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November 11, 2018

Into the Spotlight: 30 players to watch in the Grey Cup Playoffs

Patrick Doyle/CFL.ca

TORONTO — It was as though time had frozen, along with everything else on that snowy, frigid night at Ottawa’s TD Place last November.

The stadium turned silent as Ricky Ray took the field, leading the Argos’ huddle with the same exact calm and determination as any other time throughout his 16-year career.

Two weeks in a row the ageless quarterback led late game-winning drives, culminating in a shocking upset in the 105th Grey Cup Championship. A legend was born, Ray’s fourth championship making him one of the greatest quarterbacks the league has ever seen.

These are the Grey Cup Playoffs, where six teams continue their six-month journey with one dream in mind. Where imagination becomes reality, and magical moments live forever. Think Tony Gabriel and ‘the catch’ in 1976, or Dave Ridgeway’s game-winning field goal for the Riders in 1989.

Two years ago it was a 42-year-old Henry Burris, overcoming knee injury in the warm-up before starring in an incredible underdog story.

New legends will be born this year, but who? CFL.ca returns with a list of the Top 30 Players to Watch in the 2018 Grey Cup Playoffs. A list not so much based on who’s had the best regular season but who could have the greatest impact when everything is on the line.

Considering key storylines, past performances or thundering expectation, these are simply players we shouldn’t turn away from:

 

30.
LEWIS WARD
K | OTT

No kicker in the CFL has been more automatic than Lewis Ward, who hasn’t missed since the season’s opening game, setting professional football records along the way. Ward’s field goal streak won’t count in the playoffs, but if the REDBLACKS are in a close playoff game, all eyes will be on the rookie sensation and his golden leg.

29.
STANLEY BRYANT &
JERMARCUS HARDRICK
OT | WPG

Offensive linemen aren’t going to get much play on a ‘players to watch’ list, but with matchups against one or possibly two of the most imposing defensive front-sevens in the CFL, Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick are going to have their hands full throughout the playoffs. Bryant and Hardrick are two are the cornerstones of the Bombers’ impressive O-line.

28.
ALEX GREEN
RB | HAM

The production has been no fluke for Ticats running back Alex Green, who’s scored 13 total touchdowns in 14 career games in two CFL seasons. Green gets the job done on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt this season, but is also an integral part of the Ticats’ passing attack as a regular target for Jeremiah Masoli. The 30-year-old has a chance to make a statement in the coming weeks.

27.
GREG ELLINGSON
SB | OTT

Despite not putting up the numbers we’re accustomed to, Greg Ellingson has been as reliable as always in 2018, recording his fourth straight 1,000-yard season while finding the end zone five times. The engineer of one of the biggest playoff catches the league has ever seen, which sent Ottawa to the Grey Cup three years ago, Ellingson is a sure bet to impact Ottawa’s post-season aspirations.

26.
LARRY DEAN
MLB | HAM

Hitting 100-plus tackles for the first time in his career, Larry Dean has emerged as one of the most reliable linebackers in the three-down game. He’s always around the football and as the Ticats’ offence tries to figure things out in the absence of Brandon Banks, it’s the defence that will have to step up if the team is going to make a deep playoff run.

25.
DEVIER POSEY
WR | BC

Everything is about speed for DeVier Posey, who needed just eight minutes to demonstrate how quickly he can score by finding the end zone three times in a critical late-season game vs. the Eskimos. The 2017 Grey Cup MVP is the vertical threat the Lions have lacked the last couple of seasons, stretching the field and providing an opportunity to score every time he touches the football.

24.
NICK MARSHALL
CB | SSK

Former college quarterback Nick Marshall has made a seamless transition to defensive back in Regina, intercepting three passes and returning two for touchdowns in addition to a forced fumble in his first CFL season. He’s the perfect fit for Chris Jones’ aggressive, hard-hitting defence, and even contributes on the offensive side of the ball, occasionally finding the end zone in short-yardage situations.

23.
DARVIN ADAMS
WR | WPG

There’s no one on the Bombers’ offence more likely to make a big play than Darvin Adams. Winnipeg’s top receiving option has 10 touchdowns this season and nine plays of 30-plus yards, remaining the go-to option for Matt Nichols — even in an offence that sometimes favours the ground attack. Adams has firmly entrenched himself as one of the CFL’s most explosive receivers.

