As the 2023 season approaches, CFL.ca is here to catch you up with the Five Things To Know series. Each article will look at key storylines facing each team this season, while examining off-season movement and where your team might stand in 2023.
Let’s not sugar-coat things: the last two seasons have been brutal for the Edmonton Elks. One of the CFL’s most loyal groups of fans hasn’t witnessed a win at Commonwealth Stadium since 2019. They’ve seen the green and gold combine for seven wins in that same stretch.
It’s time to start turning this around.
But things feel pointed in a positive direction for 2023. It’ll be year two in Chris Jones’ return as head coach and general manager, and he’s slowly starting to put his stamp on the Elks. The team also possesses the second overall selection in next week’s CFL Draft, which gives them a great opportunity to add another core player to the mix.
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And then there’s Edmonton’s off-season. The Elks have been one of the league’s busiest teams in free agency and have completely revamped their offence while also retaining a number of important defensive pieces.
Despite last year’s 4-14 finish, Edmonton started putting solid building blocks in place. Now the Elks are positioned to, and need to, take the next step this season.
The sophomore bump
Positively, their head coach has a history of making a nice jump in his second year at the helm. In both his CFL head coaching stops, Jones has improved his group in year two including an improvement from 12-6 to 14-4 in his first Edmonton stint. The Elks just happened to win their last Grey Cup to finish off that improved second year.
Things were even more dramatic in Saskatchewan. Jones and the Riders finished 5-13 in his first season before doubling their win total (10-8) in year two. Jones has a proven track record of getting the most out of his teams, both as a coordinator and a head coach. That’s why Edmonton brought him back for a second go-around. And it’s why I’m so curious to see what year two has in store.
Here comes the cavalry
When it comes to player personnel, no team targeted receiver in free agency more than the Elks…and they were quite successful. Edmonton landed one of the winter’s biggest prizes by signing Eugene Lewis to a contract that reportedly makes him the league’s highest paid non-quarterback. Lewis finished last season with 1,303 receiving yards and ten touchdowns, both ranked third overall, and he’ll instantly become a feature piece in this offence.
But the Elks weren’t done adding at receiver. Edmonton also signed Steven Dunbar Jr. to a big money deal fresh off a breakout season. Dunbar hit 1,000 yards for the first time in 2022 while adding six touchdowns. Finally, the Elks added the always reliable and consistent Kyran Moore who’s looking for a big bounce back after only appearing in seven games last year.
Edmonton’s big three receiver additions join a pair of important returnees. One is budding breakout star Dillon Mitchell who popped off for 637 yards and four touchdowns in just eight appearances as a rookie. And then there’s Emmanuel Arceneaux who had a nice return to the CFL after three years away; the veteran finished with 513 receiving yards in 12 appearances in his first year with the Elks.
There’s no question the strength of this offence looks to be their deep, deep group of receivers.
It’s Taylor’s time
The starting quarterback job is Taylor Cornelius’s to lose entering 2023 camp. After not making his first appearance last year until Week 6, Cornelius remained on top of Edmonton’s depth chart for the next 12 games until missing the final week of the season due to injury. He was clearly the team’s best option at quarterback and now enters his third CFL season with a stacked group of receiving targets.
The last time Cornelius entered a season with a starting job to lose was his senior season at Oklahoma State. And, in similar fashion with a dangerous group of receivers, he threw for almost 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns. Cornelius has always been able to sling it, which could be a nice fit this year.
The biggest thing Cornelius needs to work on is decision making. 2022 saw him force throws a little too often, which resulted in a 57.4% completion rate and nine interceptions. A slight improvement there mixed with one of the league’s deepest receiving groups could lead to some nice totals.
Ceresna wants to win now
Jake Ceresna was one of Edmonton’s biggest 2022 bright spots. Despite just 12 appearances, Ceresna finished third overall with ten sacks and racked up four forced fumbles. In his three years with the Elks, Ceresna has established himself as one of the league’s elite interior forces and last year was his best yet.
And even better: the 28-year-old Ceresna is committed to staying, and winning, in Edmonton. After earning his first CFL All-Star nod last season, Ceresna had the chance to chase huge money in free agency. Instead, he signed a two-year extension with the Elks a month before free agency opened.
“(Edmonton) just kind of has my heart now where I’m determined to try and see this out and try to help this organization turn things around and win games,” Ceresna told our Chris O’Leary earlier this month.
“And then, you know, when I sat down and thought about it, the past two years obviously it’s no secret. We haven’t won at home, there’s just been so much turmoil. Four coaches in the past four years, it’s not been the greatest situation. I think I’ve kind of been through all of that and to leave…I feel as if winning is inevitable. It just means so much more to me than just going to another place.”
That’s the type of commitment a building team like the Elks need and a huge rallying cry for this season.
A pair to watch
Okay I’ve got a couple somewhat under-the-radar players to watch, one on each side of the ball.
Let’s start with linebacker Nyles Morgan. This guy would have been in line for a monster season in 2022 had he not been limited to just six games. In those appearances, though, Morgan still racked up 41 tackles and one forced fumble. Let’s not forget that Morgan was Edmonton’s Most Outstanding Rookie nominee in 2021 and, still just 26, I’m excited to see what he’s capable of over a full, 18-game campaign.
And then there’s running back Kevin Brown, who didn’t even join the Elks last year until Week 13 in early September. Brown went to work upon suiting up and finished with 486 rushing yards and one touchdown in seven appearances. He provided Edmonton their most dangerous running threat and was the team’s 2022 Most Outstanding Rookie choice. Much like Morgan, let’s see what Brown can get done over a full season.