Tillman not afraid to take chances

Edmonton Eskimos GM Eric Tillman dealt star QB Ricky Ray to the Argos. (QMI AGENCY)

Edmonton Eskimos GM Eric Tillman dealt star QB Ricky Ray to the Argos. (QMI AGENCY)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:44 PM ET

Had he played quarterback, Eric Tillman would have been that guy who’d throw into double coverage and not be fearful of having his attempted heave picked off.

Had he lined up under centre, Tillman would have taken on multiple tacklers, head on, if flushed out of the pocket and forced to run down field.

Say what you want about Edmonton’s general manager — and a lot has been said, most of it critical this off-season — but he’s not afraid to roll the dice. And he certainly has a track record of silencing any critic who jumps to quick conclusions when a trade is engineered.

In oil country, the buzz is about Ricky Ray’s trade to Toronto, a move that may ultimately define Tillman’s legacy in the CFL hotbed.

Eventually, every franchise, even one as steeped in tradition as Edmonton, must make that transition, complete that metaphorical passing of the football torch, and sit back and let the pieces fall where they may amid the howls of criticism.

In Steven Jyles — whom the Esks acquired as part of the package from the Argos — Kerry Joseph, Matt Nichols and Eric Ward, the Eskimos have three quarterback pieces and one open competition when training camp opens.

In Ray, the Eskimos, even by Tillman’s admission, parted ways with a future hall of famer, a player who returns to the Alberta capital in Edmonton’s home opener, a beloved Grey Cup winner who will one day grace the team’s Wall of Honour at Commonwealth Stadium.

“He will be embraced,’’ Tillman said when asked how fans will receive Ray when he returns to Edmonton on June 30. “There’s no pressure on him. If there’s going to be pressure that day, it’ll be on me because of the trade.”

The trade fetched Jyles, a run-first quarterback who may emerge as a bona fide starter if the right pieces around him are assembled, strong-legged punter Grant Shaw, who is very athletic, and the Argos’ first-round pick in the recently completed CFL draft. Edmonton traded that second overall pick for the fourth slot, where arguably the best talent in Austin Pasztor was claimed.

Besides the obvious cap flexibility in trading the most expensive hired gun in the CFL, Tillman also signalled the changing of the guard.

“Every franchise has to make that transition,’’ Tillman said during Thursday’s conference call with national reporters. “The $64,000 question is when do you make that transition.

“We could have waited a year or two from now, but Ricky would have been (older). If the trade doesn’t work out, it’s my responsibility, and let me make that clear.”

Obviously, the buck stops with Tillman, but the added bucks freed up in trading Ray has allowed him to add talent on both sides of the ball.

Remember also that Tillman oversaw the quarterback change in B.C. when he parted ways with close friend Kent Austin and basically fleeced the Argos when he ran the Roughriders in convincing Toronto, which just came off a devastating home loss to Winnipeg in the 2007 East final, to take Joseph.

There aren’t many in football as shrewd as Tillman, very few capable of seeing beyond the obvious and even fewer who aren’t afraid to pull the trigger, even if he ends up shooting himself.

“We don’t operate out of fear,’’ said Tillman, a mindset head coach Kavis Reed embraces.

Many pundits wrote Edmonton off last year, but the Eskimos put together an 11-7 season that came to an end in Vancouver, where the eventual Grey Cup champion Lions took advantage of home field to win the West final.

“We’ve been questioned, doubted and even ridiculed,’’ said Tillman of this off-season’s second-guessing of the team’s many moves. “In less than two weeks, we get the chalk and start writing the story that matters.”

In the end, that’s all that matters.

CHAMBERS CLOSE TO JOINING ESKS

It goes without saying that nothing is official until it’s made official, but Edmonton GM Eric Tillman made a point of saying highly touted Canadian receiver Shamawd Chambers is closer to joining the team.

“It certainly looks promising,’’ Tillman said during a Thursday conference call of Chambers, a Markham, Ont., resident who played his university football at Laurier.

Tillman said he spoke with Chambers’ agent on Wednesday and had exchanged emails as early as Thursday.

Chambers, who dropped to the sixth overall slot, attended Philly’s mini-camp, but the Eagles did not offer this speedy receiver a contract for the NFL team’s main camp.

There’s also a possibility of Chambers hooking up down south as a free agent, but if nothing comes to pass, Tillman would gladly welcome him to Edmonton.

The prospects aren’t as encouraging for offensive tackle Austin Pasztor, whom Tillman chose with Edmonton’s fourth overall pick after he swung a deal with B.C. to move down in the pecking order.

Pasztor has turned heads in Minnesota, where the Vikings have another Canadian O-lineman in Tyler Holmes, whom the Argos drafted in last year’s first round.

What’s certain is that Nebraska tailback Cory Ross will provide yet another option as Edmonton tries to fill the void left by Jerome Messam, the CFL’s top Canadian who took his act to the Miami Dolphins.

“He has an interesting body type,’’ Tillman said of the 5-foot-6, 210-pound Ross. “He’s short and squatty like Mike Pringle.’’

Calvin McCarty, Hugh Charles and John Goebel, who spent time on Edmonton’s practice roster last year, will also get a shot at camp.


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