Double Blue Backfield Options
Updated: Apr 11, 2021
The running back room for the Toronto Argonauts is a crowded place at the moment, even by offseason standards.
With nine backs currently under contract, how will the Double Blue backfield sort itself out for the 2021 season? Clearly that will depend on how everyone looks once camp begins, but Coach Dinwiddie’s positional philosophy will also factor in. What is he looking for in a running back? How does that compare to the skills each of these nine players bring to the table?
The matter can be simplified slightly by removing fullbacks Declan Cross and Dion Pellerin from the equation. Pellerin remains listed as a running back on the roster, but the Waterloo Warriors standout will be slotted behind Cross as a FB on game day, the way “slot back” Regis Cibasu was throughout the 2019 season.
The remaining seven running backs appear to be of the same mold, generally between 5’8” and 5’10” with good speed, but in reality, they have very different skillsets.
John White IV
At 29, White is the oldest of the Argos running backs, but he’s been used sparingly since breaking into the CFL in 2013, so he carries slightly less wear and tear than backs approaching 30 typically do. His top end doesn’t seem to have diminished at all, though he was never a speed merchant. His 4.7 second 40-yard time from his Pro Day years ago is the slowest in the pack, but this was never part of his game to begin with. White never tested as particularly agile either, but his film suggests otherwise.
White is a nightmare to tackle in the open field because his body language is incredibly difficult to read. His ability to sidestep and juke defenders is elite. This, combined with his explosive first step make him a threat to score on any play. White’s hands look fine on film, but he has never been used much as a receiver outside of running screens, flats, swings and Texas routes. The reluctance to send him downfield at any point over the span of his career by all five of his offensive coordinators suggest route running and hands just aren’t strengths.
2019 was his best season in terms of total yards, topping 1000 yards rushing for the first time in his career, but this wasn’t the same John White that averaged 6.9 yards-per-carry in 2014 when he was a CFL All-Star. His deceptive running style and field vision are still exceptional, but he doesn’t burst the way he once did. However, his overall value as a running back may have increased due to his vastly improved pass protection. In 2016, under RB Coach and former offensive lineman Tim Prinsen in Edmonton, something clicked. By seasons end he was communicating like a center pre-snap and his blitz-pickup quickly became one of the best parts of his game. BC couldn’t keep Mike Reilly upright in 2019, but this wasn’t on White. He made great decisions on dual reads, never progressed early to checkdowns, and sacrificed his body to protect his quarterback. With an improved Argos offensive line, White could be the best bet to help keep Nick Arbuckle out of trouble in 2021.
The biggest threat to John White starting for Toronto might be Bishop Sankey. At 28, Sankey is younger, faster, taller, and stronger, but he otherwise profiles similarly. His speed at agility were elite when he was younger. He posted a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and an eyebrow-raising 6.75 in the three cone. But that was back in 2014.
In his most recent extended playing time with the San Diego Fleet of the AAF, Sankey seems to have changed as a player. He still has above average speed, but those lightning cuts aren’t there anymore. Like White, as his speed and explosion started to diminish slightly, he turned to his intelligence and guile for that edge. Not regarded as terrific in pass protection coming out of college, Sankey made that a personal priority since turning pro and it shows. He grades slightly higher than White in blitz pickup, but White’s CFL experience has to be factored in because of the additional variables in the Canadian game.
Sankey has good hands and runs routes reasonably well, but like White, lacks the targets one might expect, which should be noted. Sankey’s best strength is he simply doesn’t make mental mistakes. He picks up the correct pass rusher, he runs the right hole, he makes the right cutbacks, he takes the path of least resistance, he initiates contact appropriately and he goes to ground when there’s nothing left to gain.
If Coach Dinwiddie is looking for the fastest back or the strongest runner, or the best receiver, Bishop Sankey won’t win the job. He doesn’t lead this group of running backs in any one category or skillset, but he’s near the top in all of them, perhaps making him the best overall player in this unit.
In a nutshell, Kenneth Dixon is like a more aggressive and punishing version of Bishop Sankey, but without the pass protection. Most of his carries involve making a man miss near the line of scrimmage and then bowling over the eventual tackler. He ran this way in high school earning him the title of “Mr. Football” in Arkansas, he ran this way at Louisiana Tech while setting school, conference, and NCAA records, and he ran this way as a promising rookie for the Baltimore Ravens. Dixon’s hands are on par with Sankey’s and he’s a more accomplished route-runner. He was asked to line up out wide and in the slot with some frequency in college despite being one of the best running backs in the country.
