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November 14, 2017

Into the Spotlight: 20 to watch in the division finals

Johany Jutras/Argonauts.ca

TORONTO — Two wins are all it’ll take to crown the next Grey Cup Champion.

The Division Finals have arrived and CFL.ca returns with a list of players to watch in the 2017 Grey Cup Playoffs — a list not as much based on statistics or who’s had the best regular season but instead who could have the greatest impact when everything is on the line.

You saw last week’s list of Top 30 Players to Watch in the CFL Playoffs and it generated some heated debate. While we’ll continue to monitor that list, this weekend’s matchups offer some pretty intriguing storylines.

With that, here are CFL.ca’s Top 20 Players to keep an eye on in the Finals:

20.
C.J. GABLE
RB | EDM

The move west has benefited both C.J. Gable and the Edmonton Eskimos, who — not coincidentally — haven’t lost since acquiring him. Well-known for his ability in pass protection, Gable has also put up the numbers for the Green and Gold, rushing for 367 yards and two touchdowns on 72 carries (5.1 yards per carry). The Esks have found their replacement for the injured John White.

19.
NAAMAN ROOSEVELT
REC | SSK

While Duron Carter gets all the press, Naaman Roosevelt is equally lethal in the Riders’ offence, averaging 85.2 yards per game the last two seasons. With that impressive duo catching passes, the Riders should still have one of the most lethal passing attacks out of any team in the Grey Cup Playoffs — no matter who’s playing quarterback.

18.
MICAH JOHNSON
DL | CGY

Alex Singleton gets a lot of the credit for Calgary’s stifling run defence this year, but Micah Johnson‘s role has been equally vital. While Johnson racked up a career-high nine sacks, a lot of what he does can’t be summed up on the stat sheet. There were times this year when teams simply gave up trying to run the ball against Calgary’s front-seven, and Johnson is a big reason.

17.
CHARLESTON HUGHES
DL | CGY

For the fifth time in six seasons, Charleston Hughes recorded double-digit sacks for the Stamps — this despite having to miss four games due to injury. At 33, Hughes remains one of the league’s most dangerous pass rushers, and should continue to pose problems for offensive play-callers in the post-season. Ninety-nine career sacks don’t lie.

16.
JEROME MESSAM
RB | CGY

The run of Stampeders continues with Jerome Messam at No. 16. Messam notched his second consecutive 1,000-yard season in Calgary, punishing opposing defences with his downhill running style. He’s still one of the most dominant running backs in the game and should feel fresh after some rest going into the Western Final. That’s important considering playoff time is when the ground game matters most.

15.
JAMAR WALL
DB | CGY

Despite their obvious importance in the three-down game, defensive backs often don’t get enough love in the CFL. Jamar Wall is one of the best in the business, which is magnified in the playoffs when he’s up against the league’s top receivers on every single play. Wall is one of the reasons Calgary’s defence has been so dominant over the years, and he’ll be key in the matchup against Edmonton’s prolific group of receivers.

14.
DEREL WALKER
REC | EDM

One of the most talented receivers in the league has flown under the radar this year, in large part because of the play of Brandon Zylstra. Make no mistake, though: Derel Walker is one of the must-see players of the 2017 playoffs. In seven games with the Green and Gold this season, Walker has recorded 601 receiving yards — an average of 85.9 yards per game.

13.
BEAR WOODS
LB | TOR

On an Argo defence that saw plenty of change in 2017, Bear Woods was the anchor of a unit that improved almost weekly. In the playoffs, where the intensity is turned up a little bit, the Argos can be certain Woods’ strong play will carry over for Corey Chamblin’s hard-hitting unit.

12.
ROY FINCH
RET | CGY

No player returned punts as well as Roy Finch this year, the Stampeders’ slippery return man averaging 16.8 yards per attempt in that category. This season marked the return of the return man across the league, but few can change a game in the blink of an eye the way Finch can. He dominated the Eskimos on Labour Day and will seek a repeat performance in the Western Final.

