The Canadian Press
EDMONTON — For Brock Sunderland, status quo simply wouldn’t have been good enough.
Coming off fourth- and fifth-place finishes back to back in the highly-competitive West, the Edmonton Eskimos’ general manager opted to part ways with Head Coach Jason Maas this off-season following four seasons in green and gold.
The hope, for an Eskimos team that hasn’t finished better than third-place since 2015, is that Scott Milanovich and Trevor Harris can lead them atop a highly-competitive West Division.
The Eskimos have stability in several important areas, but also a long list of pending free agents to address, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With a coach and quarterback duo already under contract, what does the off-season look like in Edmonton?
Front Office/Coaching Staff
After three seasons in the GM chair, Brock Sunderland has reached a critical point in his tenure with the Eskimos. Despite having strong peripherals in 2019 — ranking second in the league both offensively and defensively — the Esks struggled to an 8-10 record and fourth-place finish in the CFL West, eventually falling to Hamilton in the Eastern Final.
An early off-season coaching change might provide a much desired spark. Jason Maas is a renowned offensive tactician, but Scott Milanovich won a Grey Cup and led one of the league’s most dominant offences in 2012. He’ll jive quickly with starting quarterback Trevor Harris, who originally developed under Milanovich in Toronto as the backup to Ricky Ray before a breakout season in 2015.
As for the rest of the staff, Milanovich is expected to double as the team’s offensive coordinator, but the hunt for a defensive coordinator begins following the resignation of Phillip Lolley. Noel Thorpe and DeVone Claybrooks are two of the big names that could be available.
Finally, many have linked the team to Ray, who spent nine seasons in Edmonton and retired last year as the CFL’s fourth all-time leading passer. Either way, Milanovich returns north with plenty of clout after three years as quarterbacks coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Pending Free Agents
The majority of the Eskimos’ work comes on the defensive side of the ball, where roughly two thirds of the starting defence are currently pending free agency. In the secondary, Money Hunter, Josh Johnson and Jordan Hoover were key starters for the Eskimos in 2019, combining for 49 starts — all three are pending free agents. SAM linebacker Don Unamba, linebackers Jovan Santos-Knox and Larry Dean and defensive linemen Mike Moore and Alex Bazzie are also free agents.
While Brock Sunderland’s plans for the defence may hinge on the defensive coordinator position, there’s also work to be done on offence. The quarterback position is mostly accounted for with only Logan Kilgore pending free agency, but there are holes at running back, where C.J. Gable, Christion Jones and Shaq Cooper are all pending free agents. Gable is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons but averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt last season.
The Eskimos’ receiving corps was one of the CFL’s most dangerous in 2019, and most of that unit is slated to return. DaVaris Daniels is the exception, as the 26-year-old signed a one-year deal with Edmonton last February. Daniels missed five games last season but still made an impact, catching a career-high 54 passes for 738 yards. He’s reached 700-plus yards in each of his four seasons in the league.
Last off-season saw the Eskimos spend big on the first day of free agency. With plenty of roster flexibility, Sunderland could be quite busy once Feb. 11 arrives.
Kwaku Boateng and Mathieu Betts could give the Eskimos ratio flexibility for a very long time. Boateng has already proven he can start off the edge, combining for 17 sacks over the last two seasons before his 25th birthday. Betts, the third overall pick in 2019, played six games as a rookie, recording two sacks and one forced fumble. At a position traditionally occupied by an American, the Eskimos could potentially start two Canadians at defensive end.
Those aren’t the only young nationals the Eskimos have on defence. While Godfrey Onyeka might be ready to take the next step as a starter in 2020, Arjen Colquhoun, Jordan Hoover and Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga are all pending free agents. Defensive tackle Mark Mackie played 16 games and started one.
The emergence of 2019 draft pick Kyle Saxelid gives the Eskimos flexibility on the O-line. The second-round pick started five games last season, in addition to two in the post-season, filling in for injured left tackle SirVincent Rogers. Matt O’Donnell also returns while David Beard, Jacob Ruby and Josiah St. John are free agents.
Pencil in Tevaun Smith as a starter in 2020. The 26-year-old has the making of a star in three-down game, catching 55 passes for 632 yards in his first season in the CFL. Paired with Natey Adjei, who’s also under contract, the Eskimos have an impressive tandem of national pass-catchers.
Between Betts, Boateng, O’Donnell, Saxelid, Onyeka and Smith, the Eskimos have a strong core of young Canadians with room to expand this off-season, not even including some of their pending free agents.
