Ferguson: Diving in on the pending FA running backs

Earlier this week we took a look at receiver free agency rankings in an attempt to paint the landscape of potentially available options come February in the CFL pass-catching marketplace.

Today, the focus is all about the ground game. In a passing three down league like the CFL, running backs can be devalued but just a few short weeks ago remember how much of an influence names like William Stanback, Walter Fletcher, Andrew Harris, A.J. Ouellette, Brady Oliveira and James Butler played in the playoff discussion.

As always, I dug into the numbers to look at production vs. usage for the names on every big board across the country.

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James Butler got significantly more work than any back in this class while showing he could stay, mostly, healthy. Jamal Morrow has already signed an extension, so I could have taken him off the list but I felt that would be a disservice to Riders fans who just got back a top notch CFL ball carrier as shown by his 2022 season above.

Argos backfield mates Andrew Harris and A.J. Ouellette ended up having nearly identical seasons despite splitting opposite ends of the season until the home stretch, while Wes Hills and Sean Thomas Erlington did much of the same down the road in Hamilton.

With backs needed to both pass protect and catch the ball productively in the CFL game, I next looked at how often these backs were targeted in the pass game and how productive they were when their number was called.

Recently signed Lions back Bruce Anderson III and Thomas Erlington are the clubhouse leaders in workload and production through the air for pending free agent backs, while Montreal’s Walter Fletcher was head and shoulders more productive per touch as the Alouettes increasingly utilized their two back system after Thanksgiving.

With a few hybrid backs like Edmonton’s Ante Milanovich-Litre and BC’s David Mackie on the board with ten remaining true running backs it’s time to take a look at my top-10 CFL free agency options in the backfield.

10. Jackson Bennett
Constantly performing beyond expectation and fitting in seamlessly in Ottawa this year, I fully expect Bennett to be back in Ottawa playing a more prominent role regardless of whether or not 34-year-old William Powell is back.

9. Bruce Anderson III
Anderson III is a bit of a mystery, but is an intriguing player profile who actively catches the ball out of the backfield with style and grace. I wonder if the Lions see something in Anderson which made them lock him up so quickly and put some pressure on James Butler knowing his possible replacement is already signed and sealed.

8. Shaq Cooper
From averaging around 40 carries per year for Edmonton and BC in 2018-2021, Cooper has fallen off registering just five carries this season. Despite those numbers, the burst is still there and combined with a good stretch of health, he could be a surprise comeback player in 2023 for anyone interested this February.

7. Andrew Harris
It’s hard to know where Andrew Harris slots in the big picture this off-season. He’s helped win three-straight Grey Cups in Winnipeg and Toronto, but the last two have come as final month sprints of health making up for time lost.

He’s clearly one of the most trusted backs late in game and in pressure moments, but is that value enough to make someone jump for the season-long services of an aging back? Regardless, his place in Canadian football history is solidified and the ranking on this list will likely be irrelevant if he’s somehow standing on the Grey Cup podium for someone next November.

6. Sean Thomas Erlington
I’m tired of making the case for STE. At this point, I’ve been writing the same passionate argument for someone to make him a primary back and over pay for his services for about four years in a row. Every year he’s the most productive back per touch in Hamilton and adds a receiving threat few backs can emulate.

He has a different body type and playing style, but in a proper setup there is no reason Thomas Erlington shouldn’t be thought of like Nic Demski is for the Bombers.

5. Wes Hills
A power back with long strides and thunderous contact? It’s a rarity at the position and in the CFL where small, quicker backs are favoured but Wes Hills is fun to watch play football when he puts it together over four quarters.

Will A.J. Ouellette hit the open market in February or will he remain in Toronto? (Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca)

4. A.J. Ouellette
Ouellette gets the nod for me here over teammate Andrew Harris based on playing style, durability and the always important fan favourite factor. His eye black and flowing locks captivated Canadian football fans everywhere on Grey Cup Sunday as he found the end zone twice. Will someone come pay him enough to leave Toronto? I doubt they’ll ever get the chance.

3. Walter Fletcher
I think Walter Fletcher is ready to explode onto the CFL scene. The only reason I don’t have him listed higher is the lack of a proven commodity against Morrow and Butler, but a few years from now I fully expect Fletcher to be a top-five back consistently with a unique mix of run and pass touches.

In his Eastern Semi-Final post-game press conference, Trevor Harris looked to the back of the room where Fletcher stood and said ‘someone is about to pay that guy.’ I agree, and I don’t think it’s Montreal.

2. Jamal Morrow
He’s already signed an extension so this is largely irrelevant, but Morrow is the perfect fit to move the Riders offence into the next evolution of their attack. With or without Fajardo next to him, Morrow is a versatile option who will flourish in 2023 if 2022 is any indication.

1. James Butler
The ultimate workhorse from last season, Butler blew us all away by looking like he was playing at 1.5 speed relative to the entire Edmonton defence in Week 1 and was rarely slowed down through the season as BC weathered the Rourke injury storm. I expect he’s back in orange before Christmas, but if he’s not the musical chairs will start to shift in many more directions than anticipated for free agent running backs.

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