January 7, 2019

Steinberg’s MMQB: NFL departures mean new stars will emerge in ’19

Dave Chidley, CFL.ca

The big story over the last week has been the amount of big names we’ve seen released to pursue NFL opportunities. Duke Williams, Diontae Spencer, Marken Michel, Jameer Thurman, and Ty Long, among others, have all been allowed to sign with NFL teams, and there are more to come.

While it’s always somewhat disappointing as a fan to see top players leave, I think we all understand the cyclical and temporary nature of professional football. In saying that, though, there are a couple silver linings to make the departure of some of your favourite players sting a little less.

First off, not every player who leaves for the NFL will stay there. As we see every year, a good number of players who try their hand south of the border return to the CFL, many times with the same team they were with. And quite honestly, it’s a total crapshoot trying to determine who will and won’t be back.

More importantly, though, the departure of established stars means the development of new ones. Just think about how a pair of the players mentioned above got their opportunities. The fact is, the CFL continuously churns out stars, and 2019 will be no different.

» Esks release Williams for NFL opportunity
» Diontae Spencer released to pursue NFL
» Free Agent Tracker: Keeping an eye on Feb. 12

After being released, Duke Williams has reportedly signed with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

While Duke Williams had a solid pedigree coming from an SEC school (Auburn), he was still relatively unknown to most CFL fans when he joined the Edmonton Eskimos ahead of the 2017 season. After a solid rookie season, Williams was definitely on the radar heading into 2018, but a spot had to open up for him to take the league by storm.

Williams got his opportunity to be a leading man thanks to an NFL departure from one year ago. Remember, it was Edmonton’s Brandon Zylstra who led the league in receiving two seasons ago, which earned him an opportunity with the Minnesota Vikings. With Zylstra gone, Williams exploded for almost 1,600 yards and became one of the league’s biggest stars.

The circumstances weren’t exactly the same for Diontae Spencer in Ottawa, but much like Williams, all the guy needed was a shot. Spencer’s shots didn’t come because of NFL departures, but with Chris Williams and Ernest Jackson leaving following Ottawa’s 2016 Grey Cup win, a door opened up and he flew through it.

In two years with the REDBLACKS, Spencer turned into one of the league’s most dangerous playmakers, both as a receiver and a returner. Spencer just completed his first 1,000-yard season as a receiver and led the CFL in punt return yards.

So, yeah, we’re seeing a number of big names leave for the NFL, and guys like Williams and Spencer will be tough to replace. At the same time, though, I’m really excited to see who busts onto the scene in 2019 as the new household names. We don’t know who those players are going to be, but we know they’ll be there; they always are.

Under the radar

It happened a few weeks ago, but one of the biggest re-signings of the off-season is doing a nice job of flying under the radar. Bringing Jalen Saunders back is huge for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but because he missed the entire second half of last season, it’s probably not getting enough run as it should. Saunders is a straight up superstar and he’s staying put in one of the CFL’s most explosive offences.

Prior to injuring his knee early in September, Saunders was right there with the league’s elite receivers and was on pace for a monster season. In just nine games, Saunders had accumulated 739 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Hamilton had perhaps the quickest receiving tandem in the league.

With Saunders and Brandon Banks, the Ticats could stretch the field unlike anyone else, and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli took full advantage. Assuming Banks is back (he’s a pending free agent), I can’t see how that tandem is any less dangerous in 2019.

We talked about breakout stars a little earlier, and I think Saunders is a leading candidate to be one this season. Let’s face it, had he not suffered his knee injury, he would already be established in that category now.

Bringing back receiver Jalen Saunders was an underrated move by the Ticats (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

Saunders is lightning quick and can turn a routine play into a massive gain as well as anyone in this league. And he’s not just fast in a straight line, either; Saunders is extremely dangerous in man coverage because his cuts are so quick he’s tough to stay with.

With Masoli back for another year as Hamilton’s starter, I really think the sky is the limit for Saunders. Even if Banks doesn’t return as a free agent, having Saunders, Masoli, and Luke Tasker (already under contract) in the fold for another year should bode well for the Tiger-Cats.

Welcome back

As good as he was as a television analyst, Jim Barker belongs in the football operations department of a CFL team. After the aforementioned Tiger-Cats shuffled their front office, Barker was brought in as a Football Operations Consultant, which is a great addition.

I’m definitely biased here, to lay all the cards on the table. When Barker was here in Calgary for his second stint with the Stampeders, he became a big time friend of our radio station and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed talking football with the man over the years.

Even without my bias, though, this is a really nice hire for Hamilton. Barker brings a great eye for talent and will be a great resource for new head coach Orlondo Steinauer when it comes to player personnel. With every team in flux with so many free agents across the league, adding an eye like Barker’s will be a huge benefit.

The guy has a track record of building successful teams, too. Barker was the man behind Calgary’s resurgence in 2005 following three years fans of the team still like to pretend didn’t exist. He had similar, and almost immediate, results upon taking the reins as Toronto’s GM for the 2011 season, too.

Barker has been on the sidelines or in a front office for more than four decades, which is impressive. More impressive to me, though, is how he has stayed in step with the game as it has changed and evolved. The expectations are high in Hamilton for 2019 and adding Barker to the mix is a nice way to help them get met.