into their lineup so soon. But he’s here and already making an impact on special teams, with three tackles on kick coverage in three games in October. Going into November, the Riders’ defensive backfield is much deeper than we might have guessed back when camp broke.
Marquise Williams has some upside but is buried on the Riders’ quarterback depth chart with Kevin Glenn, Brandon Bridge and Vernon Adams Jr. all getting time on the field. He hasn’t played this year and could be in tough to make the team in 2018.
Shout out to Denzel Radford, who’s turned heads with his special teams play. The 2017 sixth round pick is third in the league in special teams tackles with 23 over the span of 17 games.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
First overall pick Faith Ekakitie still plays a rotational role, but the defensive tackle out of Iowa made a greater impact in October, totaling three tackles in as many games (notably, all five of his tackles this season have come in the Bombers’ last five outings). It appears Defensive Coordinator Richie Hall is ready to take the reins off this season’s top prospect.
Like Faith, most of the Bombers’ top newcomers have been on the defensive side, starting in the secondary with Brandon Alexander and Brian Walker. Alexander added 16 tackles in the month of October, bringing the field corner’s total up to 49 on the season. Walker has been equally impressive at field half, especially for a 21-year-old, compiling 10 tackles in four games this month.
Defensive tackle Cory ‘Poop’ Johnson has been one of the most underrated players in the CFL, helping the Bomber D-line with 18 tackles and four sacks this year. Half of those sacks came in Saturday’s loss to the BC Lions.
Jovan Santos-Knox has done a nice job stepping in at WILL linebacker. In four games this month, the 23-year-old amassed 22 defensive tackles, four special teams tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
L’Damian Washington has gotten regular playing time due to injuries in the Bombers’ receiving corps, recording six catches for 88 yards in three games.
While third round pick and defensive back Abubakar Conteh was released, fullback John Rush has five special teams tackles this year for the Blue and Gold. Kahlen Branning has one special teams tackle, joined by international DB Robert Porter who has one defensive tackle and one special teams tackle in October.
It’s between Walker and Alexander for the top rookie in Winnipeg, with honourable mentions to Johnson and Santos-Knox.
Despite missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012, you can’t call it a lost season for the Tabbies. Not only have they gone on an impressive late-season run, they’ve also established some key building blocks for the future.
Richard Leonard, considered by many the favourite to win Most Outstanding Rookie, is a good place to start. All the 26-year-old does is make plays, piling up 71 tackles and five interceptions despite playing most of the year at field corner.
American Ryker Mathews, a 6-foot-6, 320-pound tackle out of Brigham Young, has taken over the starting right tackle spot on the O-line. Defensive back and 24-year-old Mariel Cooper has burst onto the scene for the Ticats, recording eight tackles and a sack his last two games.
2017 draft picks Connor McGough and Justin Vaughn continue to play a rotational role on the defensive line. McGough recorded four special teams tackles in as many games this month, while Vaughn made a tackle vs. the Als on Oct. 22, giving him 11 tackles and two sacks on the season. Both should be regular starters, at the very least, before too long.
Elsewhere, Jason Neill made a start at defensive tackle with Davon Coleman out vs. Ottawa. Defensive end Ryan Mueller made his CFL debut on Oct. 6, playing four games this month and recording two defensive tackles and one special teams tackle.
Not to be forgotten, after flashing potential in the summer, Damarr Aultman didn’t get on the field in October. And finally, diminutive return man Willie Quinn made his CFL debut on Oct. 6, totaling 184 return yards in two games.
Leonard is without a doubt the Ticats’ top rookie, and is at least a 50-50 bet to win the national honour come late November.
The late hiring of Jim Popp and Marc Trestman led to a lot of new faces for the Toronto Argonauts, many of whom came in without any CFL experience. It’s fair to say their seamless transition has been central to a bounce back year for the Double Blue that could see the Argos finish first in the East.
Three of my top 10 rookies in the CFL are Argonauts, led by a budding superstar in James Wilder Jr. If the Argos can keep Wilder on this side of the border, there’s massive potential (as big as his 6-foot-2, 232-pound frame) for the 25-year-old back moving forward. In two games in October, Wilder has rushed for 184 yards on 31 carries (5.9 yards per carry) to go with 14 catches for 174 yards (that’s 358 yards from scrimmage over that span).
