Welcome to the new year. Normally I would express a hope that 2022 be a great year for all, but given how the last 2 years have went I think we would all just settle for 2022 being not a craptastic.
Before I turn my attention to the 2022 CFL season (free agency, drafting, etc...) I want to take on more look back at 2021. I want to take a look at players that surprised me by their performance in 2021, both good and bad. This is by no means an exhaustive list but a few notable ones that I thought worthy of mention.
Also note that this is a list of surprises. So a guy like Brett Boyko does not make the unpleasant surprise list because while it was certainly unpleasant, it was not a surprise, everyone but the Riders seemed to see it coming.
Micah Johnson – This may have been O’Day best move of the offseason and no one is talking about it or giving Micah near the hype he deserves. We got Micah cheap, mainly because most teams assumed his best days were behind him. Turns out, he’s still Micah. He was an absolute force along the D-line and I don’t think any other player on that line puts up near the stats they did without him there. I was not in the “Micah is done” camp but his performance certainly exceeded my expectations and let everyone know he’s still one of the best D-tackles in this league. And for all the talk of his durability, he only missed one game due to injury this season. I just hope the pay increase he deserves doesn’t put him out of our price range.
Ed Gainey – I was vocal about my belief that Gainey was done after 2019. I did not expect him back in 2021 and was pretty ok with that. So when he eventually re-signed I was very “meh” on it. But he ended up being a very reliable player in 2021. He’s certainly no longer peak Gainey from say 2018 but he once again proved he can still be a reliable cover guy playing one of the most difficult spots in the secondary.
AC Leonard – What people will remember about 2021 Leonard was his 3 game suspension. What people don’t seem to notice is that he put up 11 sacks. That’s impressive in a normal season. Leonard did it in 11 games! I long wondered whether he was good or just the product of playing alongside elite pass rushers like Jefferson and Hughes… turns out he’s legit good despite not being considered among the best pass rushers in the league for some reason.
Deon Lacey – I won’t lie, I was incredibly scared for our linebackers. It would have bad enough going from the trio of Judge/Elimimian/Moncrief to Larry Dean and 2 people with no starting experience. But then Dean was lost for the season due to an achilles injury. Without much fanfare, Lacey stepped in and was a major stabilizing force. The Riders were #2 against the run and Lacey just made plays.
Micah Teitz – Teitz was one of those 2 people with no starting experience I mentioned in the last paragraph. He had one career start coming into 2021 and through the first few games he looked like a guy with one previous start. But he just steadily kept improving over the year and became a key Canadian starter. Never expected him to be more than a career special teamer when we drafted him in 2018. And if that’s how he can play in his first year as a starter, I fully expect his ceiling is higher than we have seen yet.
Cody Fajardo – I don’t want to dwell on this one but do feel I need to address it. Based on 2019, I think we all expected more out of Cody this season. Here’s the thing though, he had a good OL in 2019 and in 2021 had 5 guys who could only have been less effective if they had physically carried opposing pass rushers and deposited them on Fajardo. Give him a good line again and you’d be amazed how quickly he “improves”. I’ve heard others say this and I agree… I don’t think Fajardo is as good as we saw in 2019, or as bad as we saw in 2021. He’s somewhere in the middle and that still makes him a bona fide starting QB that I have faith in.
Evan Johnson – He wasn’t bad, just ok. But we fully expected a top tier lineman when we signed so “ok” was a disappointment. Obviously playing alongside a mildly competent tackle would help his performance, but his individual play was underwhelming. I’m fine with bringing him back, he is only 27 after all, but he needs to show more than he did in 2021.
Gary Johnson – This has nothing to do with talent or on field play. I was a big hyper of Johnson coming into the season. I thought he had a legit chance to start. And when he was on the field, he looked damn good. He led the team with 10 special teams tackles and looked good when he got reps on defense. Problem was he could not stay on the field. Here’s how his season went: played 2 games, missed 1, played 1, missed 6, played 2, missed 1, played 1, missed 2. Getting 10 special teams tackles in just 6 games certainly catches my eye but never being able to play in more than 2 consecutive games is an issue.