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What will the Eskimos do following Jerome Messam’s surprising return to the CFL?

Andrew Bucholtz
55 Yard Line

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Jerome Messam could be carrying the ball for the Eskimos again as early as Monday.

Who knows what lurks in the mind of Jerome Messam? Only the man himself, apparently, as following the Miami Dolphins' decision to cut him Saturday, he abandoned his NFL quest long before his 10-day window to find another team expired and instead returned to the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos, where he could start as early as Monday against Calgary. He may not have found another NFL spot given how early he was cut, but it's still interesting that he gave up on that so soon. That presents the Eskimos with an interesting conundrum, as they now have three prominent running backs; Messam, who was selected as the CFL's Outstanding Canadian last season, Cory Boyd, who was leading the CFL in rushing yards this season when he was unceremoniously cut by Toronto, and Hugh Charles, who's the incumbent starter and received the most carries Monday against the Argonauts. All have talent, but how many of them will the Eskimos keep, and how will they effectively utilize them?

What's interesting is that each back presents their own strengths and weaknesses. With Boyd and Messam, the Eskimos have the RBs who collected the second- and third-most yards in the CFL last year (1,141 and 1,057 respectively), but they have some differences. At 6'3'' and 245 pounds, Messam's by far the biggest pure running back in the CFL, and he runs with a lot of raw power. That proved very successful for the Eskimos last year, as he was a key part of their turnaround from 2010 basement-dwellers to 2011 West Division finalists, and the team struggled after he suffered a season-ending injury in the West semifinals last year. However, Messam isn't the fastest back in the world, and he averaged only 5.4 yards per carry last season; he's useful for smashing his way up the middle consistently, but he won't get you as many long runs as others. It may also take him a while to readjust to the Canadian game.

Charles represents the opposite of Messam's power-back style. At 5'8'' and 193 pounds, he's probably the quickest and most elusive of the three, and he's also likely the best receiver (an element of his game that's really taken off this year; he has 16 catches for 284 yards, both career-highs). However, if the offensive line can't open a sizeable hole for him, he can't always create much on his own, and he's averaged just 4.8 yards per carry this year. Meanwhile, Boyd falls somewhere in the middle as a versatile 6'1'', 209-pound back; he's the most proven of the three (two straight seasons of 1,000-plus rushing yards heading into this year) and he has the highest career per-carry average (5.9 yards per carry), but he doesn't have quite the power of Messam or quite the burst of Charles.

The Eskimos could keep all three backs or more (they also have Calvin McCarty, who's been used as a running back and a fullback), but that poses its own host of issues. Getting Boyd, Charles and Messam all onto a game-day roster's going to be a challenge, and there's the question of if it's really worth it; you'd certainly give defences some headaches by throwing three different running styles at them, but your offence might not be able to get into a rhythm if you keep swapping three guys in and out. The majority of teams use two running backs regularly at most for that reason. If the Eskimos elect to keep two of the three and one is Messam, that also brings challenges; Messam's Canadian passport's an advantage for ratio reasons, which could let Edmonton start another American elsewhere, but they'd then have to swap a Canadian back in at that other spot when Messam was replaced by Charles or Boyd, and that can add further complications.

Edmonton could try and trade one of the backs, but that also won't necessarily be easy. The rest of the league knows they have a logjam and may have to cut someone, so it's tough to see other teams offering a ton for someone they might be able to pick up for free if they leave the situation alone. Not all of these guys carry massive trade value, either; despite Boyd's impressive career record, teams may not be ready to jump on him following his exit from the Argos, and Charles' low per-carry numbers don't exactly make him an in-demand commodity. The largest return would probably come for Messam, as his 2011 success and Canadian passport make him a desirable target, but the Eskimos may not be willing to move a Canadian star. That might be their best option, as they could certainly use help elsewhere and Messam's the most likely to bring them that, but it isn't an easy move to make. Having three solid running backs is certainly better than having none, but it does carry some issues of its own, so it's going to be interesting to see how general manager Eric Tillman and head coach Kavis Reed handle their logjam in the backfield.

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