TORONTO — Bo Levi Mitchell tops the changing quarterback landscape in the CFL this season.
The veteran quarterback enters his ninth season as a league starter but first with Hamilton. The Tiger-Cats signed Mitchell to a three-year deal shortly after acquiring his rights from the Calgary Stampeders, the team he'd been the starter with since 2014.
Hamilton will be one of seven CFL teams to have a different starter this season. Only the Ottawa Redblacks (Jeremiah Masoli) and Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Zach Collaros) are scheduled to open with the same starting quarterback for a second straight year.
But Collaros could be the only one as Masoli continues to recover from a knee injury that sidelined him for most of last year. If Masoli doesn't suit up, the Redblacks would likely turn to veteran Nick Arbuckle when they open their season June 10 versus Montreal.
Mitchell posted a 90-25-2 regular-season record with the Stampeders (including 6-3 last year), leading them to four Grey Cup appearances (winning two). Twice, the 33-year-old Texan was named the CFL's outstanding player.
Hamilton went all-in on Mitchell after a disappointing 2022 season that saw the Ticats (8-10) finish third in the East Division in Dane Evans' first year as their No. 1 quarterback.
Evans was Hamilton's starter in the 2019 and '21 Grey Cups but won six-of-14 regular-season contests last year while leading the CFL in interceptions (16), fumbles (eight) and fumbles lost (seven). Evans was released during the off-season and signed with the B.C. Lions.
The Ticats haven't won a Grey Cup title since 1999, the longest championship drought in the CFL. For the second time in three years, Hamilton will host the CFL title game, which will be played Nov. 19 at Tim Hortons Field.
Here's a look at the CFL's other eight starters:
B.C. Lions — Veteran Vernon Adams Jr. opens under centre after winning four-of-six starts last year after being acquired from Montreal when incumbent Nathan Rourke was injured. Rourke returned to the lineup but this off-season signed with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. Adams, 30, completed 118-of-180 passes (65.6 per cent) for 1,504 yards with six TDs and one interception while rushing for 129 yards on 14 carries (9.2-yard average). He'll also be familiar with offensive co-ordinator Jordan Maksymic's offence. The addition of Evans gives the Lions a solid 1-2 quarterback punch.
Calgary Stampeders — Jake Maier begins his first full season as the starter but his play last year prompted the Stampeders to sign the six-foot, 227-pound Californian to a contract extension and eventually deal Mitchell's rights to Hamilton. Maier sported a lofty 74.7 completion percentage last year with twice as many TDs (14) to interceptions (seven). More importantly, he won six-of-nine regular-season starts as Calgary allowed a CFL-low 17 sacks and also boasted the league's top rushing attack (135.3 yards per game) and leading rusher (Ka'Deem Carey, 1,080 yards).
Edmonton Elks — American Taylor Cornelius is expected to begin his first full season as the starter after signing a two-year extension late last year. The six-foot-five, 230-pound Cornelius completed 205-of-357 passes last year (57.4 per cent) with 11 TDs and nine interceptions but was the CFL's top-rushing quarterback with 502 yards and seven touchdowns on 71 carries (7.1-yard average). The addition of receiver Eugene Lewis (71 catches, 1,303 yards, 10 TDs last season with Montreal) gives Cornelius a big-play receiver and should boost an Elks' offence that averaged a league-low 19.2 offensive points per game.
Saskatchewan Roughriders — Veteran American Trevor Harris replaces Cody Fajardo as the starter, with Fajardo having moved on to Montreal, the team Harris played for last year. Saskatchewan becomes the fifth CFL team for Harris, 36, who completed 71.6 per cent of his passes for 4,157 yards last season. The six-foot-three, 212-pound Harris began his career in Canada with Toronto in 2012 and has also played for Ottawa and Edmonton. Protecting Harris will be crucial for the Riders, who surrendered a CFL-high 77 sacks last year.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers — Collaros has led the Bombers to three consecutive Grey Cup appearances, winning the first two, and been named the CFL's outstanding player the last two years. Collaros completed 70 per cent of his passes last season for 4,183 yards with 37 TDs and just 13 interceptions. The return of all-star receiver Kenny Lawler in 2023 gives Collaros another bona fide passing threat to go along with sophomore Dalton Schoen (70 catches, 1,441 yards, 16 TDs) and veterans Nic Demski (10 TD grabs) and Rasheed Bailey (nine touchdown catches).
Toronto Argonauts — The Argos will defend their Grey Cup title with American Chad Kelly as the starter. He replaces veteran McLeod Bethel-Thompson (New Orleans, USFL). This marks the first time since Kelly's final season at Ole Miss (2016) that the nephew of former Buffalo Bills star Jim Kelly will be a No. 1 quarterback. Kelly was a key contributor to Toronto's Grey Cup victory over Winnipeg, replacing an injured Bethel-Thompson (thumb) in the fourth quarter and completing four-of-six passes for 43 yards. But it was his 20-yard run on second-and-15 that set up A.J. Ouellette’s five-yard touchdown run that gave the club its 24-23 lead.
Ottawa Redblacks — Masoli, 34, begins his second season with the Redblacks, who signed the veteran quarterback to a contract extension in the off-season through the 2024 season. Optimism was high in the Canadian capital when the five-foot-10, 215-pound Masoli joined the franchise in 2022 as a free agent. But he appeared in four regular-season games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Arbuckle, 29, is entering his fifth CFL season, having also spent time with Calgary, Toronto and Edmonton. He appeared in 12 games last year with Ottawa.
Montreal Alouettes — Fajardo joins the Alouettes following three seasons in Saskatchewan. After making consecutive West Division final appearances (2019, 2021), the Riders missed the 2022 CFL playoffs with a 6-12 record. The six-foot-two, 223-pound Fajardo played most of the year with a knee injury before being benched in favour of youngster Mason Fine. Fajardo reunites with Montreal head coach Jason Maas, his offensive co-ordinator in Regina. A healthy William Stanback would certainly help but the loss of Lewis is a big one.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press