I really enjoyed watching how many first-year players excelled during the 2021 season. Last year’s group of CFL rookies not only made big impacts, but by and large were important players on good teams. That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing what the sophomore class has in store as a follow-up for the 2022 season.
The bulk of last year’s high-end rookie class were defensive standouts, led by Jordan Williams of the BC Lions. The 2020 first overall selection lived up to the hype in Year 1; Williams finished second overall with 92 defensive tackles to go along with one sack, one interception, and one fumble recovery. It all culminated with Williams being named a very deserving Most Outstanding Rookie in 2021.
William’s season had people buzzing with comparisons to BC’s last Most Outstanding Rookie and last standout Mike linebacker, who just happened to be some guy named Solomon Elimimian. Now, that’s lofty praise, as Elimimian is one of the greatest to ever play the position, but you can see the similarities based on their rookie seasons.
Williams brings one extra thing to the table that most players at his position don’t: a National designation. In fact, the Lions will have a unicorn at their disposal entering 2022…an elite linebacker tandem featuring a pair of Canadians. Williams and Bo Lokombo, the reigning Most Outstanding Canadian, are set to give BC a ratio-busting linebacker option for a second consecutive season.
Speaking of linebackers, Edmonton’s Nyles Morgan wasn’t far behind Williams when it came to rookie performances. The Notre Dame product led the Elks in 2021 with 66 tackles while adding one sack and one forced fumble. Just 25 years old, Morgan impressed enough in training camp to not only win the starting weak side job but to also prompt Edmonton to release 2019 standout Vontae Diggs as a result.
With Chris Jones in as head coach and general manager for the 2022 season, I’m intrigued to see how many steps Morgan can take. Jones’ reputation as a defensive savant rightly precedes him and he wasted little time extending Morgan through the 2023 campaign. Looking at what Morgan accomplished as a rookie, it’s easy to see why.
Then there’s last year’s rookie standouts in the defensive backfield, who were supposed to meet in the 108th Grey Cup. Unfortunately, due to an injury to Hamilton’s Desmond Lawrence, only Winnipeg’s DeAundre Alford suited up for the final game of the 2021 season. But that doesn’t take away from how stellar both were in their first CFL campaigns.
Lawrence burst onto the CFL scene last year after injury and bad luck had him bouncing around numerous pro leagues after a great career at the University of North Carolina. Upon finding solid ground in Hamilton, though, Lawrence quickly emerged as one of the league’s best boundary corners.
In a lockdown role, Lawrence finished his rookie season with 22 tackles, two interceptions, and one sack and was a huge reason the Tiger-Cats advanced to a second consecutive Grey Cup game. Hamilton was fortunate to have a deep and versatile backfield, or else Lawrence’s absence in the two most important games of the year would have been far more noticeable.
Then there’s Alford, who was one of Winnipeg’s most important defensive players as a rookie. An under the radar signing out of NCAA Division II Tusculum ahead of the cancelled 2020 season, it was clear the Bombers had someone special early on. Alford won a starting spot out of training camp and never looked back.
Starting at boundary corner, Alford’s emergence allowed Winnipeg to move on from 2019 All-Star Winston Rose without blinking an eye. When Rose returned from the NFL, moving to the field side was an easy transition for Alford and he recorded three tackles to help the Blue Bombers in their second straight Grey Cup win. Alford finished 2021 with 48 tackles, four interceptions, one defensive touchdown, and one forced fumble en route a league All-Star nod.
On the offensive side, I’m interested to see what Year 2 has in store for Saskatchewan receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker. The Guelph product put together a solid rookie season for the Riders, racking up 563 yards and two touchdowns in 12 regular-season appearances. Schaffer-Baker also caught six passes and a touchdown in Saskatchewan’s two playoff games.
With Shaq Evans, Duke Williams, and Kyran Moore all back for 2022, I like Schaffer-Baker’s chances of being a sneaky and productive slot option for the Roughriders. Schaffer-Baker is explosive, strong, and reliable, which makes him a great safety valve in contested spots over the middle for quarterback Cody Fajardo.
Finally, the Argos have a great sophomore locked in on their offensive line to start the 2022 season in Peter Nicastro. The University of Calgary graduate was Toronto’s nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie and Most Outstanding Lineman last year after appearing in 11 games at guard and center. To have a 23-year-old Canadian penned in on the depth chart to start this year is huge.
Nicastro was one of 2021’s great rookie stories, after going seventh overall in that year’s CFL Draft. For him to make the jump from U SPORTS to full-time professional starter was impressive enough but being named an East Division All-Star as a rookie was even more notable. Nicastro seems like an anchor on Toronto’s offensive line for years to come.