Continuing on with our series of training camp previews, here's a look at the Edmonton Eskimos based off this week's conference call with president Len Rhodes, general manager Eric Tillman and head coach Kavis Reed.
— The Eskimos' offseason has largely been defined by their biggest move: shipping star quarterback and long-time Eskimo Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and the second-overall pick in this year's CFL draft. As such, that trade was the focus of much of the discussion on Thursday's call. Tillman said it can't be evaluated simply on the basis of the players and pick Edmonton received, as one of the most crucial elements involved was the cap space it freed up.
"It was a very, very difficult decision but at some point you have to make a transition for the future," Tillman said. "A disproportionate amount of our money was tied up in our starting quarterback."
— Tillman said trading Ray wasn't an easy decision, but it was a move he felt was necessary.
"In a cap era, there are some tough decisions that have to be made," he said. "This was certainly a very challenging one. We'll see how it plays out."
— Tillman said he thinks Ray still has good years left and will succeed in Toronto, but the decision to move the 32-year-old quarterback was based on selling high.
"As much respect as we have for Ricky, who will be a Hall of Famer one day, there is a transition stage in every organization from a veteran quarterback to a younger one," he said. "The $64,000 question is when do you make that transition? Could we have waited another year or two? Yes, we could have. But a year from now, Ricky would be turning 33 or 34. If the trade doesn't work, it's my responsibility. Ultimately, this was my decision."
— Based on their statistics thus far, replacing Ray as your starter with Jyles seems like a terrible plan. Jyles may be younger at 29, but has just 31 career touchdowns and 29 interceptions and a career completion mark of 59.9 per cent. He was also dreadful in Toronto last season, completing just 56.9 per cent of his passes while throwing for just 1,430 yards in eight games and tossing 11 interceptions against just seven touchdowns. Meanwhile, Ray has a career completion rate of 66.8 per cent and has thrown 210 touchdowns against 130 interceptions; he also had a tremendous 2011, throwing for 4594 yards with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and a 65.2 per cent completion mark. However, as Tillman said, this isn't a straight Ray-for-Jyles swap. Jyles comes with a substantially lower price tag, for one thing, and for another, he isn't even guaranteed to be under centre when the Eskimos open the season. Tillman said they do have faith in Jyles, but there will be an open competition for the starting spot amongst the quarterbacks in camp; other QBs on the roster at the moment include long-time CFL veteran Kerry Joseph, the duo of Matt Nichols and Eric Ward, who were signed last year, and the recently-signed Jeremiah Masoli (who worked out for the team in 2011, but was only signed officially this year).
"The best quarterback will play, and the coaches will make that decision," Tillman said.
— Jyles isn't just a throw-in in the Ray deal, though. He was previously on Tillman's roster in Saskatchewan, and Tillman likes what he's seen from him at various stops over the years.
"We know his work ethic, we have respect for him and we believe there is upside there," Tillman said. "We believe in Steven."
— Reed said Joseph, who turns 39 this fall, will have an important role to play whether he wins the starting job or not, as he can carry on mentoring the younger quarterbacks.
"We believe Kerry can be the starter; we expect him to come in and compete," Reed said. "If he's not the starter, he will continue to serve in that role."
— Reed said Joseph shouldn't be written off as a viable starter just because of his age, though.
"He's a 39-year-old in a 25-year-old's body."
— It's appropriate that Tillman and Joseph are together in this situation, as the last offseason trade of this magnitude involved Tillman shipping Joseph (who had just claimed the league's most outstanding player award and led Saskatchewan to their first Grey Cup victory since 1989) to Toronto before the 2008 season. That deal worked out very well for the Roughriders; Joseph struggled in Toronto, while his departure paved the way for the ascendancy of Darian Durant and the Riders' back-to-back trips to the Grey Cup game in 2009 and 2010. Tillman also made a similar trade during his days running the B.C. Lions, shipping Kent Austin out to make room for Danny McManus. He said his key focus is always balancing immediate needs with the good of the team in the long term.
"From a general manager's standpoint, you have to have a balanced view of the short term and the long term."
— Speaking of the long term, the most notable piece the Eskimos received in return for Ray may have been that second-overall draft pick. They made a brilliant draft-day deal, sending that pick and the 20th pick to B.C. for the fourth, 14th and 38th selections, and that left them with two first-round picks, fourth and sixth overall. With those picks, the Eskimos grabbed promising Virginia offensive lineman Austin Pasztor and Laurier receiver Shamawd Chambers, renowned for both his athleticism and his skill at hauling in the ball. Pasztor's currently with the Minnesota Vikings, but may come north eventually, while Chambers didn't receive a contract offer following his tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles, so he could be in camp this year. Tillman said the move to trade down was a dangerous one, but it worked out even better than they planned; they got the player they'd initially coveted at #2 (Pasztor) at #4, and then had one of the draft's top prospects overall (Chambers) fall into their lap at #6.
"That was an intense day for us," he said.
— Tillman said they weren't sure Pasztor would still be there in the fourth slot, but felt it was worth the gamble.
"We knew it was a risk," he said. "We hoped he would still be there. We got the guy we wanted."
— He said they didn't anticipate being able to nab Chambers as well.
"We felt very fortunate he was still on the board," Tillman said. "It was a no-brainer when he was there at six."
— The Eskimos are also looking at substantial changes to their ground game, as star power back Jerome Messam left for the NFL (and underwent surgery, so he won't be back any time soon). Tillman said they have plenty of options, though, including Canadian Calvin McCarty ("He certainly will be given an opportunity,") recent addition Hugh Charles from the Roughriders ("He's a tremendous talent who was just stuck behind Wes Cates,"), new 6'1, 220-pound signing John Gobel from the University of Cincinnati ("He's a big back who gives us a different dimension" and new 5'6'', 210 pound signing Cory Ross, a guy who has a NFL and UFL background. Tillman said the variety of backs they have will give them plenty of choice.
"Whatever combination we go for, we think we've got four interesting players and we'll just let it play out."
— Another topic of discussion was Canadian quarterbacks, a topic Tillman's spoken out on in the past. He was asked about Billy Greene, the UBC pivot and reigning Hec Crighton winner who's received minimal interest (and even some outright criticism) from CFL teams as a quarterback. Tillman said the Eskimos aren't particularly looking at him under centre. There have been discussions about Greene perhaps shifting to fullback, and Tillman said they may consider him if he takes that road, but they don't want to offer him a deal as a fullback if there's a chance he could land as a quarterback elsewhere.
"We have not offered Billy a contract," Tillman said. "We talked about the possibility of projecting him to another position. We want to give him a place to land as a quarterback."
— Tillman said the state of Canadian talent has risen so much that several non-imports are excelling in positions once reserved for Americans, including running back and middle linebacker. He credits that to the rising standards of coaching at the lower levels.
"The coaches in this country at the CIS level, the junior level, the high-school level, are so improved," he said. "As a league, we've evolved from Canadian positions versus American positions."
— It's going to be an interesting year for the Eskimos as they try to move on without Ray. They've been subject to a lot of criticism for their offseason moves. Tillman said he knew trading Ray would be unpopular, though, and that didn't stop him.
"We don't operate out of fear," he said. "If you operate out of fear, you're in the wrong business."
— The Eskimos may be largely written off in many quarters heading into this season given their instability at quarterback, but that's not new; many of us figured they'd struggle last season following 2010's cellar-dwelling performance, and they went on to make the West final. Tillman said he doesn't mind the underdog role.
"We were excited last year when a lot of people discounted our team, and we're excited this year."