While Wilder provides the thunder, Martese Jackson is the Argos’ lightning. Jackson is third in the CFL with 1,111 total return yards, while in October he scored his first career offensive touchdown on a reception from Ricky Ray.
Not to be outdone, Dylan Wynn made four defensive tackles in the month of October, increasing his total to 33 on the season to go with six sacks. Wilder probably headlines the race for Most Outstanding Rookie, but the Argos have had a bevy of other newbies playing important roles this season.
William Campbell has anchored the O-line that’s allowed Ricky Ray to go over 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career. Also on offence, Jimmy Ralph had a career game against the Bombers, recording 89 yards on six receptions in Week 18. In three October games, Ralph had eight catches for 110 yards.
Despite a deep and talented secondary, Alden Darby appears to have a cornerback spot locked down, recording eight tackles over three games this month. Qudarius Ford is also earning his playing time — he has 12 tackles in two games this month but didn’t dress vs. Winnipeg.
As far as Canadian content, Malcolm Williams is seeing the field quite a bit at field wideout, catching four passes for 37 yards in three games in October. Nakas Onyeka has added three special teams tackles, bringing his total up to 12.
The defending Grey Cup Champs were hit hard in free agency, meaning they’ve had to rely on a number of first-year players across the board in 2017. It starts in the secondary, where Corey Tindal, Sherrod Baltimore and Winston Rose have all taken on starting roles.
Tindal has 63 tackles in 16 games in an active role at corner, including 15 tackles in three games this month. Rose made his debut late in September and has since made 16 tackles in three games in October. Baltimore has been equally impressive, recording 11 tackles in his last three games — all victories for the REDBLACKS.
Injuries have opened up some playing time at linebacker for Kevin Brown, who’s notched 10 tackles (and two special teams tackles) plus a sack this month.
On the D-line, Jake Ceresna returned to the lineup after a month on the shelf, recording two tackles in a win over Hamilton. Avery Ellis recorded his sixth sack of the season early in October, also bringing his tackles total up to 28. Defensive tackle Michael Wakefield picked up two tackles in a win over the Lions.
On the other side of the ball, Dominique Rhymes enjoyed a career game in a comeback win over the Riders, catching three balls for 85 yards. While Josh Stangby has been out since September, the REDBLACKS are calling on Jake Harty, who could see an increased role with Brad Sinopoli out.
Up front, Evan Johnson has started six straight games at left guard. He’s backed up by a fellow rookie in Zachary Intzandt. There’s something in the water for the offensive linemen in the nation’s capital, who seem to thrive no matter who’s in there.
Finally, some long overdue love for long snappers. Louis-Philippe Bourassa has done a nice job handling the position for the REDBLACKS.
Third round draft pick Dondre Wright probably gets the nod for top rookie in Montreal after taking over the starting safety spot following a season-ending injury to Chris Ackie. While the Alouettes’ defence has struggled, Wright has put on full display his athleticism and ability to learn on the fly after the team switched defensive coordinators.
Branden Dozier has been just as impressive for the Als, showing an ability to run downhill as a tackler on the way to 60 tackles in his rookie season — including 14 tackles (and three more on specials) in three games this October. Dozier even made the start at safety last time out, showing his versatility.
Rookie linebacker Dominique Tovell played only one game in October after nearly two months off, recording four tackles against the Eskimos. Fellow defender Reggie Northrup made six tackles in his CFL debut on Sept. 29, recording 12 tackles in three games this season.
Quarterback Matt Shiltz has had his ups and downs, like any rookie quarterback, and could be about to make his first career start in the season finale. Shiltz has completed 28 of his 45 attempts (62%) for 289 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Second round pick (12th overall) Fabion Foote is getting onto the field more as a rotational defensive tackle, making four tackles over three games in October. He’s got something to play for in the season finale as he looks to claim his stake to a starting job in 2018.
Defensive end Ivan McLennan has 17 tackles and a sack, but has played only one game in October, recording a single tackle vs. the Eskimos. Rookie receiver George Johnson has cooled after a nice start, going the last six games without a catch.
DJ Lalama has eight special teams tackles this season, while Sean Jamieson has made two straight starts at left guard in Phillip Blake’s spot. Former Sherbrooke tight end Oumar Toure is seeing some reps at fullback and on specials.
It’s been a tough season for the Alouettes, but the team can be excited about Dondre Wright, Branden Dozier and Fabion Foote. All three should be starters next season while Wright projects to win team Most Outstanding Rookie honours for his steady debut.