Trevor Harris returns for a second season as the Eskimos’ starting quarterback after throwing for 4,027 yards, 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 13 games. The 33-year-old continues to grow into one of the league’s best quarterbacks and shouldn’t see any drop-off from Jason Maas to incoming coach Scott Milanovich, considered by many to be a quarterback whisperer.
Behind Harris on the depth chart is where things could get interesting. Injuries wreaked havoc on the CFL in 2019, and teams will want to prepare for the worst next season. Pending free agent Logan Kilgore knows Milanovich well from their time in Toronto, but the Eskimos could seek a more proven backup in the event Harris is injured. Jeremiah Briscoe and Troy Williams, also on the roster, have very little experience.
Free Agents – Logan Kilgore
After a second consecutive 1,000-yard season, C.J. Gable should be an Eskimo in 2020. However, it may not be so cut and dry, after 26-year-old Shaq Cooper pushed Gable for playing time in the post-season. Together they could form an effective complementary duo, but both are pending free agents meaning the Eskimos have some decisions to make.
Running back and returner Martese Jackson suffered a season-ending injury while national Alex Taylor could become a much bigger factor after averaging 6.9 yards per carry in 2019. Opportunities don’t come by often for Canadian running backs, but Taylor has a versatile skill-set following a standout career at Western University.
Ricky Collins and Greg Ellingson are both under contract for the Eskimos in 2020, but off-season signing DaVaris Daniels is a pending free agent. While he has yet to play a full season due to injuries, the 26-year-old has the potential to become one of the most dynamic pass-catchers in the league. He was targeted an average of seven times per game last season, quickly becoming a favourite of Trevor Harris.
While Kevin Elliott has a history with Scott Milanovich after being released by the Argos in 2016, the five-year veteran will do his best to make the Eskimos’ roster this season. Former first round pick Danny Vandervoort will also try to make the team in camp, along with 24-year-old prospect Bryce Bobo. The majority of the Eskimos’ receivers are set to return next season.
Colin Kelly, Matt O’Donnell, SirVincent Rogers and Kyle Saxelid are legitimate starters all under contract for 2020, giving Brock Sunderland plenty of flexibility on his O-line. One pending free agent that should be a priority is David Beard, who started 18 games for the Eskimos in 2019. Former first round picks Jacob Ruby and Josiah St. John are both due to become free agents.
The emergence of Saxelid, and the season-ending injury to Rogers, could pose some difficult questions this off-season. Both can play tackle, along with Kelly and pending free agent Tommie Draheim. The Esks will have a number of options at the tackle positions once camp opens up in the spring.
Kwaku Boateng and Mathieu Betts are ratio-breakers for the Eskimos, but their dominance up front came in the middle in 2019. Almondo Sewell is set to return for a 10th CFL season and showed no sign of slowing down, tying the third-highest total of his career with eight sacks. Mike Moore, who was among sack leaders on the interior defensive line, is a pending free agent.
Americans Nick Usher and Alex Bazzie are both due to become free agents on Feb. 11, while nationals Jesse Joseph, Mark Mackie and Andrew Marshall are also pending free agency. Canadian Stefan Charles, who signed with the club late in 2019 after several years south of the border, is under contract and could see his role grow next season.
Larry Dean and Jovan Santos-Knox were two of several major signings by the Eskimos early in free agency last year. Santos-Knox lost most of his season to injury, but Dean anchored one of the CFL’s most stout defences, racking up 86 tackles and a sack in 16 starts as middle linebacker. Both players are due to become free agents on Feb. 11, along with national Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga.
The emergence of 24-year-old rookie Vontae Diggs would make any loss at linebacker a little easier to swallow. Diggs was one of the league’s top first-year players in 2019, recording 73 tackles, two sacks and an interception in addition to 11 special teams tackles.
The Eskimos had a revolving door in the secondary last season, and more change could come this off-season. Money Hunter, Josh Johnson and Jordan Hoover lead a long list of defensive starters who could become free agents, leaving Anthony Orange and Forrest Hightower as the top holdovers for 2020.
Surely the Esks have plans for former top prospect Godfrey Onyeka, who played all 18 games including three starts last season. The 25-year-old had just three defensive tackles last season but made a key pass breakup in the Eastern Final. He should compete to start at either safety or field corner.
Hunter and Johnson both enjoyed strong seasons for the Eskimos, while SAM linebacker Don Unamba had 43 tackles and six sacks in 12 starts. All three are pending free agents but should be on Brock Sunderland’s radar before free agency.
One of the CFL’s most consistent kickers, Sean Whyte connected on 87 per cent of his field goal attempts last season. It was his worst season since 2013, which only speaks to his remarkable efficiency on field goals. Whyte, punter Hugh O’Neill and long snapper Ryan King are all under contract for 2020.
Free Agents – None