22.
BRAD SINOPOLI
SB | OTT

After setting a Canadian receiver record with 116 receptions this season, Brad Sinopoli turns his attention to winning a third Grey Cup ring and second with the Ottawa REDBLACKS. Sinopoli is far and away the top national pass-catcher out there, part of the three-headed monster in Ottawa that also includes Greg Ellingson and Diontae Spencer.

21.
TYRELL SUTTON
RB | BC

Known for his tough and fearless running style, Tyrell Sutton has found fresh legs and new life following a late-season trade to BC. The 31-year-old has rejuvenated the Lions’ rushing attack, playing a critical role in season-saving wins over Edmonton and Calgary. Sutton will have to be a central figure for Wally Buono’s team, which has struggled to run the ball as a whole in 2018.

20.
LUKE TASKER
SB | HAM

The injury to Brandon Banks only magnifies the value of Luke Tasker in the Ticats’ offence. Jeremiah Masoli‘s top security blanket is the model of consistency, catching four or more passes in 12 of his 15 games on the way to his third 1,000-yard season in four years. Tasker will get the most attention from opposing defences in the playoffs.

19.
ALEX SINGLETON
MLB | CGY

With 100-plus tackles in each of his two full seasons, Alex Singleton continues to set the standard for linebackers in the CFL. The leader of the Stamps’ defence has played a significant role in the team’s defensive success, and is noticeable on almost every snap he plays. Singleton will make a difference at one point or another during the Grey Cup Playoffs.

18.
BRYAN BURNHAM
SB | BC

The human highlight reel of the CFL plays in Vancouver, as no pass is seemingly out of reach for Bryan Burnham. Circus catches aside, Burnham is the go-to receiver for Travis Lulay, and is regarded as one of the league’s most reliable pass-catchers, converting on a high percentage of his opportunities. He’ll see his share of big-play chances as the Lions begin their post-season run.

17.
ED GAINEY
HB | SSK

With defensive playmakers like Charleston Hughes, Willie Jefferson and Ed Gainey, the Riders are bending the philosophy that defence alone can’t win you a Grey Cup. When you have a defensive back like Gainey, who can not only erase the opposition’s top receiver but also come up with a big takeaway in the game’s defining moment, it makes up for the offensive deficiencies pretty easily. Gainey is without a doubt the CFL’s biggest playmaker in the secondary.

16. 
MICAH JOHNSON
DL | CGY

Micah Johnson makes the Stamps a nightmare to try and run the ball against, yet the big man in the middle can also get to the quarterback, ranking second in the league with 13 sacks. He’s the most important cog in what’s been the CFL’s most consistently dominant defences over the last few years, yet remains one of the league’s most underrated stars.

15.
CHARLESTON HUGHES
DE | SSK

He turns 35 in December, but Charleston Hughes still gets it done as one of the CFL’s most dominant pass-rushers. The league’s sack leader with 15 quarterback takedowns forms an imposing duo opposite Willie Jefferson, helping the Riders tie for the CFL lead with 45 sacks on the year. While he’s cooled off of late, with just two sacks in his last seven games, that could only mean he’s due heading into the post-season.

14.
DIONTAE SPENCER
WR | OTT

With Brandon Banks out for the playoffs, Diontae Spencer is likely the most electrifying player on the top-30 list. The diminutive receiver/returner is a threat to score any time he touches the ball, with his presence on offence creating space for other weapons around him including Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli. Spencer will get plenty of touches as the REDBLACKS pursue a second Grey Cup Championship.

13.
ODELL WILLIS
DE | BC

The change of scenery benefited 33-year-old Odell Willis, whose 11 sacks this season tie the third highest total of his career. One of the CFL’s most entertaining and energetic personalities has formed an impressive pass rush duo opposite Shawn Lemon, helping the Lions tie for the league lead with 45 sacks. Willis needs to get to the quarterback for the Lions to have success in the post-season.

12.
WILLIAM POWELL
RB | OTT

William Powell might be the best pure runner in the CFL, ranking second in the league with 1,362 rushing yards and a 5.4-yard average per attempt. He may not get his due in the REDBLACKS’ high-octane passing attack, but Powell’s ability on the ground balances one of the league’s most efficient and productive offences. He’ll be a central figure when Ottawa hosts the Eastern Final with hopes of getting to the Grey Cup.

11.
TRAVIS LULAY
QB | BC

After many had written him off more than once, Travis Lulay is healthy and ready to lead the Lions into their cross-country trek in the CFL’s East Division. It’s been seven years since that incredible run in 2011, which saw a young Lulay engineer an historic mid-season turnaround and capture Grey Cup and MOP honours, but the 35-year-old knows what’s required to play at an elite level and come through when the chips are down.

