CFL Training Camps start with a bang!

May 22, 2018 - 10:09am

If CFL teams were looking to spark interest in the 2018 season, they certainly went about it the right way as training camps opened this past weekend.

The big ticket item, so to speak, was the signing of Johnny Manziel by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Manziel has pretty well run out of options in trying to continue his football career and get redemption back in the NFL. While Manziel did the “I’m Sorry” tour and admitted his mistakes, NFL teams were reluctant to give him a shot without a concrete display of how he changed since he washed out with Cleveland.

Manziel could be a classic textbook case of a guy who likes to improvise and didn’t think he needed to put in the work that say, a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Ricky Ray does. What Manziel hopefully found is that an ability to improvise can only take you so far.

Consider the example of Doug Flutie who was the improviser par excellence but who also put the work in to make the best use of his abilities and the capabilities of his offense. While an early cursory glance at Manziel’s college history would suggest he could be Doug Flutie 2.0  the reality of the situation is that many a US quarterback with fine credentials has come up to the CFL expecting to dominate and been sent home packing.

Also, consider the example of Vince Ferragamo who shortly after leading the LA Rams to a Super Bowl appearance came to Montreal and was expected to set the league afire with guys like Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Rider fans who were at Ferragamo’s one and only appearance at Taylor Field will recall how he was sacked repeated by the Riders, with a safety scored on him one of the more memorable moments.

That being said, Manziel appears to be taking this seriously and understands this is a two-year audition to convince the NFL he is serious about being a help and not a distraction to a team. The Canadian game is not the same as the American game and Manziel who has not played in two years will have a steep learning curve before he can be an asset.

Daved Benefield and Milt Stegall make the point that Manziel signing in the CFL will bring more American interest in the CFL and more attention to the league and its athletes. That makes some sort of agreement with the NFL network even more likely and attractive and a new revenue source for the CFL.

This will likely lead to the season being moved up to provide the NFL with programming during the long NFL off-season. One positive of this would be to shorten the CFL off-season, which Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has tried to mitigate by opening up the off-season meetings, the CFL Week in Winnipeg and perhaps some kind of increased coverage for the CFL Draft.

With the contract that Manziel signed, perhaps the question should be not if Manziel will be the starter, but when. Jeremiah Masoli had a pretty good run last year when he took over from Zach Collaros, and he might be hard to take out if he continues to have Hamilton’s offense operating at a high level.

Manziel’s case is somewhat different from Ricky Williams or Rocket Ishmael because those were positional players while Manziel as quarterback needs to be able to run the offense. This promises to be quite the test of June Jones ability to get the most of his players and Manziel’s ability to show there is more to him than just potential.

Another big signing was Adam Bighill signing with the Bombers which was a surprising and interesting move. The casual observer might have thought that Bighill would have returned to the BC Lions after being cut by the New Orleans Saints, but Winnipeg spent money they didn’t spend on Henoc Muamba on Bighill.

This is an interesting signing that improves the Bombers’ defense, but leaves the question of what they will do with their back-up quarterback situation after Darian Durant retired. A lot of people, including myself, though Winnipeg should have gone after Jeff Matthews, cut by Toronto, since he has experience leading a team and has experience in the CFL.

Winnipeg let middle linebacker Sam Hurl leave in free agency and the signing of Bighill gives a big boost to the Bombers defense. Only Winnipeg’s brain trust can answer the question of whether they thought their recruiting would have improved their linebackers before the Bighill signing, but it seems Winnipeg is putting its’ stock in having a solid defense and hoping their offensive line can keep quarterback Matt Nicholls free from injury.

The other interesting use of Bighill would be rotating him to the safety position, a move in keeping with the trend of having players play multiple positions, giving different looks to the defense. That kind of move might help Winnipeg deal with the deep passing and running games considering they gave up 65 plays of more than 20 yards, the most in the CFL last year.

The money saved from the Durant retirement, and Winnipeg fans may argue that fine point, likely went to making the Bighill signing possible, and still leaving a question mark at the back up quarterback position. The other interesting points to ponder in Winnipeg, the place where dreams go to die, is with Andrew Harris getting a two year extension, how will be Bombers use Nic Demski and Rashaun Simonise in the receiving corps? Demski showed flashes in Saskatchewan, but also was hobbled by injuries and Simonise has NFL experience and may be considered a project, but if he can add to the Bombers receiving corps, that could provide Winnipeg with a variety of weapons.

Another big signing and somewhat unexpected by BC welcoming back offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye from Montreal. BC traded Olafioye to Montreal last year and initial results were pretty good as Montreal did not allow a sack in its first three games. Then Olafioye went down with an injury and Montreal skidded to a three-win season.

Meanwhile in BC their offensive line was as leaky as the Titanic as BC missed the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. New GM Ed Hervey was looking to rebuild BC’s offensive and defensive lines and bringing Olafioye back will help give quarterback Jon Jennings some confidence he won’t have to run for his life.

BC also saw receiver Nick Moore announce his retirement and released defensive lineman Mi’chael Brooks.

For Montreal’s part, releasing Olafioye was likely due to considering his age and injury last season. Montreal seemed to be thinking about this by trading for offensive lineman Ryan Bomben and then drafting offensive lineman Trey Rutherford.

