Questions abound around CFL’s QB class of 2023
The success of any football league is predicated on the play of its quarterbacks, a fact that is especially true when it comes to the Canadian game.
Throughout its history, the CFL has had more than its share of quarterback stars, entrenched faces of the franchise whose play provides the excitement that drives the three-down game.
As recently as 15 years ago, that list would have included Ricky Ray, Dave Dickson, Anthony Calvillo and Henry Burris – four future Hall of Famers – followed by another wave that included Mike Reilly, Travis Lulay and Bo Levi Mitchell, all of whom won Most Outstanding Player awards.
But as the CFL gets set to open its 2023 season tonight in Calgary, the overall quality of the league’s quarterbacks seems, well, up in the air.
Beyond the back-to-back MOP seasons banked by Winnipeg’s Zach Collaros, there are questions about every other starting quarterback in the league. (And the CFL can count its lucky stars for Collaros, whom much of the league considered finished due to a history of concussions less than four years ago.)
The question marks vary across the league.
For some, such as Toronto’s Chad Kelly, Edmonton’s Taylor Cornelius, and Calgary’s Jake Maier, it’s about being unproven. For others, like Ottawa’s Jeremiah Masoli, it’s about staying healthy.
For Montreal’s Cody Fajardo and Hamilton’s Bo Levi Mitchell, it’s about proving that recent dips in performance can be reversed. And for B.C.’s Vernon Adams, it’s about applying all the lessons from an up-and-down career to finally put it all together.
Saskatchewan’s 37-year-old Trevor Harris, who was a backup at this time last year, is about as sure a thing as there is beyond Collaros, given his ability to stay healthy and rack up passing yards.
How did we get here?
Well, part of it is that two successful starting quarterbacks from 2022 are no longer in the league by choice.
Former Toronto Argonaut McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who led the CFL in passing a year ago, opted to ply his trade closer to home in the USFL for substantially less money than he’d be making in the CFL.
Nathan Rourke, who lit up the CFL last season with the Lions before suffering an August injury that kept him out until late in the season, opted to sign this off-season with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
The crop of quarterbacks they left behind isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just chock-full of uncertainty. And that uncertainty comes at a critical time for the CFL, as the market for available quarterbacks isn’t what is used to be just a short time ago.
Multiple factors have served to limit the supply of available pivots, forcing CFL teams to dig deeper for their quarterback talent. Topping that list is the expansion of NFL practice rosters and the addition of 16 new professional teams in the XFL and USFL.
In many instances, this means recruiting from lower down the college football chain, something that’s already been reflected in the number of players from smaller conferences and schools getting a look during this spring’s training camps.
Get ready for fewer quarterbacks from Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and USC, and more from Occidental, Portland State and Towson.
In other words, there may not be a steady class of pro-ready talent available and waiting in the wings should this current crop of CFL quarterbacks flop.
So, make no mistake, the CFL needs its current quarterbacks to play beyond what they’ve done in recent seasons or, in some cases, what they’ve ever done before.
That sounds daunting, but there is ample reason to believe this class may be up to the task.
Start with Mitchell in Hamilton who says he’s as healthy as he’s been in years, and determined to prove he is still atop his game at age 33. Nagging injuries were a big part of Mitchell’s problems in Calgary, so remaining upright will be key. But with a stacked Hamilton team built around him to win now, there’s every reason to believe he’s poised for a bounce-back season.
Maier, Mitchell’s replacement in Calgary, has been a quick study during his rookie and sophomore seasons, which is an accomplishment in itself. Year No. 3 is usually when a CFL quarterback’s potential starts to take off, so Maier’s play should move in a positive direction this season.
It’s also Year No. 3 for Edmonton’s Cornelius. The big-armed, long-striding quarterback was far more refined last season than he was during his rookie year of 2021 and should become even more so in 2023.
In Toronto, there are reasons to believe Kelly can harvest his great talent into being a front-line CFL quarterback. Coming out of college, Kelly was graded as a first-to-second round NFL talent whose injuries and character issues dragged him down to Mr. Irrelevant.
Kelly’s off-field scorecard was clean as a CFL rookie, and he claims to have eliminated the people in his life who weren’t good for him. The unlikely Grey Cup hero showed what he could do when thrown into the fire under pressure last November. Now he gets to show what he can do when he’s the guy from day one of training camp.
The enigma is Adams. A big-time college star from the University of Oregon, he spent his first few CFL seasons bouncing around, eventually finding a home in Montreal. He often appeared to be ascending towards greatness as an Alouette, but inconsistency got in the way.
Now he’s inherited the Lions’ No. 1 job from Rourke, charged with keeping BC’s high-powered offence running. His 12-for-12 throwing performance during the pre-season is certainly a positive sign.
Then there is Fajardo, the guy who went from third-stringer to MOP finalist overnight before being chased out of Saskatchewan at the end of last season. Not always seeming comfortable in the Prairie fishbowl, Fajardo should have no such issues in Montreal.
And as Jim Barker pointed out during our TSN Season Preview Show on Tuesday night, Fajardo is going to a place with a great offensive line and elite running game featuring William Stanback, which sets him up for success – or at least a better chance of it than he had during the second half of last season with the Roughriders.
Masoli still isn’t ready to play, following the injury he suffered last July at the hands of former Roughrider Garrett Marino. The Redblacks have already ruled him out for the first two games of the regular season, which is probably wise given that Ottawa has a bye in Week 3.
At age 35, and having played just 20 games since 2018, it may be now or never for him.
Many questions and a lot of uncertainty, but also reasons for optimism. Welcome to the CFL’s quarterback class of 2023.