10.
DELVIN BREAUX
CB | HAM

With so much space and motion on a CFL field, it’s rare to hear of a true shutdown corner, the kind that can erase part of the field for opposing offences. That’s the kind of respect Delvin Breaux has, though, as quarterbacks seldom test the space occupied by No. 24. Breaux leads one of the CFL’s stingiest pass defences in 2018 and will be a significant factor in the Ticats’ hopes of advancing deep in the Grey Cup Playoffs.

9.
ADAM BIGHILL
MLB | WPG

Adam Bighill has backed up every bit of hype in his return to the CFL, putting up all-pro numbers and even emerging as a dark horse candidate for Most Outstanding Player — an award usually reserved for the league’s offensive stars. Bighill has been the heart and soul of the Bombers’ defence, racking up 104 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and a touchdown. A menace to opposing offences.

8.
ERIC ROGERS
WR | CGY

Far and away the CFL’s top receiver from 2014-2015, Eric Rogers hasn’t been able to match that production since his return from the NFL. Still, he’s flashed the same ability, proving nearly impossible to stop in one-on-one coverage while overcoming knee issues in his first season back with the Stamps. With his team backing into the playoffs, can Rogers return to being the CFL’s most dangerous pass-catcher?

7.
ANDREW HARRIS
RB | WPG

As Andrew Harris goes, so go the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The hometown star has been a central part of the team’s offence the last two seasons, placing himself among rushing and receiving leaders at his position, in the process making the Bombers a legitimate annual Grey Cup contender. Can the dual-threat back put himself above all the accolades and carry his team to a championship?

6.
JEREMIAH MASOLI
QB | HAM

Whatever the playoffs hold, Jeremiah Masoli‘s 2018 season has seen him take a defining step in his career, proving he’s a bonafide starter while even putting his name in the mix for Most Outstanding Player. With his first true playoff test on the horizon, can Masoli elevate his game once again? Without Brandon Banks, it’s all on the shoulders of No. 8 to try and capture a Grey Cup for the city of Hamilton.

5.
MATT NICHOLS
QB | WPG

Many have grown weary of the ‘game manager’ label placed on Matt Nichols, but has the Bombers’ quarterback done anything to change the narrative? With just one game of 300-plus passing yards in 2018, Nichols has felt like more of a byproduct of the Bombers’ success this season. To win a Grey Cup, the 31-year-old will, at some point, face an adverse situation and have to put his team on his shoulders and lead it to victory.

4.
ZACH COLLAROS
QB | SSK

Good Zach or Bad Zach? It doesn’t often bode well when you wonder which version of your quarterback will show up, as has been the case with Zach Collaros in Season 1 in Regina. Sometimes it’s the Collaros of old, running around, improvising, and making big plays when the game’s on the line. Other times he’s been inaccurate, indecisive and seemingly lacked confidence. Three years after flirting with an MOP-type season, Collaros could be the story of the 2018 Grey Cup Playoffs.

3.
WILLIE JEFFERSON
DE | SSK

It’s impossible to tune into a Riders game and not notice No. 7 on the defensive side of the ball — that’s how impactful Willie Jefferson has been in his third season on Chris Jones’ team. The Riders’ defensive end, in tandem with another pass-rushing superstar in Charleston Hughes, keeps offensive coordinators awake at night. He’s a constant disruption and makes plays in all sorts of ways, from pressures and sacks to multiple pick-sixes.

2.
BO LEVI MITCHELL
QB | CGY

Bo Levi Mitchell has won a Grey Cup, Most Outstanding Player, and is the CFL’s all-time wins percentage leader for a starting quarterback, yet the Katy, Texas native goes into the 2018 Grey Cup Playoffs with something to prove. On the heels of back-to-back Grey Cup losses and, this year, an injury-ravaged campaign, Mitchell will be judged by how he responds to adversity as he seeks Grey Cup No. 2 of his career.

1.
TREVOR HARRIS
QB | OTT

There’s a feeling that Trevor Harris‘ career in the CFL is about to be defined. Sure, the REDBLACKS’ pivot has flashed elite level play at various times, but there’s a gaping divide between ‘good’ and ‘great’, and the truly great ones win when it matters most. With his team one game away from the Grey Cup, and there being no clear-cut favourite, it’s time for Harris to stare down his detractors, lift his team, and etch his name in greatness.