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December 20, 2016

17 for ’17: Sophomores on the Verge

They made it look easy but in reality, it usually isn’t. For every player like Daniels that explodes and defies all logic, there are handfuls of rookies that spend their first season adapting to the Canadian game and settling merely for glimpses of what’s to come.

Who showed some of those glimpses in 2016?

Patrick Doyle/CFL.ca

Juron Criner looks to escape a pair of defenders during the Eastern Final (Patrick Doyle/CFL.ca)

In a football universe where nothing is constant, it’s hard to predict who will be the breakout stars of tomorrow. But with an 18-game body of work at our disposal, we take a shot at figuring it out.

Keeping in mind that players like Caleb Holley, Alex Singleton and Ricky Collins (among others) won’t appear on this list given their already-significant contributions as first-year players, here are 17 sophomores to keep an eye on for 2017:

17. Chandler Fenner | DB
Team: BC | Age: 26

An athletic corner with length at 6-foot-1, Chandler Fenner was just getting his feet wet this season before finding himself starting in the post-season.

The Lions were hit by injuries at the position in 2016 but to get young players like Fenner and Anthony Gaitor some experience at the corner should bode well for next season.

Wally Buono may have uncovered a solid starter in Fenner, who was actually released by the Lions in camp before re-joining the team in the summer.

16. Thomas Gordon | DB
Team: TOR | Age: 25

While 2016 was like a bad dream for Rich Stubler’s Argo defence, it wasn’t all bad. A small handful of young players showed they may just have a CFL future, including linebacker Thomas Gordon.

The 25-year-old is listed as a defensive back but also spent time at the SAM and WILL, recording 37 defensive tackles, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble over 14 games.

Jason Halstead/CFL.ca

Rookie defensive back Thomas Gordon quietly played a key role for the Argos in 2016 (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

15. Juwan Brescacin | REC
Team: CGY | Age: 23

After turning 24 this coming February, Juwan Brescacin is a candidate to take leaps and bounds in 2017.

A second round pick last May, the 6-foot-3, 231-pound Mississauga, Ont. native is a big body that could make a far greater impact in Dave Dickenson’s offence next summer — especially considering the list of Stamps receivers with expiring contracts.

If the Stamps don’t re-sign Simon Charbonneau-Campeau, Brescacin could form a solid national tandem with Lemar Durant.

14. Kevin Francis | LB
Team: SSK | Age: 23

After starting at safety on day one, Kevin Francis’ role was eventually reduced to backup linebacker and special teamer. Don’t let that fool you — the 23-year-old has a very bright CFL future.

A 6-foot-5, 220-pound converted receiver, Francis still hasn’t found a permanent role at the next level but that shouldn’t be an issue for Chris Jones, who’s raved about his athleticism ever since camp last year.

Look for Francis to excel on special teams and play a little more regularly on defence next season as he gains more experience.

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Despite losing his starting role, Kevin Francis still has plenty of upside for the Riders (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

13. Ramon Taylor | DB
Team: MTL | Age: 24

The Als turned some heads when they released Mitchell White on the eve of camp last year and played Jovon Johnson at boundary half instead of corner. As the season progressed, we started to see a little of why.

Ethan Davis, Greg Henderson, Jonathon Mincy and Ramon Taylor are all 24 or younger, and all three showed flashes at the position throughout 2016. By the end of it all, Mincy was the Als’ top rookie while Taylor had taken over from Davis at boundary corner.

A 5-foot-10, 184-pound Michigan alum, Taylor played in eight games and started five as he heads into 2017 with a full head of steam.

12. Sam Eguavoen | LB
Team: SSK | Age: 23

Samuel Eguavoen started six games for Chris Jones as a 23-year-old rookie before an injury claimed the rest of his first professional season.

Getting back on the field could prove difficult given the Riders’ growing depth at the position — and Jones surely isn’t done adding — but if the Texas Tech alum can re-gain his starting role, he’s got the tools to be successful.

Explosive in pursuit, Eguavoen is a candidate to rack up big tackle numbers in 2017.

11. Ken Bishop | DL
Team: TOR | Age: 26

His numbers don’t jump off the page, which is not unusual for an interior lineman, but Ken Bishop quietly put up a very solid first CFL season.

The 26-year-old started 15 games for the Argos and recorded three sacks and 21 tackles, helping to replace departed tackles Cleyon Laing and Euclid Cummings.

Bishop should have a starting role locked up for 2017 on a team that could see plenty of change elsewhere.

David Chidley/CFL.ca

Ken Bishop filled a major void in the middle of the Argos’ defensive line (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

10. Anthony Gaitor | DB
Team: BC | Age: 28

It took until August for Anthony Gaitor to get on the field, but the 28-year-old went on to make 13 straight starts for the Lions at corner — including two playoff games.

This season was a learning experience for Gaitor and fellow first-year corner Chandler Fenner but both should be better for it when training camp arrives next spring.

Gaitor is a smaller, quicker type of corner and will compete for the chance to start. So far he’s shown some ability as a playmaker at the professional level.

