November 17, 2017

Feeling Blue: Former Rider navigating Trestman’s offence

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Had things gone just a little bit differently, Armanti Edwards might be flinging footballs for the Montreal Alouettes rather than catching them for the Toronto Argonauts.

Who knows what might have been in store for Montreal football fans had Edwards decided to sign with them a few seasons back. Perhaps they’d have witnessed the quick development of the heir apparent to retired master Anthony Calvillo. Perhaps Montreal’s search for a successor would have been short and fruitful. As it is, the Argos are happy Edwards snubbed those advances as they have been benefitting from having him emerge as an important possession-stretching receiver in 2017.

“Could have been very different a few years ago,” agreed Edwards, reflecting on the time his name was on the Alouettes’ negotiation list and he was a target of general manager Jim Popp, the man who is now running football operations for the Argos.

“He did want me as a quarterback but at that time I was still pursuing my NFL career so I had turned him down,” said Edwards. “If I would have taken that instead of going to Bears’ camp things could have possibly been very different.”

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The former Roughrider, and college quarterback, is thriving in Marc Trestman’s offence in Toronto (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

As it is, Edwards has endeared himself to Argo fans with his sticky-handed abilities, emerging as a dependable threat, having caught 83 of the 105 passes thrown his way in 2017. Not many of those 22 missed connections would be categorized as drops, either. As Toronto gets set to host the Saskatchewan Roughriders in this Sunday’s Eastern Final, Edwards looms as an important factor, even if he is still zipping a little under the radar of many.

“I think Armanti is probably the most underrated receiver in the CFL,” said teammate S.J. Green, the East All-Star who has enjoyed a remarkable comeback season in double blue. “I don’t think our coaches could be any more happy with what he’s brought to the table this year.”

Edwards came up just shy of the thousand-yard club with a total of 962 receiving yards and had he not missed a game earlier in the season due to injury, he’d have likely been in that club. He has stabbed tough catches in tight coverage and maintained possession through what seems an inordinate number of hellacious hits, making him a go-to guy in that Argonauts’ offence whenever a critical catch is necessary, penalizing teams that have decided to double up on Green instead.

“The number one thing that stands out is just his level of consistency,” said Green. “A hell of a talent. Very sure handed.”

Edwards was acquired from the Roughriders in a trade for offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski on the eve of the full opening of training camps last May. Popp finally had his guy, although the plan was different now, with Edwards expected to bring some depth to the Argonaut receiving corps, rather than being a possible quarterback of the future.

“When they told me I was being traded, it wasn’t good news,” admitted Edwards, who played just the one season in Saskatchewan, an injury-troubled one at that. “But when they told me where I was going and I realized Coach (Marc) Trestman and Jim Popp (were) already over here, I started to get a pretty good feeling.”

Edwards had crossed paths with the Argos’ head coach in the NFL, albeit in a fleeting way. He was at Chicago’s training camp in 2014 while Trestman was still head coach of the Bears. One of the late cuts at that camp, Edwards then missed a couple of pro seasons before signing with the Roughriders in 2016, where he might have gotten the occasional chance to throw from a wildcat formation, although shifting back to pivot was not a permanent option.

“I was definitely gonna be a receiver with Saskatchewan,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was gonna be a full time quarterback at that time.”


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Edwards is set to face his former team this weekend in the Eastern Final (The Canadian Press)

Edwards was a superb college quarterback who made a name for himself while he was setting new standards at Appalachian State. When he left, he could lay claim to more than five dozen school football records and a couple of Walter Payton Awards as the outstanding offensive player in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA). Drafted in 2010 by the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, Edwards was immediately shifted to the receiver position and it was there that he decided his quarterbacking days were over, later spurning Popp’s original overtures in Montreal.

“I learned a lot my third year as a receiver down south when Ricky Proehl (the standout NFL receiver who went on to become a coach) joined the Panthers and became a part of the receiving coaching group,” said Edwards. “That’s when I actually started to learn the position and what I needed to do.”

Dedicated to becoming a better receiver, Edwards didn’t give serious thought to moving north as a quarterback. He stayed the course as a pass-catcher and managed to turn some heads in Regina, though he was limited to just four games of action in 2016. This season, in Toronto, the 29-year-old has helped glue together a receiving corps with his adhesive hands.

“I think Armanti is probably the most underrated receiver in the CFL.”

S.J. Green on Edwards

With 28 second down conversion catches this season, Edwards didn’t quite rank with the elites in that category, where Ottawa’s Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson led the way with 41 each with Green, Edmonton’s Brandon Zylstra and Hamilton’s Luke Tasker not far behind. But it does put him in the “you should know where he is on second down” category, with his ability to make a tough catch in the hard-hitting traffic of the over-the-middle crowd shining again and again.

“He’s tough as hell, man,” marvelled Green, noting Edwards’ knack for stabbing footballs and then surviving the immediate, knee-buckling hits he is often subjected to. “He’s special.” The feeling, by the way, is mutual. Edwards raved about Green’s stellar season and called him “our mentor on and off the field.”

Edwards is not tiny, but he is not the imposing physical target that a guy like Green is. Listed at 5’11” and 190 lbs, Edwards looks smaller than that on the field amidst all the traffic. But he makes catches and moves the sticks, occasionally being let loose down in the more wide open spaces, turning on the speed that can punish a defensive back for jumping to the conclusion that he is running a simple curl. “He’s made the big catch across the middle,” said Green. “He’s made the big catch downfield.”

“He was once a quarterback so he sees the game from a different perspective than most receivers might,” said Green, commenting on the mental edge Edwards might have over most other receivers. “He’s very bright.”

“It took some time to learn,” said Edwards when asked if he found his transition to receiver to be difficult. He’s found that he’s kept some of his intuition from the old days in the pocket. “One thing that I didn’t lose was my football instincts and awareness. So I can kinda feel guys around me.”

A little of the ol’ quarterback remains in Armanti Edwards’ DNA.

Far removed from his days as a star college slinger, though, it is his hard-earned improvement as a man on the other end of the connection that has him starring with the Argos as the Eastern Final looms.