Montreal also released Canadian defensive back Tevaughn Campbell, who has been exploring his options in the world of rugby and perhaps was best remembered for snagging an interception in a game last year and running out of the end zone and then back in and giving up a safety. Campbell had the speed to be an intriguing project, but his skill set in coverage was iffy at best.

In Edmonton, which saw a record-setting amount of injuries last year, training camp started with the release of running backs John Henry White and LaDarius Perkins. White, who has had flashes when not dealing with devastating injuries, was looking at perhaps heading down the road to Calgary, who are trying to get a running game together after cutting Jerome Messam last year.

Dominique Williams was added to the Stamps roster as a potential running back with NFL experience. Bo Levi Mitchell said he dropped 20 pounds from last year and expects to run more, but of more interest is whether his shoulder is fully recovered from the injury it was operating under last season. Calgary will have a number of holes to fill, including how to fill the absence of Roy Finch who has legal problems of his own. Calgary’s defense will be looking to show how deep it is following some key departures in the defensive secondary.

The defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts got their Grey Cup rings and now are adapting to new offensive coordinator Tommy Condell and defensive coordinator Mike Archer. Linebackers Taylor Reed and Bear Woods are on the spot competing for positions as Marcus Ball seems to be playing SAM linebacker and Khalil Bass and Terrence Plummer will go at it for WILL and Reed and Woods go at it for middle linebacker.

The Argos are also looking for a new boundary side receiver to replace DeVier Posey who is trying his NFL luck after scoring a long TD in the Grey Cup. The Argos have two great receivers in SJ Green and Armanti Edwards, but a third receiver with speed would help to open things up.

In Ottawa years of mediocrity, livened up with a Grey Cup win, forced Rick Campbell to bring in Noel Thorpe at defensive coordinator while adding Loucheiz Purifoy, Josh Johnson, Kyries Hebert and A.C. Leonard. That’s a lot of new faces and there will likely be growing pains as Thorpe brings in a new approach that may see more pressure from the Ottawa defense and perhaps a better bend but don’t break attitude.

Ottawa has been stocking the cupboard with Canadian offensive linemen taken in the draft and Mark Korte from the University of Alberta is the latest. The interesting question is where Korte will fit in. The concentration of Canadian offensive linemen is interesting because Ottawa is looking to use an American kicker who will be either Richie Leone, formerly of the BC Lions, or Sergio Castillo who had a knee injury with Hamilton last year. Ottawa will also be looking at new faces for their receiving corps in an effort to bring back some speed which marked earlier incarnations of their passing game.

Which brings us to the Riders and the signing of quarterback BJ Daniel. Daniel has been on the Riders negotiation list for five years and the Riders kept an eye on him as he went from San Francisco to Seattle, Houston Texans, New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons. He was everything from quarterback to receiver to running back and could be described as budget Russell Wilson.

In reports out of Saskatoon, the Rider quarterbacks have brought their A game and for Daniels, he seems to be ranked fifth on the list so far. Rider fans may remember Bryan Bennett who came in Chris Jones’ first year until he fizzled in game action. Not to say this might happen to Daniels, but he may require some work before he makes a contribution.

One of the biggest questions was how Zach Collaros would look at quarterback and so far, he seems to be demonstrating all the throws necessary although the Riders are looking at throwing the kitchen sink at the quarterbacks to get them efficient at moving the time and not taking time count penalties.

The interesting observations are about Brandon Bridge who has shown up with extra velocity on his arm, apparently better footwork and making throws. Some of this might be tempered by fans desire to see a Canadian quarterback take the helm of the team, but Chris Jones’ implementation of competition at all positions seems to be bringing out the best in the players.

The third spot seems to be between David Watford, who was learning on the practice roster last year, and Marquisse Williams who came in at training camp and took over from former experiment Vince Young. The real test will come in game action to see how they respond when the bodies start flying around.

Other interesting notes is the absence of Trent Richardson who was suspended for not showing up. While the story line was personal reasons, the eventual fate of Richardson could be divined by some interview he made earlier about using the Riders as a springboard for returning to the NFL and then Richardson’s #33 jersey being taken over by Jerome Messam. The Riders cut Cameron Marshall who apparently did not fully recover from an injury last year so the Rider running backs at this time appear to be Messam and Marcus Thigpen although the Riders brought in Zac Stacey to provide options.

Jake Harty went down with a knee injury the first day of camp and although the extent is not known, but perhaps keeping him out for most if not all of the season, it has thrown a spotlight over the Riders depth at Canadian receiver behind Rob Bagg. Right now there is Joshua Stanford, Michell Picton and Devon Bailey and the possibility has been raised of the Riders perhaps contacting Andy Fantuz as a capable back-up.

Fantuz has been somewhat injury prone the last few years with Hamilton declining to pick up his contract because of his injury history, but as a back-up, this makes sense in terms of reducing his exposure to injury while filling in in situations and mentoring the Riders younger receivers. Whether this pans out is another question.

One interesting question is John Ojo who was signed following an NFL injury but by all reports has been beaten pretty regularly in training camp. Maybe it is rust, but this might be another of the bigger disappointments.

A reminder the first exhibition to be televised will be the Riders at Edmonton Sunday at 3 pm. The build-up is beginning for what may be an exciting season

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