The 2023 regular season is done, which means we’re only a few weeks away from this year’s CFL Awards. That’s when we’ll find out this season’s Most Outstanding Player, Most Outstanding Defensive Player, and more.
But before we get there and with 21 weeks of action under our belts, we’ve got a few alternate awards to hand out for this week’s MMQB.
Offensive Breakout Player: Chad Kelly, Toronto Argonauts
Kelly might very well end up being named this year’s MOP, which would be deserving. But whether that happens or not, it’s hard to argue Kelly’s candidacy as one of the league’s top breakout candidates in 2023. In a class that also includes Montreal’s Austin Mack and Edmonton’s Kevin Brown, among others, Kelly truly did explode on the scene this season.
It feels like ancient history now, but there was a decent amount of uncertainty surrounding Kelly entering this year. Some wondered if handing the starting quarterback reins to an unproven Kelly was a prudent move for the defending Grey Cup champs. After all, Kelly had started just one game since finishing his college career in 2016. But the Argos were adamant Kelly was the right guy for the job…and they were right.
Kelly finished his first season as a professional starter with 4,123 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and a sparkling 109.6 quarterback rating. He also ran for eight more touchdowns while helping Toronto tie a league record with 16 wins. We weren’t sure what to expect from Kelly this season, but what we got was stellar. That screams breakout to me.
Defensive Breakout Player: Mathieu Betts, BC Lions
We’ve known that Betts is an extremely talented player since Edmonton drafted him third overall at the 2019 CFL Draft. Then last season, his first with the Lions, helped put Betts on the radar for many. He absolutely exploded in 2023 and established himself as the most feared pass rusher in the league.
Betts led the league with 18 sacks, which was well over double the number (seven) he racked up the year prior. In the process, Betts set a new single-season sack record for a National player, passing the prior mark of 17 set by Brent Johnson (2005) and Jamal Westerman (2015). Oh, and that total of 18 sacks is also the highest recorded by any player since 2015 when John Bowman led the league with 19.
Comeback Player: Cody Fajardo, Montreal Alouettes
Fajardo’s time in Saskatchewan didn’t end the way either side would have envisioned. And so, with some added motivation and likely a little chip on his shoulder, Fajardo signed with the Alouettes in free agency looking for a new opportunity. Not only did Fajardo get that chance, he made the most of it and helped Montreal to a fourth consecutive playoff appearance along the way.
Fajardo threw for 3,792 yards in his first season with the Als, which is the second highest total of his career. We also saw Fajardo and first year CFLer Austin Mack form almost instant chemistry which helped Mack finish with 1,154 receiving yards, the fourth highest total in the league. Sometimes the old saying is true: when one door closes, another opens. Fajardo is a perfect example.
Human Highlight Reel: Nic Demski, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
There are certain players that get you out of your seat seemingly every time they touch the football. En route to his first four-digit receiving season, Demski was just that. Because he’s one of the league’s most versatile offensive threats, Winnipeg uses Demski in all kinds of different looks, which makes him a big play threat on any down and distance. We saw that plenty in 2023.
Demski finished with a career high 1,006 receiving yards to go along with six touchdown catches as the Bombers clinched a third straight West Division regular season crown. But what sets Demski apart is his ability to hit it big. Demski went for 30 yards or more on 11 different occasions this season with only Toronto’s DaVaris Daniels (12) accomplishing the feat more.
Mr. Consistency: Shawn Lemon, Montreal Alouettes
Shawn Lemon is one of the CFL’s most interesting and engaging guys off the football field. When he’s on the field, however, all this guy does is sack quarterbacks. Year-in and year-out, Lemon is one of the league’s best pass rushers and 2023 was no exception. It’ll be an absolute head scratcher if he has to wait until late July to sign a contract for next season like he did this year.
Upon joining the Alouettes, though, Lemon just got back to what he does best. This season saw Lemon record eight sacks in 12 games, which would have had him on pace for 12 over an entire campaign. And you want to talk about consistency? Lemon has never recorded fewer than eight sacks in a single season, which is why he was a relatively easy choice for this particular nod.