June 8, 2020

Ferguson: What Jalen Saunders to the REDBLACKS could mean

When Jalen Saunders cut over the middle of the field and his knee gave out, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ 2018 season immediately changed. Disregard Brandon Banks’ late season collarbone injury or Luke Tasker battling through a variety of lower body tweaks as the prolonged battle that is a CFL season wore on.

Saunders was coming into his own as the Ticats’ pass catcher become ever more involved in the offence while finding ways to access his dynamic route running quickness and open field speed. At his best, Saunders was an intermediate receiver with big play ability that had great success between the hashes.

Here is his 2017 season when fully healthy.

And 2018 before the injury that would end his black and gold experience.

The evolution I see from 2017 is a receiver learning where to pick and choose his spots in the offence. Route running refinement within the structure of then-head coach June Jones’ offence made Saunders a much more efficient pass catcher, as his catch rate on targets jumped from 59.6 per cent to 68.1 per cent with the same quarterback coaches and teammates from 2017 to 2018.

Since the knee injury, he left the CFL to join June Jones on his new venture to the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, where he saw no game action while completing rehabilitation.

Then, all of a sudden in the middle of a pandemic, Saunders’ name scrolled across the transaction wire of the CFL once again: Ottawa REDBLACKS.

Immediately my mind rushed with the way Paul LaPolice could use Saunders and what he could mean to those around him in Ottawa.

The first and most obvious connection is how Saunders’ game in Hamilton — understanding there is always room for evolution — applies to Nick Arbuckle’s strengths.

In 2019 Arbuckle was the most accurate CFL QB, based on my grading of every throw all season, a stat that was accentuated by his penchant for taking check downs, screens and crossers. All  are high efficiency throws.

When REDBLACKS’ GM Marcel Desjardins traded for and signed Arbuckle this spring, both he and LaPolice kept mentioning Arbuckle’s ability to “stay on the field and make throws.”

That’s something that the REDBLACKS passers of 2019, Dominique Davis, Jonathon Jennings and William Arndt all struggled to accomplish.

In acquiring Arbuckle, the REDBLACKS made a clear statement that they would be returning to a more low-key and efficient brand of football in 2020, getting away from what earned them last place in CFL standings last year.

You could even say it signaled a return to the style employed by then-offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo with quarterback Trevor Harris when Ottawa reached the Grey Cup in 2018 before the REDBLACKS as we knew them changed that off-season.

The pairing of Arbuckle and Saunders makes so much sense based on Arbuckle’s ability to be accurate and decisive on short and intermediate throws. What could truly launch Saunders to a place he hasn’t seen yet as a pro, though, is if LaPolice, Arbuckle and Saunders are able to play off those tendencies and hit home runs on double moves or scripted big plays.

While the 2020 REDBLACKS might resemble the Trevor Harris era more than that of Dominique Davis, the reality is they would still need to find their ‘Greg Ellingson replacement’ to make the offence really pop.

I went looking at some of the 2019 Grey Cup champion Blue Bombers’ offence to find if a reference point exists for what a receiver accomplished in LaPolice’s 2019 offence. The closest I could find was Kenny Lawler.

Dominant over the middle with a similar catch rate and big play explosive ability, both Lawler and Saunders seem to match what a productive No. 2 receiver in the CFL looks like right now.

The worst case scenario for Saunders in 2020 is that he’s lost a step and struggles to regain form leading Ottawa to have a thinner pass catching group than expected on paper. I don’t expect that.

The best case scenario is an all-star season filled with big plays, a catch rate over 70 per cent under 15 yards in the air and close to double digit touchdowns (depending on number of games played). With that comes playoff opportunities.

In reality, I believe Saunders lands somewhere in between and mimics Lawler’s 2019 year in Winnipeg above. An important contributing member and trustworthy ally to build the REDBLACKS’ pass attack moving forward, only time will tell when we finally get the chance to find out.