January 02, 2011
The Toronto Argonauts' turnaround from a dismal 3-15 season in 2009 to a 9-9 mark and a East Final appearance in 2010 was one of the season's more spectacular stories. Even more remarkable was how they did it; instead of the traditional CFL formula of a passing-focused offence, the Argonauts relied on a combination of a punishing ground game, a strong defence and explosive plays on special teams. Unfortunately for Toronto fans, though, a major part of the 2010 equation may be removed from the 2011 picture; electrifying kick returner Chad Owens (pictured above evading Saskatchewan's Hugh Charles in an Oct. 9 game), who was crucial to the Argonauts' success with 2,701 combined return yards (almost 1,000 ahead of anyone else in the CFL) and earned the league's Most Outstanding Special Teams Player award this fall, could be headed to the NFL.
According to the above article by Chris Zelkovich of The Toronto Star, Owens has already worked out with the New York Jets as well as two unidentified teams. The Jets in particular are an intriguing option, as they do have considerable familiarity with the CFL. As I wrote about Cam Wake a while back, the vast majority of CFL players who go to the NFL don't wind up staying there for the long term, and that was the case with the three guys the Jets signed last year; S.J. Green, Larry Taylor and Bo Smith. Green was released in May, but Smith hung on until September and Taylor was there until October. The Jets also briefly hired Ricky Foley after he was cut by Seattle but kept him for less than a week. That shows they've have been at least willing to give looks to CFL players even if things didn't eventually work out, and that would suggest that there might be some interest on their part in Owens, who was perhaps more dominant and impressive in the CFL than any of those other players.We're likely to find out soon, as NFL teams can offer CFL players contracts as early as Monday.
Owens is already 28, so he's hardly a developmental prospect. However, he isn't past his prime yet either, and should be able to offer a fair bit of value still. Moreover, in the same way Cam Wake's blazed trails for CFL pass rushers, Stefan Logan's success as a kick return man with first Pittsburgh and now Detroit might inspire some NFL franchises to play copycat. If they do, Owens would be the logical choice to try and lure. He is smaller than your typical NFL player (5'7'', 180), but as Shane Bacon wrote at Shutdown Corner recently, more and more NFL teams are finding success with shorter players like Logan, Darren Sproles, Brandon Banks, Danny Woodhead and the rest, particularly as kick returners or hybrid running backs/wide receivers, a role Owens could perhaps slot into as well. Thanks to that trend, Owens' physical attributes likely aren't going to be considered as much of a drawback as they would have been a few years ago, and there are plenty of NFL teams looking for guys who can do this kind of stuff:
How much of a blow would it be for the Argonauts if Owens leaves? Well, it would certainly be a substantial one; as I pointed out above, the next-closest returner to Owens' production was Marcus Thigpen, who finished almost 1,000 yards back. However, it's important to keep in mind that there are plenty of capable return men coming out of college every year, and returns aren't all about the man with the ball; a lot of a return's success or failure comes down to blocking, and that was a huge component of the Argonauts' success in that area. Mike O'Shea's proven to be an excellent special teams coordinator, capable of drawing up terrific schemes and plays, and he's got a lot of valuable guys out there on the return and cover teams (including league special teams tackles leader Bryan Crawford, who the team recently resigned). Owens' departure would certainly hurt the Boatmen, but I wouldn't write Toronto's special teams off even if he does jump ship.