Dixon has outstanding vision, both behind the line and in the open field. With a 4.5 second 40, he’s a step slower than Sankey in a race, but his explosiveness, agility, and change of direction are easily the best among this group. Or at least they were. He injured his knee at Louisiana Tech in 2014, he missed his entire second season with the Ravens due to a knee injury in 2017, and he missed most of 2018 with yet another knee injury. Having just turned 27 in January, Dixon is younger than White, Williams, Sankey, and Robo, but how old are his knees? And is that a problem for a back who has always relied heavily on his elusiveness and punishing finish? Like Sankey and White, it’s possible Dixon’s game can evolve, but he has yet to show much promise in blitz pickup, and he has never been a responsible ball carrier with his instinct to seek out contact and a tendency to put the ball on the ground. At his best, Dixon is the most skilled ball carrier in this group, but how close to his best will he be when camp begins?
In this room of smaller backs, Karlos Williams stands out at 6’1, 235lbs. But despite being a very large man, he still fits the speed profile. Williams was a track star, posting the second fastest 40 time in this group. His size and speed combination become something of a physics problem for opposing defenses who aren’t prepared. His first carry at Florida State went for a touchdown, and he set an NFL record by scoring touchdowns in each of his first six games for the Bills. So how does a player like this only end up playing five more games in the NFL before disappearing? The next season he reportedly showed up to camp out of shape and was released. Three consecutive suspensions for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy kept him off the field with other teams. Williams hasn’t played in a football game in over five years.
His trouble wasn’t exclusively off the field, however. Williams’ rookie seasons didn’t finish the way it began. When teams adjusted, Williams had trouble responding. This happened to him at Florida State too, where he lost his starting job as a senior. He doesn’t move well laterally, his instincts behind the line of scrimmage are poor, his route running is unrefined, and he doesn’t have natural hands. Some of these issues are likely due to the fact that he’s a converted safety, playing only one full season of running back at Florida State. It’s anyone’s guess as to what kind of football player Karlos Williams is now. After initially signing following the 2019 season, the fact that his contract with the Argonauts was renewed this past December is reason for optimism. Assuming he shows up to camp healthy and in good shape, there’s still reason to think he can be a contributor despite his lack of versatility. Williams is an outstanding short yardage back. He’s hard to tackle, he’s a great runner after contact, and if he can get through, he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the field. He’s also decent in pass protection, which is sort of surprising since he has so little experience in that department. Williams probably isn’t in the running to be an every down back, but he could have tremendous value if Coach Dinwiddie elects to go with a committee approach.
DO NOT SLEEP ON A.J. OUELLETTE. Anyone who writes him off early simply hasn’t seen his film. In a room full of high-profile running backs, it’s easy to forget about the understated Ohio native. He’s not a highlight machine, he didn’t receive major scholarship offers, he’s not the product of a big-time D1 football factory, he isn’t an NFL draft pick, and he’s never been on your fantasy football team. A.J. Ouellette is an astonishingly good football player. Period. Even his measurables are fantastic, but they went largely unnoticed as well.
Ouellette wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, but he ran a 4.48 second 40 at his pro day, posted a 36.5” vertical, and a 6.8 second three cone. Oh yeah, and he bench pressed 225lbs 32 times! At the NFL combine, these numbers would have had reporters scampering to the podium for his post-workout press conference, but at the Walter Fieldhouse in Athens, Ohio, no one was surprised. Ouellette is a fast, powerful runner with terrific burst and change of direction. He has an instinct to take on contact but showed the ability to bounce outside in his senior season at Ohio. He has great ball security, at one point logging over 300 carries between fumbles. He is an outstanding technical blocker, and has the tools and drive to become an excellent pass protector with increased opportunities. He seems to have decent hands, but his skill as a receiver is hard to gauge as he ran a limited assortment of routes in college. He has the tools to be much more than a power back, but he has clearly been coached throughout his career to run north and south, so the development of his field vision may take some time.
He has the skillset to challenge Cross and Pellerin for the fullback job, but he’s too good a ball carrier to pigeonhole like that. Ouellette joined the Argos at the end of the 2019 season, playing in the last three games. His 5-yard per carry average was boosted by an outstanding 36-yard run, but he was running behind a weak offensive line and still familiarizing himself with the Canadian game. At 25, Ouellette has a range of strengths and the capacity to improve his few weaknesses. If he is given a fair chance in camp, it would be surprising if he didn’t make this Argonauts roster and challenge for the starting role.
Matt Colburn II
The only running back flying further under the radar than A.J. Ouellette is Matt Colburn II.
