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May 20, 2020

Retooled and ready: Esks look to take the next step

Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca

CFL.ca presents ‘Off-Season Depth Chart,’ a series of articles reviewing every team’s depth chart at is stands to date.  Note that these are not official team-issued depth charts, but projections based on insight and analysis from around the league. Additionally, 2020 Draft picks are not included.

EDMONTON — When you look back at the Edmonton Eskimos’ 2019 season, you might wonder about the what ifs.

The team survived the loss of franchise QB Mike Reilly by replacing him with Trevor Harris, just hours after Reilly had signed with BC. Harris brought slotback Greg Ellingson and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers with him from Ottawa and the Esks jumped out to a 6-3 record. They were a team with a lot of positives that showed glimpses of fully realizing their potential. But they had some nagging questions around them.

No offensive line in the league offered its QB better protection, allowing just 25 sacks. While the offence had moments where it racked up the score, it struggled in the red zone, sitting at a 50 per cent success rate, good for eighth in the league. Defensively, the Esks’ 400 points allowed was third in the league, behind Saskatchewan and Hamilton. A d-line that’s heavy on Canadian talent tied for the league lead in sacks (56) with the Riders and led the league in two-and-outs.

There were plenty of positives but those nagging issues were always there. If it wasn’t red zone issues, it was often discipline hurting the team. Edmonton was flagged a league-worst 197 times, gifting opponents 1,677 yards (another league-worst). Then there was that record. The question around the Esks as Labour Day neared was that they had only beaten underwhelming opponents (a Week 1 win over Montreal would prove to be their only win against a team that finished better than .500). If you look back at their 8-10 finish last year, you see the win against Montreal, three against BC, two against Ottawa and two against Toronto.

The what ifs start to creep in there. What if they’d pulled out a Week 3 or Week 11 win against Winnipeg? What if they’d mustered some offence in their Week 6 meeting in Montreal with the Alouettes, or hadn’t lost on a field goal at home to Hamilton in Week 15? The biggest one from last season, though, is what if Trevor Harris hadn’t injured his throwing arm against Calgary in the Labour Day rematch?

Up until that injury and despite the lack of wins against playoff-bound teams, Harris was in the MOP conversation. A veteran quarterback on a new team, the 33-year-old may have been able to steer his team through what turned out to be some choppy water in the second half of the season. Harris made it back for the playoffs and put in a magnificent performance against the Als before the Esks bowed down in the East Final to a Hamilton team that went undefeated at home in 2019.

With all of that to digest, Esks’ GM Brock Sunderland set about making his changes for 2020. He relieved head coach Jason Maas of his duties and replaced him with former Argos’ head coach Scott Milanovich. He then went about trying to find the roster tweaks necessary to squash some of those nagging issues.

An already good offensive line should automatically improve. Rogers didn’t get to see a game last year, thanks to a season-ending training camp injury. His presence at left tackle provides instant depth, where Tommie Draheim did very well a year ago. Colin Kelly should hold down the right tackle spot. Between the tackles, there’s a ton of Canadian talent in guards Jacob Ruby and Matt O’Donnell, with freshly re-signed hometown centre David Beard backed up by Jean Simon-Roy.

Sunderland gave his quarterback some improved targets as well. He played the long game with Armanti Edwards, waiting for the XFL signee to have his situation sorted out before getting him on April 10. In Toronto, Edwards enjoyed the first 1,000-yard season of his career, after coming painfully close to that mark the last two years.

Sunderland also snagged two other Argo receivers in free agency. He brought home Raymond, Alta.’s Jimmy Ralph and pulled in a big (six-foot-five, 235-pounds), intriguing player in Rodney Smith.

When you look at the Esks’ defence, it’s that defensive line that really jumps out. Veteran d-tackle Almondo Sewell is the leader of the group and fellow tackle Mike Moore enjoyed a breakout year next to him, getting a team-best nine sacks in 2019. The d-line is buoyed by some significant Canadian talent. Kwaku Boateng had eight sacks last year and the team picked up a pair of d-ends that saw their time in the NFL wrap up. First was last year’s first-round pick Mathieu Betts and then came Stefan Charles, the Esks’ first-round pick in the 2013 draft. The 31-year-old spent six years in the NFL and the Alliance League before signing in September of last year.

The linebacking corps should get a boost from Justin Tuggle, who will likely replace Larry Dean at middle linebacker. Vontae Diggs will look to build on a big season (73 tackles, two sacks, one interception) and a healthy Jovan Santos-Knox should add to that group.

Sunderland will hope that the addition of Jermaine Gabriel at safety sparks a backfield that didn’t have a standout ballhawk a year ago.

One last area that needed addressing got it through the winter. Edmonton hasn’t scored a return touchdown since Aug. 28, 2015. Terry Williams, Shakeir Ryan and Christion Jones will all try to end that drought. The Esks have long needed the punch that big return plays can provide. They seem poised to make a dent in that area this year. Williams may also push to start in the running back spot vacated by C.J. Gable.

The biggest thing for Edmonton might be consistency. Harris should know the players around him better in his second year there and if he stays healthy, he should be able to build on what he started in 2019. No one works harder at the finer details of the game than Harris. You can be certain that he’s finding ways to take advantage of the extra time that 2020 has thrust upon us all. The Esks haven’t hosted a playoff game since 2015. Brock Sunderland may have the pieces in place to change that.