Steinberg’s MMQB: Five All-Decade no-brainers

The unveiling of the first ever CFL All-Decade Team presented by LeoVegas was one of the crown jewels of a really fun Grey Cup Unite week. I had the privilege of being on the media voting committee, so it was fun to see how my votes differed from the final product.

With so many good players and records set over the last ten years, I can tell you voting was extremely tight at virtually every position. There were five absolute shoo-ins for first place votes, though, and for good reason. In no particular order, this elite five ended up being on virtually every ballot.

Solomon Elimimian, linebacker

Knowing how much he played over the last ten years (at least one game in every season), and at the high level he played at, Elimimian truly is the linebacker of the decade. That in and of itself made him a no-brainer on the All-Decade first team list. But when you really think about it, before his career is even done, Elimimian has a strong case as best linebacker in CFL history.

Think about all of what Elimimian has accomplished since joining the BC Lions for the 2010 season. In 2014 he set a new record with 143 tackles in a single season en route to a Most Outstanding Player nod. Three years later, he broke his own record with 144. In fact, Elimimian owns three of the top four tackle totals in league history, as he recorded 129 in 2016.

Between 2010 and 2019, Elimimian racked up a Grey Cup ring, an MOP award, two Most Outstanding Defensive Player wins, and a Most Outstanding Rookie trophy. Elimimian is a six-time West Division All-Star, a four-time CFL All-Star, and has been able to maintain his elite level of play the entire way through. In fact, after playing just four games due to injury in 2018, Elimimian joined Saskatchewan for the 2019 season and picked up right where he left off.

If Elimimian can make a legit claim for best linebacker in CFL history, you knew he had a lock on one of the All-Decade linebacker spots.

Bo Levi Mitchell, quarterback

If this were purely a popularity contest, Mitchell might not have been voted in as first team All-Decade quarterback. He’d be the first to admit the same thing. Mitchell has swagger and talks the talk, but since taking over as Calgary’s starter in 2014, he’s also walked the walk. In a class with incredible competition, Mitchell really does stand above the rest at his position with what he’s accomplished the last ten years.

The numbers have been trotted out before, but are always worth repeating. Mitchell is 77-18 as a CFL starting quarterback, which computes to a ridiculous 0.804 winning percentage. In six years as a full-time starter, he’s led the Stampeders to four Grey Cup games with two wins in 2014 and 2018. The team’s worst regular season record during that stretch is 12-6, and their earliest finish was the 2019 West Division Semi-Final.

The past decade saw Hall of Fame careers end for GOAT candidates like Henry Burris and Ricky Ray. We’ve seen Mike Reilly make a push for 6,000 passing yards a few times. But Mitchell has been the most consistent, and consistently elite, quarterback of anyone over the last ten years. Along with two Grey Cup rings, two Grey Cup MVP awards, two MOP nods, you can add a well-deserved All-Decade quarterback to his list of accomplishments.

Charleston Hughes, defensive end

Willie Jefferson. John Bowman. Odell Willis. There was a lot of competition for one of the All-Decade defensive end slots. The other spot, however, was locked in from the start. Hughes is the most dominant pass rusher of his era and, much like his teammate Elimimian, will go down as one of the best to ever play his position.

Hughes led the CFL in sacks on five different occasions between 2010 and 2019, including the last four years running. During the decade, Hughes averaged almost 12 sacks per season and was able to dispel any myth about him being a product of the Stampeders. Upon arriving in Saskatchewan for 2018, Hughes posted two of his four highest single-season sack totals and led the league both years.

Now at 130 career sacks, Hughes is already in elite company. Knowing how well he’s played in recent years, though, it would be a shock if he doesn’t finish his career near the top of the league’s all-time list. One more season in the double digits will move Hughes past Joe Montford (135.0) and James Parker (139.5) for fourth all-time.

Only 27 back of Grover Covington (157.0) for the most ever, Hughes has a shot. The vast majority of those sacks were racked up in the last decade.

Stanley Bryant, offensive tackle

When you think of excellence at one of the most important positions in football, you think Stanley Bryant. At left tackle for the vast majority of his ten CFL seasons, Bryant has established himself as a benchmark. While others have been recognized as Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in different years, no one at his position has played at an unflinchingly high level like Bryant has.

The accolades speak loud on their own. Bryant is a five-time CFL All-Star, a two-time Grey Cup champion, and won back-to-back Outstanding Lineman awards in 2017 and 2018. But it goes deeper than what you see on the surface.

In the nine years he has been a full-time starter, Bryant’s teams have finished top two in rushing yards on seven occasions and have led the league five times. That’s no coincidence. It’s also no fluke that over the same span of time, Bryant’s teams have finished top three in sacks against seven times and have led the league twice.

Over the last ten years, Bryant has consistently excelled in the most important position on elite offensive lines. That screams All-Decade pretty loudly to me.

Brandon Smith, defensive back

Boundary halfback probably isn’t the most glamorous position in the CFL. It doesn’t lead to gaudy interception numbers, which is typically the “sexy” stat when talking about defensive backs. But knowing the responsibility placed on the elite boundary half, what Smith accomplished over the last ten years is worthy of recognition.

Throughout his 12-year CFL career that ended in 2019, Smith was routinely matched up against the best receiver on the other side. At 5’10, Smith usually gave up height and reach to opposing receivers, and yet took on these assignments at a consistently high level. In a Calgary defensive backfield littered with All-Stars over the last decade, Smith was always the mainstay on the depth chart.

Smith was physical and jammed receivers as well as anyone, but a few things stand out even knowing that. In 2014, Smith finished behind only Elimimian and Bear Woods with 82 defensive tackles, which is an absurd number for his position. He also finished with nine forced fumbles, which speaks to how effective he was in close quarters.

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