As a result of the absurd amount of injuries to starting quarterbacks, the 2015 CFL season showcased a great group of rookie quarterbacks – perhaps the best class in recent history. So I took about four weeks to analyze, scout and rank the five pivots that represent the future of the CFL.
I reviewed three to four games of each rookie quarterback, as you can find the complete TSN broadcast of each game on Youtube. I tracked and graded each play of two of the games, detailing every single part of it. The result: a massive 7,981 word, 27 page Microsoft Word document. Every pass attempt was re-watched at least twice (not including TSN’s standard replays) and dissected to the best of my ability.
As I expected, the results surprised me. Without giving anything away, there was one player who I thought would be ranked lower and one I thought would be ranked higher. You can probably guess which two quarterbacks I’m talking about.
In the overview, I include what I think the quarterback will develop into (franchise quarterback, game-manager, backup, etc) and in how many seasons it’ll take them to reach that potential.
Aside from looking up game-stats out of curiosity for 2 games, I stayed completely away from any stats in this post. Yards, touchdowns, passer rating, completion percentage, etc; these stats don’t tell the story.
Let’s get into it.
5. Brett Smith (Saskatchewan Roughriders)
(6’1″, 206-lbs, Wyoming)
Games re-watched: Calgary at Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan at Ottawa, Saskatchewan at Winnipeg
Smith is an ultra-competitive pivot who is still very raw. His teammates rally around him and he seemingly treats every play like it’s one in the Grey Cup. A legitimate dual-threat quarterback, Smith has fantastic speed and elusiveness of the pocket, but often takes off too early after one read and doesn’t usually stand in the pocket while it begins to collapse. With decent arm-strength and mediocre accuracy, his ball placement can allow DBs to make a play on the ball. He can be too aggressive at times and turns the ball over too much – he had quite a few dropped interceptions – and far too often stares down his receiver. While Smith can anticipate routes opening up and can read defenses decently, he struggles to see more than one area of the field per play. Smith doesn’t always stand tall in the pocket and doesn’t seem to be able to throw right off his drop; his last step is too wide and without a rocket arm, he has get his feet back closer together under his shoulders before releasing, which can throw the timing off on a route. His footwork needs work, but up top, his mechanics are solid – aside from dipping the ball down too low- and consistent.
Week 9 loss to Calgary: Despite the win-less Riders only losing to the Stamps 34-31, Smith didn’t play particularly well in this game. Smith’s stat line read 13/24 for 178 yards, 3 TD and 1 INT, however, 72 of those yards came on one completion to a wide open Nic Demski, and the Stamps’ DBs dropped two other interceptions. Smith often stared down receivers or, as the game went on, made one read before taking off. While he did make some key plays with his legs, Smith failed to see a lot of open receivers. There were some accuracy issues, but the Riders’ mediocre pass protection – despite the Stamps only blitzing on four of his drop-backs – didn’t allow him to step into a couple throws. Not to take anything away from a gutsy performance from the gunslinger out of Wyoming, but the Riders would’ve won this game with veterans Kevin Glenn or Darian Durant at the helm.
Week 10 loss at Ottawa: There were a lot of errors made in this game that lead to Smith’s benching; an interception that was dropped in the first quarter, a bad decision to pull the ball that lead to a 10-yard loss, a time-count penalty on second down in the red-zone, and the awful interception in the end-zone on his last snap of the game. Smith threw a lot of inaccurate passes – he overthrew Weston Dressler on what could’ve been a 70-yard TD in the second quarter – and often made one read before taking off. He did, however, make a couple great plays with his legs – plays that would’ve been sacks without a QB with Smith’s speed. His mobility, as well as the timing of the benching – Saskatchewan still had a great chance to win – was what made it a questionable decision on the part of Corey Chamblin. Ottawa’s blitz-heavy defense fielded mixed results for Smith; it forced him to take off – sometimes too early – and miss throws that he could’ve stood in and made. But he also got around the edge on a couple plays and picked up some yards.
