Photo: The Canadian Press
With so much player movement since free agency opened last month, opportunities have presented themselves and new doors have opened around the league. This week we’re focusing on three players with breakout seasons staring themselves in the face as a result.
Nathan Rourke – Quarterback, BC Lions
This one is as exciting as it is obvious. With Michael Reilly’s decision to retire this winter, Rourke’s time to shine has come a little earlier than expected…but that time is now. Instead of going to chase an established quarterback like Trevor Harris or Jeremiah Masoli in free agency, the Lions made their commitment to Rourke early and emphatically.
I love the decision. Rourke is one of the most promising drafted quarterbacks we’ve seen in decades. Knowing how long it’s been since a Canadian pivot has started games regularly in this league, Rourke has the chance to carry a new torch. But, regardless of what country he was born in, we’re talking about an extremely gifted young man. His credentials speak for themselves.
Entering the 2020 CFL Draft, where BC selected him in the second round (15th overall), scouts and team personnel members were raving about Rourke’s poise and athleticism. A true dual-threat quarterback, Rourke ran for at least 860 yards in each of his three seasons at Ohio while also posting prolific passing numbers. He also led the Bobcats to three straight bowl game victories.
In an ideal world, I’m sure the Lions would have liked one more year for Rourke with a mentor like Reilly. But, Rourke does have a year of professional experience under his belt, including a pair of starts and plenty of time to absorb as much as he could with Reilly. There might be an early learning curve, but BC is committed to Rourke in the long-term. I have a good feeling 2022 will be Rourke’s introduction as one of the CFL’s next stars.
Mathieu Betts – Defensive line, BC Lions
On the other side of the ball, I’m fascinated to watch Betts in his first season with the Lions after signing in free agency. After parts of two seasons with Edmonton, it feels like a change of scenery in BC is the perfect place for Betts to realize the potential that saw him selected third overall in the 2019 CFL Draft.
While Betts didn’t light the world on fire in 13 games with the Elks in 2021, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have the ability to be a significant impact maker in this league. Betts showed us the difference he can make in 2019 and his dominant four years at Laval were no fluke. We’re talking about a three-time winner of the JP Metras Trophy for the best down lineman in U SPORTS, after all.
I like the fit for Betts with the Lions. By bringing David Ménard back in free agency after a one-year stint in Montreal, and with Obum Gwachum and Tim Bonner back for another season, BC now has a nice stable of pass rushers. That should help address what was a significant area of need in 2021.
And let’s not forget two other significant factors. As a Canadian, Betts gives the Lions some helpful ratio flexibility, which could turn into a huge X-factor if he does indeed have the breakout season we’re talking about. And, knowing he went without a sack in 13 appearances last season, don’t discount how motivated and surly Betts should be this year.
Brady Oliveira – Running back, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
After helping power his team to two straight Grey Cup championships, the loss of a tailback like Andrew Harris would seem a whole lot more devastating in normal circumstances. In Winnipeg’s case, however, letting Harris walk to join the Argos in free agency was much easier to reconcile with Oliveira waiting in the wings.
Almost a full decade younger than Harris, 24-year-old Oliveira seems like he’s following a similar path to his predecessor. Oliveira is a born-and-raised Winnipeg product, and like Harris, attended Oak Park High School in Charleswood. Having Harris as a teammate and mentor for two years was the perfect way to bring Oliveira along.
Of course, all the feel-good similarities between Oliveira and Harris would be meaningless if the former didn’t have big league chops. Fortunately for the Bombers, Oliveira is a bona fide player. In limited duty last season, Oliveira went for 100 rushing yards on two occasions in what was essentially his rookie season. Remember, Oliveira missed the vast majority of 2019 after sustaining an ankle injury in Week 3.
Things line up well for a successful season, too. Oliveira will be running behind the CFL’s best offensive line and has fellow Canadian Johnny Augustine to help spell him off in the backfield. I’m curious to see how Winnipeg works Oliveira into their passing game, which was a dynamic element Harris brought to the offence. But even if that takes a little time to develop, Oliveira is poised to be the next ratio buster running the ball for the Bombers.