Colburn had a strong career at Wake Forest, but wasn’t viewed as having a complete enough game to garner much NFL attention. Colburn is technically the fastest and most agile back in this group, and at 23 years of age, his numbers are still his numbers. He’s probably the only Argos back with a legitimate shot at attracting NFL interest, which is always a motivating factor. He looks fast on film, but he’s not an effortless runner, and his field speed doesn’t quite match up with his pro day numbers. Colburn has good hands and is easily among the best route runners in this group. In his junior year at Wake Forest (his best season at running back), Colburn lined up as a receiver on almost 20% of his snaps, which is a testament to his coach’s faith in his receiving skill. His change of direction isn’t what makes him elusive. He has tremendous balance and an ability to get skinny and contort his body into contact, making him difficult to tackle. He’s not a powerful runner at all, but his slippery style allows him to avoid big hits and fall forward when tackled. Colburn’s ball security is legendary and also a point of controversy. He was stopped just short of setting a Wake Forest record for consecutive carries without a fumble, but his film shows this as a missed call with his elbow clearly down when he loses control of the football.
Colburn is an excellent pass protector positionally, but he gets overpowered at times by larger more physical players. Colburn’s primary weakness is his vision. He has a tendency to bounce everything outside regardless of whether or not it’s there. Because of his speed, this worked for him in high school, at times in college, and even in Spring League, but it’s what kept him from sticking with the Los Angeles Rams. It will be interesting to see how Colburn’s game plays out on a wider field in a game more dependent on pass protection and catching balls out of the backfield. His strength are certainly assets in the Canadian game, and his weaknesses slightly less relevant. It would be hard to imagine Colburn getting the nod as the primary back this season in such a star-studded running back room, but he’ll get playing time somewhere else if he doesn’t in Toronto.
As the only Global Player on the Toronto roster, there’s not much question as to whether or not Asnnel Robo will make the team, but player status aside, he would do it on his own merit. He is an incredible athlete and an asset on special teams at the very least. Robo, who grew up in France, was a soccer player whose increasingly physical style of play started to become a detriment. He didn’t take an interest in football until his teenage years when he saw Reggie Bush in the Super Bowl. Amazingly, he ended up playing football at a CEGEP in Quebec a few years later and then at the University of Montreal. His 4.5 speed, quick feet, fluid change of direction, physical strength, and elite balance weren’t enough to make him an every-down back in university, but he earned almost 9 yards per carry on 56 rushing attempts in his final season. He played on every special teams unit for the Carabins in Montreal, but he’s especially electric as a kick returner and he tracks extremely well on coverage teams.
As a running back, Robo has all the physical tools, but he still needs more time and more reps to develop the holes in his game. Robo’s vision is great in the open field, but behind the line of scrimmage his instincts take him outside too often. He has surprisingly natural hands, but has never been given much opportunity as a receiver beyond screen passes. Robo is physical in pass protection, but his technique is unrefined and he’s late to see threats at times. Robo is a long shot to see any carries in Toronto with such an experienced group in front of him on the depth chart, but he has a chance to improve more than anyone else this season if the team can get regular practices in. In the meantime, he’s an outstanding athlete Coach Dinwiddie got to know in Calgary, and he’ll make his presence felt on special teams.
With Cross, Pellerin, and Robo very likely to make this team, that probably only leaves roster spots for two of the remaining six backs, or maybe three if one of them can contribute heavily on special teams. Which backs those are will certainly depend on who reports to camp in good form, but Coach Dinwiddie’s vision in terms of the style of player he’s looking for will help him make the call.
As they all have comparable speed, and he’s got an inexperienced quarterback in Nick Arbuckle, he could decide his primary concern is pass protection. In that case, he might go with White, Sankey, and either Ouellette or Colburn as a special teams contributor. If he is simply looking for the three most dangerous backs, he would likely go with Dixon, Colburn, and Sankey. Should he want to go a more physical route, Coach Dinwiddie could decide to keep Williams, Dixon, and Ouellette. If he wants dual threats, he might be leaning towards Colburn, Sankey, and Dixon. If he instead is looking for role players, he could decide to keep Colburn for his speed and use on special teams, Williams for his short yardage ability, and either White or Sankey for their ability to protect the quarterback. Or perhaps he wants an experienced veteran like White, a lottery ticket like Dixon, and a promising young back like Ouellette.
On most CFL teams, the starting running back has been obvious for months. With so much skill in the Toronto backfield and no clear-cut bell cow, this positional group will be among the most interest to watch in camp. Is the team planning on experimenting with a committee approach? Are they hoping one runner will rise to the top to become the feature back? Regardless of who Coach Dinwiddie decides to go with, the team will have to release at least three talented backs who will certainly be sought after by other CFL teams.
Ben Grant has been coaching high school and semi-pro football since 2003. He writes, does video analysis, and hosts a podcast for Xs and Argos, which he founded in 2019.