Overview: Dependable backup in 1-2 years.
Smith needs a lot of work and also needs to be tamed. He can be get too fired up and force passes that lead to interceptions, particularly after making a great escape out of the pocket or following a big play on the previous snap. He has to learn to be more patient and become less run-first. Smith must also learn to read multiple sides of the field and not stare down his receiver, which work together. He has some traits that can’t be taught – competitiveness, athleticism and pass-rush elusiveness – but has a lot more flaws that could prevent him from ever being a franchise quarterback.
4. Jeff Mathews, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
(6’4″, 225-lbs, Cornell University, spent 2014 on three NFL rosters)
Games re-watched: Calgary at Hamilton, Hamilton at Montreal, Hamilton at BC
Mathews is a rather one-dimensional pocket passer with an absolute rocket of an arm. He’s not at all mobile and is a difficult quarterback to protect, but is also very accurate. His mechanics are great, just not always consistent and sometimes gets sloppy with his elbow-level. He appears to be a game-manager, often making the easy and safe throw, or taking the sack instead of trying to hit his check-down. While being a labelled a game-manager isn’t always a bad thing if you’re surrounded by great players, at times, Mathews was far too conservative, making well-covered speed-outs his first read. He showed glimpses of completing passes into very tight windows, but with his arm-strength, he needs to attempt those throws far more often. Mathews doesn’t seem to rebound well after interceptions, going back to full-out conservative mode, where he’ll throw to his first read no matter how tight the coverage is. From what he displayed when playing with full confidence, Mathews is clearly a smart quarterback. However, he has a fatal flaw fatal: he holds the ball too long on second-and-long situations when his running back is pass-protecting. His flat feet freeze, and he’s late delivering the ball. You don’t get away with that in pro football.
Week 15 loss to Calgary: While it was only his first career start, the game seemed to be too fast for Mathews. The Ticats clearly just wanted him to manage the game – they ran the ball or a screen on 14 of 22 1st-down plays – and he still struggled, staring down his receivers and throwing into coverage. At times, he got rid of the ball far too early – throwing a well-covered speed-out against a 3-man rush- and sometimes held it way too long with his eyes focusing on the pash-rush – a big no-no. He turned the ball over twice – the first on an interception on a very inaccurate throw over the head of Luke Tasker – but his red-zone fumble was the more costly one. The Stamps played very, very well on defense, but really, Mathews still struggled to make reads, settling on his first one very often.
Week 17 win in Montreal: Mathews was a game manager in this game, dinking and dunking his way down the field with safe throws. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Ticats had the lead all game long and ran the ball efficiently on first down. Mathews converted on 2nd down with safe throws. He seemed to be pre-determining his short throws in the 1st half, which isn’t managing the game; that’s bad quarterbacking. But he read the defense better in the second half and used his rocket arm to thread the needle and hit a couple receivers across the middle.
Overview: Dependable backup (after next season) or below-average, game-managing starter in 2 seasons.
Mathews needs to become more aggressive and trust his arm more in the future, which, with more coaching, can improve. He will always be a difficult quarterback to protect, but if he can be more decisive, he’ll take less sacks/hits in the future. The game should slow down for the 24-year-old in the future – it’s a huge difference from Division II college football. I fully expect Mathews to beat out Jeremiah Masoli in training camp for the backup position next season.
3. James Franklin, Edmonton Eskimos
(6’2″, 225-lbs, Missouri, stint with Detroit Lions in 2014)
Games re-watched: Edmonton at Montreal, Toronto at Edmonton, Edmonton at Calgary.
Franklin is a 23-year-old with all the physical traits: build (6’2″, 215-lbs), mechanics (the best of all the rookies in his class), and athleticism. Many of his struggles throughout the season were simply based off inexperience. With very good arm-strength coupled with solid accuracy, Franklin throws an excellent deep ball as well as back-shoulder passes. His feet are quick in his setup and he throws the ball with great velocity. Best of all, however, is the fact that he protects the football despite his aggressiveness and decisiveness.
