February 25, 2023

Ferguson: Breaking down revised receiver groups

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

When CFL Free Agency opened this year, there were 52 pending receivers, give or take a couple late releases such as Brandon Banks or potential trades as BC’s Dominique Rhymes nearly became available before the frenzy of signings.

Of those 52 receivers who were listed as available around the 2022 holiday season 30 of consequence (more than just a couple targets) have signed. That means a collective 1,381 catches from 2022 have made a decision on where to spend 2023 and potentially beyond as we stare down the end of February.

Of those catches of course come tiers. From role players to superstars and everything in between, the CFL receiver landscape is typically one of the most intriguing to study for me, as it directly affects the outcome of roster construction, quarterback chemistry and win/loss records come summer.

In 2022 a total of 19 receivers reached the 100-target mark. Of this elite club over half (10) were available in pending free agency. There was talk that Toronto’s Kurleigh Gittens Jr. could be on the move. Maybe fellow Canadian standout Nic Demski would follow suit or Hamilton’s Tim White, who led the entire CFL in targets last season.

In the end only three members of the potential 10 high target receivers moved clubs but their decision to swap uniform colours this year played a large role in carving out what the CFL will look like come kickoff. To get a better sense for what it really means for Eugene Lewis, Kenny Lawler and Steven Dunbar Jr. to move across Canada, let’s dive into some details.

First, the big board of receivers who chose to sign with a new club as sorted by the percentage of team targets they accrued last year in what was their final season — for now — in the old colours.

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Unsurprisingly, Geno Lewis led the way with 26.4 per cent of Montreal pass targets last season while teammate Jake Wieneke had the highest completion percentage when targeted of any receiver with over 10 per cent of their old team’s targets. Both receivers of course have moved West this off-season, with Lewis joining the Edmonton Elks and Wieneke following QB Trevor Harris to Saskatchewan.

Lewis switching clubs is THE biggest shakeup possible in the CFL pass catching game this off-season. It’s not just the high percentage of pass targets and subsequent coverage eyes he demands. It’s his big play ability, as we see the list of receivers on the move judged by the percentage of their 2022 clubs’ explosive pass catches (30-plus yards).

It is no secret that Taylor Cornelius has a strong arm and likes to push the ball downfield. He’s statistically more likely to throw the ball between 20-30 yards than he is between 10-20 yards. That’s a major outlier in traditional CFL quarterback tendencies, from my studying. As a result, Edmonton acquired the top two explosive playmakers on the market in Dunbar and Lewis.

With Kyran Moore also making the move from Saskatchewan, Dillon Mitchell developing and some nice Canadian depth, it’s no wonder the Elks’ passing game is 2023’s hot topic around the CFL.

Of course, big plays are not a king maker alone. Efficiency is still paramount in the Canadian game as evidenced by several receivers with high yards per catch and touchdown numbers ranking in the bottom half of efficiency metrics. Splash plays are fun, but if it takes six shots to get one big gain you really are swinging for the fences with a price to be paid on the other side of the coin in the form of incompletions, punts and higher risk passes leading to turnovers.

As a result I have aimed to create a better understanding of players — in free agency and during the season — who make good things happen more often than their contemporaries when targeted.

I call it ‘positive play percentage’ and it is simply a mark of how often each receiver creates a gain of four yards or more on first down, gets a first down, or scores a touchdown when targeted. All positive, game-changing plays that help their team and a stat which won’t rely solely on ‘the big play.’

With limited targets, Juwan Brescacin led the way in percentage of targets resulting in positive plays, while Greg Ellingson set himself apart from those moving clubs when he was healthy in Winnipeg last season.

Perhaps a key in the Montreal Alouettes likely asking Ellingson to play their 2023 version of Lewis after losing him. In failing to bring back Lewis, the Alouettes lost a whopping 25 per cent of their positive pass plays in one player. Factor in Wieneke’s disappearance and that number jumps to 37.9 per cent. That’s a fact that will require Ellingson, Reggie White Jr. and a host of talented Canadians like Tyson Philpot and Kaion Julien-Grant to step up in a big way.

One club’s loss is another gain. In adding Dunbar, Lewis and Moore the Elks added 54.4 per cent worth of positive pass targets from other clubs.

On paper and in my spreadsheets, Edmonton has carved out an incredible collection of talent but it has to come together and be controlled effectively by Cornelius after a challenging introduction to the CFL.

When kickoff comes we press reset on all these measurements and watch the new numbers come to life with every snap, catch and score. Summer can’t come soon enough.

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