11.
BRANDON BRIDGE
QB | SSK

Although he’s a Canadian quarterback, Brandon Bridge is not merely a CFL novelty. The Mississauga, Ont. native is an integral part of the Riders’ offence, teaming up with Kevin Glenn as the change-of-pace guy when the offence can’t find its groove. Bridge is a smooth runner with a quick release who can quickly change the tempo of a game.

10.
ED GAINEY
DB | SSK

Ed Gainey was a terror for opposing quarterbacks in 2017, tripling his career interceptions total with 10 pick-offs this season. The Riders’ halfback had three multi-pick games this year, including one game with four interceptions, becoming one of the league’s most impactful defensive players. Sometimes you have to be a little lucky, but whatever it is, right now things are going Gainey’s way.

9.
S.J. GREEN
REC | TOR

S.J. Green was the CFL’s busiest receiver in 2017, drawing a league-high 163 targets in his first year in Toronto. Despite his age (32), Green is one of the league’s biggest impact players and will see the ball lots from Ricky Ray in Marc Trestman’s offence. It’s a far cry for a player whose career was threatened by injury just last season.

8.
BRANDON ZYLSTRA
REC | EDM

Statistically, no receiver has enjoyed a more productive start to his career than Eskimos standout Brandon Zylstra. The only reason he falls to No. 8 is because of the diversity of weapons on Edmonton’s offence, but make no mistake: the league’s leading receiver is sure to have an impact if the Eskimos are going to go into Calgary and upset the Stamps.

7.
ALEX SINGLETON
LB | CGY

There’s a reason that Alex Singleton is the first player since Bombers legend Doug Brown to be nominated for three major awards. Singleton is the Calgary Stampeders’ Most Outstanding Player and for good reason, having led one of the best defences the league has ever seen. He’ll be a key factor in trying to slow down Eskimos running back C.J. Gable.

6.
JAMES WILDER JR.
RB | TOR

It’s hard to argue there’s been a better player in the entire league over the last couple of months. James Wilder Jr. has invigorated Marc Trestman’s offence with new life, steering the Boatmen to one of the best rushing attacks in the CFL. We know it’s a passing league, but championship teams also typically run the ball well in November. On an already-explosive Argos offence, it says a lot that Wilder may now be the centrepiece.

5.
MIKE REILLY
QB | EDM

The run of quarterbacks continues, with Mike Reilly being the second-last quarterback on our board despite putting up arguably the best season of his career. Reilly has a good chance to win his first Most Outstanding Player and his second Grey Cup in three years, as the dark horse Eskimos head into the Western Final on a six-game winning streak.

4.
KEVIN GLENN
QB | SSK

At 38, Kevin Glenn is trying to re-write his career narrative by winning his first Grey Cup — and carrying a team on his shoulders. Glenn was sharp in his team’s first playoff game last Sunday, throwing a pass touchdown and adding another on the ground while not turning the football over. He’s one win away from returning to the championship game.

3.
BO LEVI MITCHELL
QB | CGY

Is Bo Levi Mitchell slipping a little under the radar going into the 2017 post-season? Not on our watch. Bo didn’t quite replicate last season’s success that brought him an MOP, but the Katy, Texas native is still one of the CFL’s best quarterbacks and enters the playoffs with plenty to prove. Mitchell will be a central figure as he goes toe-to-toe with MOP nominee Mike Reilly and the Eskimos.

2.
RICKY RAY
QB | TOR

A year ago we talked about Henry Burris possibly winning a championship and sailing off into the sunset. We’re not calling this the end for Ricky Ray, who’s proven at age 38 he’s got lots left in the tank, but wouldn’t it be special for the CFL’s fourth all-time leading passer to go out on top just like Hank? Ray is playing some of the best football of his career going into the Eastern Final.

1.
DURON CARTER
REC/DB | SSK

In the Riders’ pre-game press conference, Duron Carter finished up his interview and promptly sat with the reporters, sparking a debate among his DBs which receiving corps is the CFL’s best. The spotlight always seems to shine bright on No. 89, who is the only non-quarterback to snag a top-five spot on this list. Everyone’s watching to see what Carter will do next.