Franklin was given a great gameplan for a rookie quarterback in all his starts that included mostly easy reads and throws, including set-up swing passes to slots and running backs, screen passes, hook patterns, flood concepts and roll-outs. However, against the Stampeders, the defense knew exactly what to expect and took this all away.
Week 8 win in Montreal: Considering the circumstances, Franklin played a formidable game by rookie-facing-blitz-heavy-defense-on-the-road-in-relief-duty-in-second-ever-pro-appearance standards. The Alouettes blitzed Franklin on 17/26 plays, often sending several blitzers and consistently lining up in different, exotic formations. Against cover-zero, Franklin was great, releasing the ball early and incredibly accurately, especially on a 2nd-and-six strike to Kenny Stafford on a post. Franklin sometimes bailed out of the pocket too early and made a couple head-scratching decisions; Billy Parker dropped an easy pick with Franklin forcing the ball on a roll-out. But Franklin ultimately played good down the stretch and connected with Devon Bailey on a perfect, 22-yard back-shoulder toss to set up the game-winning field goal. Incredibly, Franklin was only sacked once, however, he did leave some plays out on the field.
Week 11 loss in Calgary: In this game, it was evident that Franklin had never seen a defense such as Calgary’s before and was quite overwhelmed. But give the Stamps some credit, too, as they played an excellent game. The entire unit was unbelievably disciplined with their assignments. The Stamps were also well prepared and, unlike the Argos, chose to play coverage instead of blitz (only blitzed six times, and only once sent more than five rushers), and heavily defended the flats. All game long, the Stamps played great and Franklin was confused by the coverage. It didn’t help that, for some reason, the Eskimos only gave RB Chad Simpson three (!) carries while Franklin was in the game. All game, the Missouri alum was frazzled in the pocket and made the wrong pre-snap read numerous times. He didn’t see some open receivers and was late throwing to others. He was decently accurate throwing into tight windows, but overall just wasn’t in attack mode.
Overview: Starting quarterback abilities with one-two more years of seasoning.
With all the intangibles, Franklin has the potential to stick in this league for many years to come. With more time as a backup, many of his issues such as pre-snap reads, pocket movement/footwork, and making more reads with improve with experience.
2. Rakeem Cato, Montreal Alouettes
(6’0″, 181-lbs, Marshall University)
Games re-watched: Calgary at Montreal, Montreal at BC, Montreal at Calgary, Hamilton at Montreal
While very undersized, Cato is simply a play-maker. A smart, aggressive quarterback, he often takes shots down the field and has an excellent knack of making plays with his legs. He makes good, quick reads and senses pressure very well, but could use some work on reading the pocket; he misses opportunities to step-up and usually will scramble to outside, which isn’t going to be sustainable. Cato is a very accurate quarterback when throwing with his feet set and, thanks to his great football sense, knows exactly where to place the ball on difficult throws. Cato operated Montreal’s full playbook despite being a rookie and never seemed overwhelmed.
Week 2 win vs. Calgary: Cato’s best game of the season came in his first one. First of all, the Stampeders played a terrible game on defense. DC Rich Stubler blitzed the hell out of Cato, and after getting burned by the rookie, they blitzed less than any other team in the league for the rest of the season. Cato got rid of the ball quickly, for the most part, but was late on a few throws, including a 10-yard-out to Fred Stamps that was jumped by CB Buddy Jackson. He made the right reads with poise, but typically only had to make one. He missed a couple of plays, opting for the short pass rather than the deep one, but it managed to work out for him. Cato was aided by RB Tyrell Sutton’s career day on the ground, as it occupied the attention of Calgary’s linebackers and safeties.
