The CFL season kicks off tonight in Hamilton with the Tiger-Cats taking on the Roughriders. With the new year comes another exciting rookie class.
Here is one Canadian rookie on every team that fans should keep an eye on:
BC Lions - Jamel Lyles, RB
Lyles had an impressive university career with the Manitoba Bisons, including a final season where the Surrey, B.C., native toted the rock 112 times for 619 yards (5.5 yards per carry). The Lions grabbed the hometown back in the eighth round (69th overall) of the 2019 draft.
BC has a veteran backfield with Brandon Rutley and John White, but Lyles showed in the preseason that he can play at the next level. In two preseason games he made the most out of his 10 carries, going for 70 yards. Lyles will also get to show off his 4.64 speed on special teams as he is a threat to score any time he has the ball in his hands. Lyles will start the season on the Lions practice roster, but after his preseason there is a good chance he will have an opportunity to contribute in the regular season.
Edmonton Eskimos - Shai Ross, WR
Ross caught 29 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns last year at the University of Manitoba. The Winnipeg native put on a show at the Western Regional Combine in March, winning four of the six drills he participated in. His performance there earned him an invitation to the National Combine in Toronto.
Ross was at New York Giants mini-camp in May when Edmonton drafted him in the fifth round (40th overall).
Ross sits behind Kenny Stafford and Tevaun Smith on the receiver depth heading into the season opener against Montreal, but don’t be surprised to see him making plays on offence and special teams.
Calgary Stampeders - Fraser Sopik, LB
Sopik broke into the national spotlight during the 2017 Vanier Cup when he had 10.5 tackles, a sack and a pass break up to help lead his Western Mustangs to victory over the Laval Rouge et Or. Calgary picked the Toronto native in the fourth round (31st overall) and Sopik hasn’t disappointed.
The former Mustang had a standout training camp for the Stamps, impressing coaches and teammates with his on-field work as well as his preparation in the film room. Sopik tallied four tackles and a forced fumble that resulted in a safety in two preseason games.
Expect to see the 5-foot-11, 195-pound linebacker used in all different types of situations for Calgary. He has the ability to rush the quarterback as well as drop back into coverage.
Saskatchewan Roughriders - Brayden Lenius, WR
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver from North Vancouver was highly recruited coming out of high school and spent three years at the University of Washington before transferring to the University of New Mexico for one year. Over four collegiate seasons Lenius tallied 581 receiving yards and four touchdowns. The Riders picked Lenius in the second round, 15th overall, in the 2019 draft.
Saskatchewan will try to provide quarterback Zach Collaros with as much receiving help as possible. Having Emmanuel Arceneaux will go a long way to helping Collaros out, however any QB will tell you it’s always good to have a massive target like Lenius on the field.
After an impressive first day at training camp, Lenius has been sidelined with a hamstring injury that held him out of both preseason games. He has been ruled out of the season opener against Hamilton.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers - Jonathan Kongbo, DE/OLB
Kongbo may have the highest ceiling of any Canadian from the 2019 draft.
At the University of Tennessee he regularly went against the best in the SEC. In 30 games and 17 starts as a Volunteer, the Surrey, B.C., linebacker amassed 51 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and a touchdown. Kongbo would likely be on an NFL roster right now, but he tore both his ACL and MCL ligaments against Auburn in October, ending his senior season.
The CFL scouting bureau had Kongbo as the No.1 prospect in September, and the Blue Bombers still felt confident enough to take him fifth overall in the draft. Kongbo will start the season on the injured list for the Bombers, but has been spotted running at practice. Winnipeg’s defence is already loaded with veteran talent, but Kongbo will give them another playmaker on that side of the ball once he’s healthy.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats - Nikola Kalinic, FB
Kalinic had an extremely productive university career with the York Lions, being named a first-team OUA all-star as a fullback and on special teams.
At 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, Kalinic garnered attention south of the border as well. He practised twice with the Washington Redskins and attended the Buffalo Bills minicamp. The Ticats picked him in the second round (10th overall) in the 2019 draft.
The Toronto native is listed as a fullback but he has been used in many different positions in training camp. Depending on the offensive package, Kalinic can line up as a fullback, tight end or slot receiver. Given his versatility, Hamilton should have plenty of opportunities to get him in the game – whether it’s on offence or special teams.
Toronto Argonauts - Michael O’Connor, QB
O’Connor attended IMG Academy in Florida as a 17-year-old and then went on to back up Christian Hackenberg at Penn State. The 6-foot-4 pivot from Orleans, Ont., transferred to UBC in 2015 and led them on a magical Vanier Cup run in 2016.
In four seasons with the Thunderbirds, O’Connor passed for 13,883 yards and 87 touchdowns. The Argos picked him in the third round of the 2019 draft (20th overall). O’Connor was invited to the Seattle Seahawks mini-camp but wasn’t offered a contract.
Coaches have been impressed with O’Connor during training camp. In two preseason games he attempted just seven passes, completing five with a touchdown and an interception. The Argos saw enough of O’Connor to move on from Brandon Bridge, another Canadian pivot, on cut day.
The UBC product is unlikely to push James Franklin from the starting job, but O’Connor has proven resilient in his career – a trait that should serve him well in the CFL.
Montreal Alouettes - Nathaniel Anderson, DL
A Toronto native, Anderson recorded 33 tackles, two sacks, one knockdown and one forced fumble in 25 games at the University of Missouri. Anderson also spent two seasons at the New Mexico Military Institute, logging 63 tackles and 6.5 sacks before transferring to Mizzou.
At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Anderson’s measurables were too good for the Alouettes to pass on. They took him in the second round of the draft (16th overall).
The Alouettes re-signed John Bowman to a two-year deal this off-season, but there are a bunch of question marks behind the veteran pass-rusher. Ryan Brown and Woody Baron were solid down the stretch last season, but Anderson should get his fair share of snaps in 2019. Anderson had limited playing time in preseason but still flashed his ability with three tackles.
Ottawa Redblacks - Alex Fontana OL
Fontana started nine of 12 games last season at centre for the University of Kansas. The Toronto native has been described as an aggressive and scrappy player. He wasn’t able to be at the CFL Combine, but impressed Ottawa coaches during a video conference.
The Redblacks picked the 6-foot-2, 300-pound lineman seventh overall in the 2019 Draft. Fontana also garnered attention in NFL circles and attended the Kansas City Chiefs mini-camp.
Fontana is listed second on the depth chart at centre, but he can also play at either guard spot. The Redblacks are rolling with an all-Canadian offensive line to start the season against the defending Grey Cup champion Stampeders, and if they have to sub in Fontana all five blockers will still be Canadian.