EDMONTON, AB – The Elks are well ahead of the game when it comes to building their roster for the 2024 season.
A quick look across the Canadian Football League landscape shows just how busy General Manager and Head Coach Chris Jones and Assistant General Manager Geroy Simon have been in the winter months.
The Elks currently have the fewest pending free agents in the league with just nine players left to make a decision on prior to Feb. 13’s Free Agent Frenzy. The contrast to their provincial rivals is stark, with the Calgary Stampeders still uncommitted on a league-high 29 players.
“We feel really good in the position we’re at,” Geroy Simon said to 630 CHED’s Morley Scott on The Elks This Week. “Looking around the league, you see teams with 10-12 free agents. To the guys that we’re going to bring back, we’re down to just a few and we’re pretty close in getting those guys done.
“We wanted to have a group that was continuous. We want to have continuity with our group, and that reflects in the type of deals that we’re signing. (We’re) bringing a young group back that we feel that we can have on the roster now, and then moving forward for a long time.”
Edmonton has already handed out extensions to Canadians Cole Nelson, Brett Boyko, Sam Acheampong, Tanner Green, Josiah Schakel, and Phillip Grohovac — while also locking up key veterans in Kyran Moore and Lucheiz Purifoy. The work isn’t done however, with a handful of starters left to make a decision on including last season’s leading sack getter in defensive lineman A.C Leonard still without a contract.
DEFENSIVE LINE A FOCUS
The D-line will be a major area of interest for Elks fans. The club recently announced the trade of long-time defensive stalwart Jake Ceresna to the Argonauts in exchange for ratio-breaking wide receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr.. The Elks brass believe their track record of developing players on the defensive side of the ball will help them fill the hole left by the 29-year-old defender.
“I think we have some guys in house at this point that can fill that role, and coach Jones and some of the other coaching staff, we feel confident in the ability to find and develop defense linemen,” Simon said. “That’s kind of been coach’s specialty in finding and developing defensive linemen, so we feel comfortable with making the move and moving on from Jake.”
“Jake did a great job for us and we’re thankful for Jake, for all the sacrifice that he’s been through and the leadership that he’s given us,” he added. “But it was just time to move on, get younger and cheaper in certain spots, and that was a spot we deemed that we can make a move.”
Chris Jones does have a solid track record of unearthing defensive stalwarts — all over the defence — throughout his tenure in the CFL. The headliners to that group include five-time CFL all-star Willie Jefferson, who got his start under Jones and truly emerged when the GM brought him to Saskatchewan back in 2016. Add in the previously mentioned A.C. Leonard, who has amassed 51 career sacks since joining the league, and a couple other CFL success stories in Sam Eguavoen (who currently wrapped up his fifth season in the NFL) and 2019 CFL All-Star Derrick Moncrief, and you can see where Jones draws his confidence from.
Sam Eguavoen says NOT TODAY. 😱
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) January 10, 2022
Since the trade, the Elks have already added a pair of American defensive lineman including USFL standout Keyshon Camp and Trevon Mason out of the XFL to round out the competition. With a few weeks left until CFL Free Agency, there is still a lot of time between now and Training Camp to see how the Elks defensive line will take shape.
A CHANGE IN THE CULTURE
The mostly hotly discussed move by the Elks has been the addition of quarterback McLeod Bethel Thompson. While their is a ton of excitement about what a veteran quarterback can bring on the field, it’s his impacts and his ability to set the tone in the locker room which excites the Elks brass.
“We felt good about the team that we had and the players that we were bringing back, but to get a player of McLeod’s caliber — the pedigree that he brings, the leadership that he brings, the winning attitude and winning culture that he brings, again, you can’t pass that up,” Simon said. “And yeah, we feel good about the guys that we have on the team and the guys that we’re bringing back, but to add to that, with McLeod leading the charge, it’s a no brainer to bring that guy in. We feel we did something very special.”
Bethel-Thompson’s familiarity to many in the EE’s coaching staff removes much of the uncertainty that comes with with making a big-money acquisition at the quarterback position — not to mention one that hasn’t played in the league for a season. The 35-year-old has already grinded out hours in the film room with Offensive Coordinator Jarious Jackson and Pass Game Coordinator & Wide Receivers Coach Markus Howell during his time in Toronto, so the staff is aware of MBT’s level of professionalism and execution.
While a boost to the team culture is great, you still need to have the personnel to build a winner. The Elks offence is ready to be revitalized this season and the Green and Gold’s newest signal caller is licking his chops at the weapons he sees on the roster.
“I’m very excited to get to work with (the recently added Gittens Jr.) and the rest of the receiving corps,” Bethel-Thompson told 630 CHED’s Morley Scott. “I mean, it’s getting pretty scary there in Elk country right now with Geno, Kurleigh, Swerve (Kyran Moore), D-Mitch (Dillon Mitchell) and I know the names go on and on. Kevin Brown in the backfield, it’s getting pretty freaky and I’m very excited to get going.”