Edmonton Journal


With most marquee names off the board, Jones turns to special teams in free agency

- GERRY MODDEJONGE gmoddejong­e@postmedia.com twitter.com/ GerryModde­jonge

The best part about winning the Canadian Football League’s quarterbac­k pre-sweepstake­s this off-season?

Not having to fight over the leftovers at the free agency table once the dinner bell officially rang on expired contracts across the league this week.

No, the Elks already stuffed themselves with the signing of two-time Grey Cup champion pivot McLeod Bethel-Thompson. We can discuss the merits of that title some other time, considerin­g he was never actually on the field to close out either of those finals.

They lured the 35-year-old pivot back to the three-down loop off a one-year hiatus in the USFL with a half-million-dollar oneyear contract, landing the biggest whopper left in an ever-shrinking pool of talent seemingly available in the CFL these days, one now inhabited by the likes of Dominique Davis, Jake Dolegala and Matthew Shiltz.

All together now: Who?

Oh, don’t worry. There are other, more familiar names. The problem is they are entirely too familiar to the double-E, belonging to the been-there, done-thats of Nick Arbuckle, Kai Locksley and Dakota Prukop.

No, thanks. Might as well bring back Taylor Cornelius — though it might have been interestin­g to see how he could have done under new Elks playcaller Jarious Jackson.

But that’s about it for free agent QBs. So, whether BethelThom­pson ends up amounting to the Elks starter they’re paying him like, or if dynamic Canadian youngster Tre Ford once again works his way into the driver’s seat, like he has his first two seasons, at least Chris Jones has given himself a chance to find out.

Meanwhile, the embattled Elks general manager and head coach turned his attention to another area of alarm on his roster — though, to be fair, it should be stated Jones and company shaped themselves up as well as any team heading into free agency this year, if not better.

And that’s saying a lot for a group that so far hasn’t been able to crawl out of the West Division’s basement suite inhabited by the squad Jones inherited two seasons ago.

Just like no amount of lipstick could cover the glaring hole that has been Edmonton’s special teams units, and not just here during Jones’ second stint with the club, either. Calling the Elks return game non-existent would be too kind. It’s been downright deplorable.

And not just during times like when a rookie returner let the ball sail over his head and into the end zone to surrender the determinin­g point of a 12-11 loss. No, Edmonton’s special teams woes run to Jones’ first time in Edmonton. Last year, the

Elks made headlines by finally earning their first kick return touchdown since the rebranding in 2020, while eight years passed since a return man in green and gold reached the end zone.

Unfortunat­ely, they’re still waiting on the punt return side of things.

But they hope that will change in a hurry after signing not just the best available, but the best specialist there is in that department, bringing aboard 2023 CFL most outstandin­g special teams player Javon Leake on Tuesday.

You may remember him from any of the 1,216 punt return yards he gained for the Toronto Argonauts last season, landing him in the top three in the league’s history book.

And football fans in Edmonton will definitely perk up to hear his four punt return touchdowns not only set an Argos record, but landed him just one shy of the CFL’s single-season mark initially set by Henry (Gizmo) Williams. Of course, that was back when the double-E’s return game inspired nothing short of fear in the opposition and electricit­y in the stands.

Touchdowns aside, having Leake’s league-leading 15.0-yard punt return average is a massive upgrade from a division-low 10.3 yards per punt return, even if he leaves something to be desired with a 20.9-yard kickoff return average that sat at the bottom of the East Division pile.

Time will tell whether the addition of the CFL all-star can plug the unit back in or if it all remains in the dark. But for now, at least, let it not be said Jones isn’t doing all he can to brighten the horizon.

And that glow was extended to the kicking game, as well, where last year’s experiment of bringing in a 36-year-old rookie from England didn’t exactly pan out.

Sure, Dean Faithfull left a lasting image by giving a queenly wave while being hoisted upon his teammates’ shoulders after kicking the winner in the Labour Day rematch. But that vision was clouded by a division-low field goal rate of 79.3 per cent, having gone just 23-for-29 between the uprights.

That’s about as far a cry as it gets from the 94.9 per cent of Boris Bede, who led the league in field goal accuracy with his 37 of 39 attempts for the Argos last year on his way to a divisional all-star nod.

So, the Elks picked him up at the same time too, signing the 34-year-old Laval product to a two-year contract.

Special? That remains to be seen.

Upgrades? Most certainly.

 ?? CHRISTOPHE­R KATSAROV/ THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES ?? The Edmonton Elks signed 2023 CFL special teams player of the year Javon Leake Tuesday. Leake racked up 1,216 yards and four touchdowns on punt returns with the Toronto Argonauts last season.
CHRISTOPHE­R KATSAROV/ THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES The Edmonton Elks signed 2023 CFL special teams player of the year Javon Leake Tuesday. Leake racked up 1,216 yards and four touchdowns on punt returns with the Toronto Argonauts last season.
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