9. Terrence Frederick | DB
Team: WPG | Age: 26

For as good as the Bombers’ secondary was this season, not enough credit was given to Terrence Frederick, who quietly pushed standout rookie Kevin Fogg out of a starting role by year’s end.

The 26-year-old started all nine games he played in and should be a starter again come training camp next season.

Look for Frederick to make a far more pronounced impact next year.

8. Brian Tyms | REC
Team: HAM | Age: 27

A week after stepping on a CFL field for the first time, Brian Tyms was the number one target of Zach Collaros in the Ticats’ loss to Edmonton in the Eastern Semi-Final.

Opportunity knocks for the 27-year-old, who recorded 114 yards that day in Hamilton and will have a chance to make an impact on an aging and injured receiving corps that could also be affected by free agency.

Tyms has adapted quickly to the CFL and has the size (6-foot-3) and speed combo to be a dominant receiver.

Brian_Tyms_2016

If the end of 2016 is any indication, Brian Tyms could be in for a big season (CFL.ca)

7. Josiah St. John | OL
Team: SSK | Age: 24

Evaluating offensive linemen can be difficult at the best of times, let alone one who missed half the season and made just six starts.

Josiah St. John did get a late start to his CFL career but the 6-foot-5, 309-pound top prospect at least had some time to get his feet wet in his first season in Saskatchewan.

St. John started six games at guard for the Riders and is a likely starter on what will be a revamped O-line come June.

6. Brandon Zylstra | REC
Team: EDM | Age: 23

It’s hard to be heard when Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker are ahead of you on the depth chart, but Brandon Zylstra needed only six starts to make an enormous impact with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2016.

Zylstra had 508 receiving yards in six games (84.7 per game) and became the reliable third option Mike Reilly and the Eskimos had previously lacked.

With Walker possibly on his way to the NFL, Zylstra could be the next big star receiver in 2017 as he follows a career trajectory similar to that of Eric Rogers.

5. Kenny Ladler | LB
Team: EDM | Age: 24

Kenny Ladler may already be a household name but hasn’t seen any semblence of his ceiling just yet. That’s why he makes this list despite playing in 17 games and recording 70 tackles in his first season as an Eskimo.

Ladler, who moved from safety to SAM linebacker upon his arrival in Edmonton, is an athletic, downhill tackler with the ball skills to rack up interceptions and also force fumbles.

That wasn’t part of Ladler’s game this season the way we expected (he had two tackles, two forced fumbles and a touchdown — not bad) but look out in 2017. Ladler’s star is rising.

Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca

The fast emerging Kenny Ladler will be one to keep an eye on for the Eskimos (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

4. Juron Criner | REC
Team: OTT | Age: 27

Juron Criner made the ‘catch of the year that didn’t happen in a game’ during Grey Cup week practice, but that’s not all that put him on the map. The first-year REDBLACK came on quickly after Chris Williams got injured in the last month of the season, then in the playoffs was arguably Ottawa’s best receiver.

The 6-foot-3, 227-pound receiver is a late bloomer in his professional career but can dominate defenders in man coverage and make the big catches when needed — exactly as seen in the 104th Grey Cup.

With Williams injured and three of the REDBLACKS’ four 1,000-yard receivers up for free agency, Criner is all but guaranteed a significant role in one of the league’s top passing attacks next season.

3. Armanti Edwards | REC
Team: SSK | Age: 28

A former third round NFL draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, Armanti Edwards is new to the CFL but arrived as a polished professional player.

An explosive pass-catcher who ran a 4.31 out of Appalachian State, Edwards needed just three games to show he’s got a future on this side of the border, hauling in 19 catches for 231 yards — including one of the best catches of the 2016 season.

The 28-year-old has some competition in a Riders’ receiving corps that’ll also feature Naaman Roosevelt, Caleb Holley and Ricky Collins but expect him to play a feature role next summer.

2. Jonathan Rose | DB
Team: OTT | Age: 23

While Jonathan Rose barely qualifies for this list having started 14 of the 16 games he played in, the REDBLACKS’ rookie corner is close to becoming a big name in the CFL — if he isn’t already.

Rose came to Canada after a collegiate career that saw him dismissed from two different teams — Nebraska and Auburn — but the self-described hothead has since kept his emotions in check.

At 6-foot-1, Rose uses his size and physicality to his advantage and is a handful for opposing receivers, especially in man coverage. His presence is key for a REDBLACKS team that otherwise faces possible changes at the position.

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Jonathan Rose could be a long time fixture for Ottawa at corner (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

1. Vernon Adams Jr. | QB
Team: MTL | Age: 23

After years of constant shuffling following the departure of the league’s all-time leading passer in Anthony Calvillo, the Als finally have a bonafide blue chip prospect at the quarterback position.

Vernon Adams Jr. was a big star in college but his height — 5-foot-11 — may have scared away NFL teams. That could be to the benefit of the Alouettes, who will look to bring Adams Jr. along patiently after surrendering a first round pick to get him from the Lions.

The 23-year-old didn’t look out of place in a brief stint as the starter last season, throwing four touchdown passes to just one interception while winning two of three starts. Boom or bust, Adams Jr. will be one to watch in 2017.