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December 1, 2017

Taking a spin on the quarterback carousel

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Welcome to the off-season.

Let me start by saying I expect to receive some heat for this (and I welcome it), but the point of this exercise is to have some fun and also open up a discussion on what’s going to happen before kickoff next June.

At first glance, the possibilities appear to be endless as this hurricane that is the 2018 CFL off-season continues to develop. It starts at the quarterback position, where three starters are currently without a contract past Feb. 13:

Pending 2018 Free Agent Quarterbacks

NAME SCHOOL TEAM 2017 STARTER?
Jacory Harris Miami MTL No
Drew Willy Buffalo MTL No
Trevor Harris Edinboro OTT Yes
Cody Fajardo Nevada TOR No
Ricky Ray Sacramento State TOR Yes
Everett Golson Florida State HAM No
Jeremiah Masoli Mississippi HAM Yes
Dan LeFevour Central Michigan WPG No
Brandon Bridge South Alabama SSK No
James Franklin Missouri EDM No
Travis Lulay Montana State BC No

 

Trevor Harris to the Als? James Franklin to the NFL? The arrival of Johnny Manziel? Zach Collaros traded? Ricky Ray retirement? From the outlandish to the legitimate speculation, these are all topics of interest going into the next three months.

As the quarterback carousel starts spinning, how will the picture change for 2018? I highlight some of the key names below, then break it down team-by team.

I can assure you that not all of these things will actually happen, but promise you there is some semblance of logic behind every scenario:

James Franklin, 26

A young quarterback with untapped upside, James Franklin will be talked about all off-season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

I will happily go on record saying that I think James Franklin is as can’t-miss a quarterback prospect the CFL has seen over the last decade or so. Not only does Franklin have the physical tools that scouts desire in a pro quarterback (6-foot-2, 225 pounds, strong arm, quick release), his dedication to his craft is almost unparalleled.

The son of an Evangelist, Franklin is a born leader that is ready to step in and command an offence — a big part of succeeding as a professional pivot. Combine all of those things with the body of work we’ve seen so far (12 touchdowns, 1 interception in 12 appearances) and there’s reason to believe the 26-year-old can step in and become a star right away.

What’s special about Franklin’s situation is that quarterbacks under 30, especially ones that are this hyped, rarely ever hit the free agent market. So where will the most talked about quarterback free agent end up?

The Eskimos are not about to trade Mike Reilly, especially in the year they’re hosting the 106th Grey Cup, while Calgary, BC and Winnipeg know who’s starting under centre in 2018. I believe that Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa are all possibilities, as not one of those clubs has a quarterback under contract past Feb. 13. In Montreal, the Als could look to land Franklin in favour of Durant.

In the end, to me, Saskatchewan makes the most sense. It was Jones who first scouted Franklin back in 2015 at a camp in Nebraska, eventually bringing the quarterback into mini-camp. That connection combined with the Riders’ 2017 resurgence and their lack of a franchise QB makes Regina a logical landing spot.

I view Franklin as the missing piece of a potential Chris Jones/Saskatchewan Roughriders dynasty.

Where He Should Go: Saskatchewan

Travis Lulay, 34

Travis Lulay was enjoying a productive season for the Lions before his season-ending injury (The Canadian Press)

Lulay is coming off major reconstructive knee surgery and won’t likely be ready for the start of 2018. While there’s no guarantee he doesn’t retire and pursue a career in coaching (there are already whispers that teams will be interested right away should that happen), the 34-year-old showed in 2017 that he can still play at a high level.

The Lions should continue to focus their energy on Jonathon Jennings, who took a step back last season, but would be wise to secure the services of Lulay, a veteran backup whose roles on the side as a ‘player coach’ and mentor are just as important as anything.

Where He Should Go: BC

Brandon Bridge, 25

Brandon Bridge has emerged as one of the CFL’s top QB prospects, yet remains without a contract (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

This is a really tough one to read. Bridge enjoyed a solid season for the Riders in 2017 and has become one of the league’s most intriguing quarterback prospects. Yet after he threw 12 touchdown passes and five interceptions, frequently taking over the second half of games this season, he remains without a contract beyond Feb. 13.

For Bridge to really take the next step, one team needs to dedicate a full-time starting job to the 25-year-old Mississauga, Ont. native out of Southern Alabama. The question is, if not Saskatchewan, who?

I’m not sure Bridge fits Jaime Elizondo or Marc Trestman’s offences in Ottawa and Toronto respectively, while Hamilton is more likely to turn to a proven Jeremiah Masoli should June Jones return. The question for me is whether, no pun intended, the Alouettes have burned the bridge between themselves and their former Canadian QB.

Remember, it was Jim Popp who released Bridge in August of 2016, while Jacques Chapdelaine is no longer there either, meaning a return to Montreal — where Bridge could have a legitimate chance to start — shouldn’t be out of the question. Call me crazy but I think Bridge and the Als are a terrific mutual fit, where the kid could finally become an undisputed starting CFL quarterback.

Where He Should Go: Montreal

Jeremiah Masoli, 29

After a winless start to the season, Jeremiah Masoli came in and won six games for the Ticats in 2017 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The CFL off-season’s load-bearing wall might be in Steeltown, inconsequentially, where the Ticats have two of the biggest names on the quarterback carousel.

Zach Collaros went from MOP candidate in 2015 to the bench in 2017 when he was replaced by Jeremiah Masoli by Labour Day. Yet it’s Collaros who’s under contract and Masoli is a free agent heading towards Feb. 13.

Masoli played like a star in his 10 starts this year, throwing for 3,177 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions while leading the Ticats to a 6-4 record. He and new head coach June Jones are a match made in heaven, and should Jones sign a new deal to remain Hamilton’s head coach, I’d expect the same for Masoli.

