- Free Agency
One of the CFL’s most prolific offences will look a little different in 2018, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be any less productive.
The Eskimos’ dynamic duo of Derel Walker and Adarius Bowman became a trio last year when Brandon Zylstra made himself not merely a third wheel but the star of the Edmonton passing attack, leading the CFL with 1,687 receiving yards in just his second season in the league.
No team came close to the Eskimos’ 406.8 yards of offence per game last year, led by the Most Outstanding Player in Mike Reilly along with the league’s No. 1-ranked passing attack (331.8 yards per game) and second-ranked rushing attack (96.3 yards per game).
Reilly, meanwhile, led the entire field with 5,830 passing yards, scoring 42 total touchdowns while starting all 18 regular season games for the first time since 2013, as the Eskimos were a well-oiled machine in coming within one score of appearing in the 105th Grey Cup despite an unprecedented rash of injuries throughout the season.
So here we are, the Eskimos having already lost Brandon Zylstra (NFL) and Adarius Bowman (cut), asking ourselves whether there’s any chance the Green and Gold can replicate last year’s offensive output.
It’s a high bar to chase, to be fair, but this writer doesn’t see any reason they can’t.
Zylstra and Bowman are star receivers in the CFL, each with a unique set of skills for the three-down game. The former was even in the conversation for Most Outstanding Player last year, and has averaged an unheard of 100 yards per game in his first two seasons in the league.
Don’t take this as a knock on either of those players, but for the Eskimos, I see no reason to panic.
For me, it starts with Derel Walker, who one could reasonably argue is the most talented receiver in the CFL right now. If I’m betting on one player to lead the league in receiving in 2018, it’s the 26-year-old out of Texas A&M.
Walker has been exceptionally productive for the Eskimos over his first three seasons in the league, recording 3,333 yards over 38 games — an average of around 90 yards a game. Save for his former teammate in Zylstra, no receiver has been more productive over that span.
Look for Walker to draw more than 140 targets from Reilly in 2018, provided of course both players can stay healthy, as the Esks’ offence will run through No. 87. For perspective, last year Zylstra led the Eskimos with 132 targets while Toronto’s S.J. Green led the CFL with 169.
The Waggle: Episode 93
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie joins The Waggle!
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie joins James and Davis to talk about recent contract disputes and also updates the guys on his tour across Canada.
Walker has proven he can handle the high-volume role before. In 2016 he had had single-game highs of 10, 11 and 12 catches in three different contests, while in 2015 he had five games of 10 or more catches, including a career-high 14 receptions vs. Hamilton on Aug. 21.
That’s not to say there aren’t other options in the Esks’ receiving corps. I would argue this is actually one of the youngest, most athletic groups of pass-catchers in the CFL.
A lot of people will be quick to point to D’haquille Williams, who I’ll get to, but for me it starts with 25-year-old Bryant Mitchell, who is in line for a breakout season in 2018.
Mitchell was productive in his first real action last season, compiling 482 yards and three touchdowns in seven games. He had four catches of 30-plus yards over that span, while his 15.1 average put him in 11th place among qualified participants.
While he’s a solid red zone target at 6-foot-2, Bryant can play physically and win the one-on-one battles but also create yards after the catch. More importantly, he’s proving himself to be a strong route-runner (critical in Carson Walch and Jason Maas’ offence) and continues to build chemistry with Mike Reilly going into their third year together.
For Mitchell, I see a collision between talent and opportunity in 2018. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t step into a No. 2 role in that offence from a production standpoint, making him a solid bet for 1,000 yards with the ceiling for more. This hinges on him staying healthy.
Elsewhere, the exit of Zylstra and Bowman opens the door for consistent playing time for 24-year-old D’haquille Williams, who had a strong rookie season despite losing playing time late in the season. Williams made his home at the field wideout spot in 2017, providing a big-play threat for Reilly.
In his rookie season in the league, Williams had 715 yards on 46 catches, averaging 15.5 yards per catch (7th among qualified receivers) while ranking ninth in the CFL with eight catches of 30-plus yards.
Don’t forget about Vidal Hazelton and Kenny Stafford. Stafford has been all over the place the last couple of years, but returned to the Eskimos in 2017, patiently waiting on the team’s practice roster.
Stafford earned the trust of Reilly with a career year in 2015, recording 732 yards in 18 games with nine touchdowns. He’s a deep threat with speed to burn and will compete for a starting job this training camp.
Hazelton’s role will be central given the Eskimos’ key departures. The 30-year-old has flashed potential throughout his three-year CFL career, but has never exceeded 803 yards. The athletic 6-foot-3 New York City native showed his big-play ability when he went 108 yards for the season’s longest offensive touchdown in Week 6 vs. the Lions.
Brock Sunderland, when speaking to the media following Bowman’s release, was also quick to mention Devante ‘Speedy’ Noil and Shaq Hill as young players that could compete for a chance to play in 2018.
The Eskimos’ receiving corps will be a position group to watch in training camp as the Esks look to replace two of their three most productive receivers of the last two seasons.
The reality is, as long as Mike Reilly is healthy the Eskimos will be a top-three passing team in the CFL at minimum. Reilly was close to the 6,000-yard mark in 2017 and could threaten that bar again this season.
Brandon Zylstra’s departure is unfortunate for the Eskimos, while Adarius Bowman was a star both on the field and in the community for Edmonton.
But the Eskimos’ depth, youth and athleticism at receiver have allowed Sunderland to go into free agency with peace of mind, at least when it comes to his pass-catchers.
The Eskimos’ receivers may not be household names right now, but I don’t see that lasting. Look for the Esks to boast one of the league’s most explosive offences once again in 2018, with a couple of new emerging stars to enjoy along the way.