Week 9 win in BC: This was a game in which Cato hardly did anything on the stat sheet, but actually managed the game fairly well. The Lions had no answer for the Als’ run game, and as a result, Montreal ran the ball 36 times. When Cato wasn’t throwing any of his six screen/swing/shovel passes, he took advantage of his opportunities to drop back and throw underneath. BC, who only blitzed twice all game with Cato in the game, were leaving the flats wide open on second down plays. Cato’s longest throw was his touchdown to Nik Lewis, which was a great read and accurate throw across his body for 18 yards. All game, BC’s coverage was quite good downfield and Cato, who seemingly held onto the ball too long on many plays, only failed to pull the trigger on an open receiver 3 times. And on 2/3 of those plays, the coverage was still decent.
Overview: If he can stay healthy, Cato could be a franchise quarterback.
Cato really didn’t regress as much as it originally looked like back in August. He actually began to manage games better and take what defenses gave him. As a rookie fresh out of college, he was going to have some ups and downs – that was to be expected. He has to continue to work on protecting the ball, reading the pocket, and learning when to be aggressive or conservative during games.
1. Jonathon Jennings, BC Lions
(6’0″, 191-lbs, Saginaw Valley State)
Games re-watched: BC at Edmonton, Winnipeg at BC, BC at Edmonton, Hamilton at BC
Jennings is the best in the class and it’s not even close. Since his first career start in Edmonton against the no. 1 defense in the league, Jennings played like a seasoned veteran. Unlike no other rookie QB, he consistently manipulates defenses with his eyes and threw some incredibly accurate passes. Jennings has great arm-strength and can throw the ball with great touch. He makes very confident throws and gets the ball to wide-side of the field. Jennings goes through his progression faster than most quarterbacks – he makes more reads-per-play than any other rookie, by far – and can locate his check-down. He has an uncanny ability to stay extremely patient in the pocket and does a great job keeping his eyes downfield any time he’s under duress. Jennings has great mechanics and good feet. He makes everyone around him better, but on some occasions, needs to keep a short-memory and forget the last play.
Jennings has room for improvement against the blitz. There are times when he knows exactly where to go with the ball from his pre-snap read and executes. But on some occasions, he does this little half-roll and starts bouncing on his feet.
Week 17 loss at Edmonton: Against the best and stingiest defense in the league, Jon Jennings played a superb game – he shredded this defense. He made great reads all game long and, despite the Eskimos only rushing three on the majority of passing downs – picked apart the zone defense. He made confident throws – his go-route completion to Gore (unreal ball placement; 2nd-and-2, first quarter), end-zone fade-route TD to Arceneaux (1st-and-goal; third quarter) and dig-route completion to Gore on the wide-side (2nd-and-11, third quarter) all stand out – and was patient all game long. He progressed through his reads and calmly took advantage of the Eskimos only sending three rushers without getting antsy, as most quarterbacks do. You can’t teach that. Jennings’ lone error came at the wrong time; an interception in overtime to Dexter McCoil. While it looked ugly at first, it was actually SB Travis Hawkins who was early on the drag-route, which took McCoil right into the lane of the curl-route. It was a great play by McCoil, and if he was in that spot either one second later or earlier, Jennings would’ve had a completion.
Week 18 win vs. Hamilton: Aside from some trouble against Hamilton’s cover-0 and cover-1 blitzes in the late stages of the game, Jennings played great against the Tabbies. He effectively dissected the coverage with accurate throws; the 47-yard connection with Burnham on a skinny-post was likely Jennings’ most accurate throw of the season. He was aggressive and very patient, manipulating the defense with his eyes in the pocket. In another three-touchdown performance, Jennings threw the ball with confidence and into tight windows. He struggled late in the game when Hamilton started sending the house, going 2/5 against cover-0 for approx. 15 yards with: an interception, a bad drop by Collie, and a pass interference penalty for screening. His first half performance cannot be overlooked, as it was simply spectacular.
Overview: Franchise quarterback that’s ready to play.
Jennings has an extremely bright future and will be around for a long time. He could seriously be the best quarterback in the league by as early as next season. If you look at his abilities and tendencies closely, it’s clear that he’s already doing many things better than some of the veteran starters today.
All feedback is appreciated.