I predict that Masoli and Johnny Manziel are the Ticats’ two quarterbacks next season, but where does that leave Zach Collaros?

Where He Should Go: Hamilton

Zach Collaros, 29

If not in the Ticats’ plans, Zach Collaros should garner plenty of interest this off-seasona cross the CFL (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

If Masoli stays in Hamilton as predicted, it seems likely that Collaros, not a pending free agent, will either be traded or released. The market for the 29-year-old should be hot — because what quarterback-needy team wouldn’t like a proven player in his prime, who’s played in a Grey Cup and flirted with a Most Outstanding Player honour?

Montreal and Saskatchewan immediately come to mind, as does Ottawa in the off-chance Trevor Harris doesn’t return. But I think Toronto makes the most sense, whether Ricky Ray (contemplating retirement) returns or not.

If Ray doesn’t come back, Collaros gets the reins in an offence and city he’s comfortable with (he operated a similar offence under Scott Milanovich during his time in Toronto). And if Ray opts to play in 2018, Collaros should be OK with having to wait a year to start, especially knowing the professional development he could enjoy under Marc Trestman.

Jim Popp spent last season re-stocking the shelves in Toronto with a lineup of young quarterbacks to inherit Ray’s spot. Yet I think the Argos’ GM will be wary of what happened in Montreal, where the team struggled to replace a retiring legend in Anthony Calvillo in 2013. If he can get someone proven, he’ll do it.

From a quarterback’s perspective, playing for Trestman is an appealing situation, and for Collaros it would be a return to where it all started. All signs point to a quick trip east on the QEW for Collaros.

Where He Should Go: Toronto

Ricky Ray, 38

Ricky Ray won a record-breaking fourth Grey Cup, but heads into the off-season with questions over his future (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

I won’t burn too many words on this one. Ricky Ray stayed healthy in 2017 and had one of the best seasons of his career under Marc Trestman. If he doesn’t retire, Jim Popp and the Argos will welcome him back with open arms.

Ray looks like he’s having fun out there and could see a chance to add to his storied Hall of Fame career with a first MOP and a fifth Grey Cup ring.

Where He Should Go: Toronto

Trevor Harris, 31

If not for an injured shoulder, Trevor Harris might have been in the MOP conversation this season (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

There are a number of dynamics involved in any contract negotiations between the Ottawa REDBLACKS and Trevor Harris, from the alternative options Marcel Desjardins has available to the amount of money Harris feels he deserves to be paid.

There’s little reason for Harris to leave, from both perspectives, considering Harris gets a chance to start and also makes Ottawa a perennial Grey Cup contender. Yet we also know that Desjardins takes an analytical approach to being a GM: he won’t overpay, while at the same time, if there’s someone out there he feels is better, he won’t hesitate to make the move.

I expect a deal to get done between Harris and the REDBLACKS, but if not, other teams could come calling, including the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Montreal Alouettes.

Where He Should Go: Ottawa

Darian Durant, 35

Darian Durant could be ‘one and done’ after a tough 2017 season in Montreal (Johany Jutras/Argonauts.ca)

Darian Durant’s struggles in 2017 could lead him elsewhere next season if the Als decide to part ways. Something has to change in Montreal after a three-win season and if it’s the quarterback, where could Durant end up?

The 35-year-old may not be a starter anymore in the CFL, but should offer value as a backup. The first place that comes to mind is Winnipeg, where he would re-join Paul LaPolice (his offensive coordinator in Saskatchewan in 2008 and 2009) and his old top receiver Weston Dressler.

The drop-off in production from Winnipeg’s offence was significant when Matt Nichols wasn’t under centre last season, and Durant would be a nice insurance policy in addition to his veteran wisdom. This one’s a shot in the dark but Winnipeg makes sense.

Where He Should Go: Winnipeg

Drew Willy, 31

Drew Willy held his own in two starts for the Als this season as he heads into free agency this winter (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

I’ll finish right here with Drew Willy, who I believe is still considered a solid No. 2/fringe No. 1 option in the eyes of coaches and GMs. Willy looked better than any other Alouettes quarterback in 2017 and could end up back there as the Als look to develop youngsters Matt Shiltz and Antonio Pipkin.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the Alouettes end up with someone else at quarterback and Willy goes elsewhere. I think Edmonton is a good destination, where Willy’s skill-set should jive with Jason Maas and Carson Walch’s offence and he’d be a veteran backup to Mike Reilly (in the event that Franklin leaves).

Willy has been ‘thrown to the wolves’, so to speak, for two straight seasons on last-place teams. A team like Edmonton could rejuvenate his career.

Where He Should Go: Edmonton

Whatever does end up happening, I expect to see plenty of movement across the league in free agency — especially at the quarterback position.

Who do you see going where? Join the debate in the comments below or you can send me a tweet any time.

Below I’ve laid out one of many scenarios that could make sense:

My expected QB depth chart 2018

BC: Jonathon Jennings, Travis Lulay, Alex Ross, Mitchell Gale

EDM: Mike Reilly, Drew Willy, Danny O’Brien

CGY: Bo Levi Mitchell, Andrew Buckley, Ricky Stanzi

SSK: James Franklin, Kevin Glenn, Vernon Adams Jr., Marquise Williams, David Watford

WPG: Matt Nichols, Darian Durant, Dominique Davis

HAM: Jeremiah Masoli, Johnny Manziel, Dan LeFevour, Everett Golson

TOR: Ricky Ray, Zach Collaros, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Dakota Prukop, Cody Fajardo

OTT: Trevor Harris, Drew Tate, Ryan Lindley

MTL: Brandon Bridge, Jeff Mathews, Matthew Shiltz, Antonio Pipkin