Photo: Ben Grant
This morning, the Toronto Argonauts announced the release of Canadian defensive back Matt Boateng. The move probably surprised a lot of Argos fans, but it was written on the wall the day the CFL decided to move the hashmarks – the death of the Canadian cornerback.
Boateng was a high pick in the 2019 CFL draft out of Fresno State. He’s a good football player with blazing speed, thought to be the long-term solution at field corner for the Argos after earning a starting spot as a rookie. In 2021, the team signed Arjen Colquhoun, and the two Canadians spent training camp battling it out. But then Colquhoun went down with an injury at the end of camp, and without another Canadian corner to back up Boateng, the team couldn’t hold it down as a National position, so he was relegated to a backup role behind Treston Decoud. When Colquhoun returned, as did the National status of the position. Then Colquhoun suffered a season-ending leg injury and Toronto went back to starting Americans at field corner for the remainder of the season with the exception of the meaningless game against Edmonton when Boateng got the start.
Field corner has traditionally been a Canadian position in the CFL. They were left out there on their own, a kilometer from the ball with a 15-yard cushion on the Canadian Z receiver (for whom the bell may toll next season). So how many Canadian corners are starting in the CFL this season? None. As of each team’s last game, not a single Canadian was starting at cornerback. There isn’t a starting Canadian halfback or SAM linebacker either. Of the six starting defensive back positions, you will only find Canadians starting at safety. Seven of them: Malcolm Thompson (Winnipeg), Justin Howell (Ottawa), Mike Edem (Saskatchewan), Scott Hutter (Edmonton), Royce Metchie (Toronto), Marc-Antoine Dequoy (Montreal), and Tunde Adeleke (Hamilton). Calgary and BC don’t have any Canadian defensive backs starting, so hopefully they’re an outlier and not ahead of the curve.
When the hashmarks were narrowed, it meant throws to the field sideline were back in play, so Z receivers and field corners weren’t just running around for fun. The field sideline, once 41 yards from the far hash was suddenly only 37 yards away. That may not sound like a big change, but in a game of inches, the extra fractions of a second the ball takes to travel four extra yards is the difference between a completed pass and a pick-six. This change meant teams weren’t wasting plays by occasionally lining their best receivers up on the field side, something that rarely happened before. CFL defensive coordinators suddenly felt a lot less comfortable with Canadian field corners out there, knowing they’d be matched up at times against the league’s star receivers, so every single one of them made the position American. Admittedly, the league has been trending that way over the past few seasons, but the movement of the hashmarks solidified it.
What does this mean for young Canadian corners? It means they’d better learn to play safety. But some gifted defensive backs like Matt Boateng just don’t have the body type or style of play for safety. He’s never been a physical player, which is required in the middle, and at 5’11”, 169lbs, Boateng isn’t close to the ideal size. The eight starting Canadian safeties average out to be about 6’0”, 200lbs. In the league’s current setup where teams are required to dress at least 21 National players, you’ll continue to see young Canadian DBs backing up at corner and halfback and playing special teams, as there’s really no way around that for coaches. They may even fill in for a few plays at corner or play-out the game in the case of an injury, but don’t expect to see them starting in that spot the following week. As for veteran Canadian defensive backs, they’re simply too big a cap hit to justify keeping on the roster as a backup.
In terms of the game itself, moving the hashmarks was the correct decision. It has unquestionably made for a more exciting product on the field. However, with all the talk about whether or not Canadian quarterbacks are getting a fair shot, and how rules and roster requirements can be altered to address this, perhaps the league should also consider how to keep roster spots for talented Canadian cornerbacks like Matt Boateng.