October 19, 2023

Costabile: How do you choose an All-Star running back?

It’s been well documented (and chatted about on social media) just how difficult picking an All-Star quarterback will be this season.

Chad Kelly, Zach Collaros, and Vernon Adams Jr. are names fans have agonized over as they’ve begun to place their votes for All-Stars with only one spot available on the final team.

You could argue that the second most difficult decision is who to pick at running back, with a handful of excellent tailbacks available and just like the QBs, only one spot to fill.

CFL All-Star 2023
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Let’s start with a pair of bruising rushers that have been the talk of the CFL throughout the entire 2023 campaign; Brady Oliveira and AJ Ouellette.

Saying Oliveira has been dominant on the ground this season would be an understatement. The Bombers running back heads into Week 19 comfortably leading the CFL in rushing yards (1,426), scoring seven touchdowns on the ground to go along with 37 catches for 465 yards and four major scores. The Canadian has been a massive part of Winnipeg’s success this season, helping his team to the top of the West with a 12-4 record, and is deserving of an All-Star vote (and consideration for a few end-of-season awards like MOP and MOC).

Playing what he calls “bully ball,” Oliveira runs between the tackles and refuses to go down on first contact. Good luck to opposing defences that have tried to slow down the 26-year-old this year.

While most will stop at Oliveira and cast their vote, I encourage you to consider another running back wearing blue, albeit a different shade.

Ouellette may not have as many yards on the ground as Oliveira, but you have to remember that the Argonauts locked up the East Division weeks ago and the 28-year-old hasn’t played as many games (14) as his counterpart.

The Argonauts turned the backfield over to Ouellette this season (he split duties with Andrew Harris in their championship year in 2022) and he’s done it all for the Boatmen, including making mullets cool again (now that I think about it, were they ever not cool?) and even threw a touchdown pass during the Labour Day Classic in Hamilton.


In 14 games, Ouellette has ran the rock 168 times for 959 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and seven majors. Like Oliveira, he also gets in on the receiving game, hauling in 16 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Ouellette has a similar style of play to the Bombers tailback. He, too, runs hard and is difficult to tackle, carrying defenders on his back as they try to take him down. That alone is worthy of an All-Star vote.

But remember, picking an All-Star requires digging a little deeper than just rushing yards and touchdowns. PFF has been a great resource to get some extra data on CFL players and will help paint a better picture of these two tailbacks. The next handful of stats are courtesy of PFF.

Toronto’s tailback is tied with James Butler for the most missed tackles forced (62) with Winnipeg’s at 39. After contact, Ouellette gets 4.0 more yards per carry while Oliveira runs for an extra 3.3.

Another interesting stat is regarding ball security. Ouellette has been sound with the football in his hands with no fumbles on the season, while Oliveira has only fumbled twice.

Both have helped their team move the chains down the field, with Oliveira leading in the league in first downs by a rush (71). Ouellette sits fifth with 44.

Just how close are these two backs? Only 0.8 of a rushing grade separates the pair; Brady is graded at 92.2 and AJ has a 91.4 grade.


With only one spot available, it’s a tough call to make. Luckily for fans, you can vote up to three times so you could spread the love between the two of them, with an extra vote left over to put towards one of a few other running backs who are also well deserving.

While Ouellette and Oliveira have been at the forefront of the All-Star running back debate, I’m going to throw three more names into the ring for consideration: James Butler, Kevin Brown, and Devonte Williams.

In the second half of the season, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats put more of an emphasis on the run game and getting the ball into the hands of Butler. From Week 11 until now, Butler hasn’t gone a game without hitting double digits in carries, with the highest of his season coming in Week 18 against the Riders where he toted the rock 25 times.

In 17 games, he’s racked up 1,116 yards, good for second in the league behind Oliveira. And like Oliveira and Ouellette, Butler has scored seven touchdowns on the ground. He’s also a hard man to tackle, tying Ouellette with 62 forced missed tackles (first in the CFL) and 832 (CFL high) of his yards are after contact.

We got a taste of what Kevin Brown could do last season in seven games with the Elks, but this year he’s emerged as a star, worthy of an All-Star vote. He’s third in the league in rushing yards, racking up 1,032 in 16 games and is averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He has nine rushes of 20 yards or more, tied for the league-lead with Ouellette.

Williams has been one of the more consistent pieces of the REDBLACKS offence this season and any time you see Oliveira, Ouellette, Brown or Butler’s name on leaderboards, Williams isn’t too far behind. PFF has graded Ottawa’s tailback with a 88.3 rushing grade though 19 weeks, and he’s forced 55 missed tackles, only trailing Ouellette and Butler in that category.

In 14 games, Williams has tallied 952 yards, good for fifth in the league, and three touchdowns on the ground. He’s rushed for over 100+ yards in a game three times, with his season-high of 146 coming in Week 14 against Hamilton. That week Williams also hauled in 69 receiving yards, pushing his total offence for the day to 215 yards. Sounds like an All-Star to me.

Best of luck choosing just one.

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