For the time being, this is what I consider my CFL masterpiece. I’ve attached a name to every single pass thrown in the CFL in 2019, ranking the best defenders. Is this perfect? No. Does it paint a damn accurate picture of who is doing their job right? You bet.
My logic is easy: base defensive statistics can only show so much and crediting responsibility to each pass provides added context to all CFL cover men and their skills.
I initially started recording targets and catches, but there was obvious room for adjustment and improvement. After speaking with CFL defenders, my refinement (again, not perfect) to the preciseness of my data was responsible and vicinity targets (not shown below).
Responsible targets are charged to the defender who’s responsible for the targeted receiver. This mainly boils down to zone coverages or quick-release passes such as screens and dump-offs, hence linebackers’ numbers mostly falling into this area. Hint: don’t put a lot of stock into a defender’s responsible coverage numbers, unless they’re fantastic.
Vicinity targets are all targets where a defender’s in man coverage or has the ability to make a play on the ball — they’re in the vicinity of the ball, a situation that ideally all man coverage defenders get in. These targets separate the average from the elite.
But let’s get to it. Here are my top 20 defenders, based on the difficulty of position, yards against, touchdowns against, completion percentage against, interceptions, yards per catch against, yards per start against, yards per target against, and vicinity coverage numbers:
Top 5 CFL Pass Defenders
1) Tre Roberson, boundary cornerback, Calgary, 31.
First off, teams don’t avoid Roberson. Aaron Grymes is the only true defensive back that opponents actively avoid. Loucheiz Purifoy is in that territory, as are Ciante Evans and Delvin Breaux. Roberson had 31 vicinity targets in his last eight starts. Grymes had just 12.
But, Roberson is the best defensive back in the CFL and had the best season, period. He’s long, physical, and better than most receivers at snatching jump balls. He often tricks opposing quarterbacks into thinking his man is open before pouncing. He can call house on any play, doing so twice in 2019.
2) Aaron Grymes, boundary halfback, B.C., 36.
My numbers show that Grymes is the only CFL defender that opposing offences go out of their way to avoid. That’s the utmost compliment for a defensive back. Surrendering under 200 yards of passing yards while starting 16 games at boundary halfback is incredible.
Grymes is quick, intelligent, and mean. He often dropped back into deeper zones, acting as a second safety at times, speaking to his ability to still come up and manage 54 tackles.
3) Winston Rose, boundary cornerback, Winnipeg, 30.
If not for Shaq Evans getting the better of Winston Rose in Week 17, Rose would probably be number one on this list. Rose gave up 180 yards that night, but essentially every boundary corner aside from Roberson lived the Shaq Evans experience/nightmare in 2019.
With a league-leading nine interceptions, Rose has established himself as arguably the CFL’s top ballhawk. He’s an explosive athlete with tremendous footwork, and although he’ll give up some catches, you can’t try Rose too often or he’ll swing the game in his favour.
4) Loucheiz Purifoy, field halfback, Saskatchewan, 28.
Loucheiz Purifoy is aggressive while covering his wide area like few can. He can also fill the stat sheet like few can, with 40 tackles, six special teams tackles, two sacks, three interceptions, forced fumble, recovered fumble, and a kick return touchdown.
Purifoy doesn’t give up many catches, but if so the ball-carrier often ends up planted to the turf. Purifoy’s a sound athlete with game-breaking ability and truly an All-Star snub.
5) DaShaun Amos, field halfback, Calgary, 8.
DaShaun Amos has come a long way since his two starts in 2018. Amos is quick and shows a veteran football IQ like teammate Brandon Smith’s, despite Amos being a second-year halfback. He reeled in five interceptions in 2019, taking one for six. It’s a shame Amos’ brief appearance in 2018 makes him ineligible for Most Outstanding Rookie, he’d be a lock.
Other CFL Pass Defenders Notes
The Best in the Game: Rico Murray, strong-side linebacker, Hamilton, 0.
I question why Rico Murray isn’t the East All-Star strong-side linebacker because Murray is the best SAM in the CFL and is deserving of the nod instead of Patrick Levels. In his final 10 starts, I had Murray recorded for only 55 vicinity yards on a 39 per cent completion percentage. He also wasn’t responsible for a single passing touchdown in 2019. He quietly does his job — outside blitzing, man and zone covering, run supporting — near flawlessly.
Coming Up Short: Josh Johnson, defensive back, 26.
Johnson moved around in a banged-up Edmonton secondary, proving his versatility. He was a leader on this list for a while, but some recent bad outings pushed him just outside of being All-Star worthy. Regardless, Johnson deserves recognition for his terrific season.
Breakout Defender: Greg Reid, boundary halfback, Montreal Alouettes, 26.
Watch Greg Reid on Sunday, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy his play. He’s electric, flying around to areas where he has no business making plays. It’s no coincidence that Montreal’s record starting to improve once Reid began establishing himself in the Alouettes backfield as a tone-setting physical defender. He’s the breakout defensive back this season.
No Love: Cariel Brooks, boundary halfback Hamilton, 26.
Cariel Brooks would’ve been on my East All-Star ballot, but since he registered only half of the interceptions he had in 2018, I understand the decision to go with Richard Leonard. The difference between the two is Brooks shut the door when it mattered, surrendering one touchdown on the season and quietly locking some elite slotbacks to minimal production.
Put Me in Coach: Delvin Breaux (24) & Jumal Rolle (25), boundary cornerbacks, Hamilton.
I haven’t shied away from saying Jumal Rolle was Hamilton’s best boundary cornerback in 2019, but that’s not to say both Rolle and Delvin Breaux didn’t shine in their combined 21 starts. Breaux did look vulnerable at times, specifically in both his starts against Saskatchewan, but the Ti-Cats decided to stick with the proven veteran and benching Rolle.
Mr. Second Half: T.J. Lee, field halfback, B.C., 6.
After an All-Star season in 2018, T.J. Lee got off to an underwhelming start this season but on par with the rest of his club. By August 15, I had Lee responsible for six touchdowns, by far the worst in the CFL. But Lee showed why he’s an excellent athlete in the latter half of 2019, giving up only 86 yards and 10 catches on 30 vicinity targets, plus adding four picks.
The Last Word
I hope you gained any kind of CFL knowledge from these charts. They required a fair amount of effort, but I enjoyed recording them and ranking the top pass defenders in the CFL. I have all the data on standby if you have specific player inquiries.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images