Projecting Jalen Saunders as a Redblack
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 prolonged battle that is a CFL season wore on.
Saunders was coming into his own as a 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 who 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 Jones' offence made Saunders a much more efficient pass catcher as his catch rate on targets jumped from 59.6% to 68.1% with the same quarterback coaches and teammates from 2017 to 2018
Since the knee injury he left the CFL to join former Hamilton Head Coach 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 translation 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 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 penance for taking check downs, screens and crossers. All high efficiency throws.
When General Manager Marcel Desjardins traded for and signed Arbuckle this Spring both he and LaPolice kept mentioning his ability to “stay on the field and make throws”.
Something the Redblacks passers of 2019, Dominique Davis, Jonathon Jennings and William Ardnt 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 than the wildly spirited train wreck that earned them last place in CFL standings last year.
You could even say it signalled 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 it all blew up.
The pairing of Arbuckle and Saunders makes so much sense based on Nick’s ability to be accurate and decisive on short and intermediate throws, but what could truly launch Saunders to a place he hasn’t seen yet as a pro 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 ‘Ellingson replacement’ to make the offence really pop.
I went looking at some of the 2019 Grey Cup Champion Bombers offence to find if a reference point exists for what a receiver accomplished in LaPolice’s 2019 offence and 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 number two receiver in the CFL looks like right now.
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, but I don’t expect that.
The best case scenario is an all-star season filled with big plays, a catch rate over 70% under 15 yards in the air and close to double digit touchdowns (depending on number of games played) and 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.
Marshall Ferguson is a former U SPORTS Quarterback, now serving as TSN 1150 Hamilton morning show host, voice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and CFL.ca analyst.