Winning free agency no guarantee of success

Outcome of annual spending spree measured in standings


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With free agency officially opening on Tuesday, the CFL has been busy the last couple of days.

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With free agency officially opening on Tuesday, the CFL has been busy the last couple of days.

Over the last 48 hours, teams have tried to fill holes, add depth and tinker with their rosters in hopes of building a winner. Some clubs produced more moves than others, big dollars were spent on big names and no matter which general manager you ask, the answer is always the same: we got the guys we wanted.

There’s an odd tendency to appoint winners and losers once the dust has finally settled. I’d argue those answers won’t come until the end of the season and are based on who has a fighting chance for the Grey Cup come the fall.

Being declared the “winner” of free agency can prove to be a cautionary tale, as teams that spend big bucks on the open market often find themselves on the outside looking in come playoffs. Look no further than the Ottawa Redblacks last season, a team that was heralded for their complete revamp of the roster, only to finish the year 4-14.

There are exceptions — see: 2017 Toronto Argonauts — but winning February doesn’t guarantee a win in the third weekend of November. Still, it’s a lot of fun seeing all the action play out and there were plenty of savvy moves worthy of further discussion.

So without further ado, let’s get into it in the latest instalment of CFL Rundown.

1 I was interested to see out of the 18 players who agreed to terms over the “legal tampering” period, how many might opt out of their respective agreement. Turns out none did, as all deals were confirmed Tuesday. According to the CFL, since the legal tampering window opened in 2020, there had been an average of 12 contracts registered with the league, making this year busier than usual.

2 The NFL window has officially closed for players hoping to get a contract down south. Two notable players who didn’t receive offers and therefore will be returning to the CFL are Blue Bombers receiver Dalton Schoen and Roughriders receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker.

3 It makes sense the team with the fewest moves is also the club favoured to win the Grey Cup. The Bombers waited about 20 minutes to confirm Kenny Lawler’s two-year deal, bringing the all-star receiver back to Winnipeg through the 2024 season. GM Kyle Walters said they’re done spending and that makes a lot of sense after re-signing close to 20 pending free agents.

4 Among the busiest clubs were the Roughriders, who found their new QB in Trevor Harris, convincing the veteran pivot to leave Montreal on a two-year deal. The Riders added receivers Jake Wieneke, also from Montreal, and Juwan Brescacin. That doesn’t exactly make up for the departures of Duke Williams, Shaq Evans and Kyran Moore, but it does come at a much lower price tag. That money was spent on revamping the offensive and defensive lines, including deals for OL Philip Blake and Peter Godber, as well as DL Micah Johnson and Stefen Banks.

5 It feels almost passive-aggressive that after the Elks were unable to re-sign Kenny Lawler, they made it their mission to load up at receiver. They signed Geno Lewis to a two-year deal worth in excess of $300,000 annually, while also adding Steven Dunbar Jr., who was an East Division all-star with Hamilton last year, and Saskatchewan’s Moore. The trio combined for 199 receptions, 2,598 yards and 16 touchdowns in 41 games last season.

6 The Hamilton Tiger-Cats made their biggest move a couple weeks ago by signing QB Bo Levi Mitchell to a three-year pact. Then they seemed to go radio silent, leaving a majority of their pending free agents unsigned. Many of those players are still without a deal — the most notable being linebacker Simoni Lawrence and defensive back Kameron Kelly — while others have found new clubs. The Ticats eventually got to work, and by the end of Wednesday had signed several key pieces. They went all out on the D-line, adding Ja’Gared Davis, Kwaku Boateng and Casey Sayles, while also snagging linebacker Jameer Thurman and strong-side linebacker Chris Edwards from Toronto. They already have a pair of deadly weapons in receivers Tim White and Bralon Addison, so adding the likes of Duke Williams and running back James Butler will only make them better on offence. If that wasn’t enough, Hamilton dug deeper into its pockets, making Joel Figuero the highest-paid American OL at $195,000.

7 It’s long been a fool’s game to doubt the Calgary Stampeders, but I’m going to do it anyway. The Stamps signed exactly one player, and while Hamilton’s Julian Hosware is a formidable get, watching Folarin Orimolade walk out the door hurts. Losing Thurman is also significant, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be bringing back the West’s most outstanding defensive player in Shawn Lemon either.

8 The Toronto Argonauts stayed mostly quiet, but I do like the pickups of Orimolade and strong-side linebacker Adarius Pickett, who more than makes up for the loss of Edwards to Hamilton. The reigning Grey Cup champions are still without a proven quarterback, though, with McLeod Bethel-Thompson still pondering his future. Without that stability under centre, repeating in 2023 seems unlikely.

9 The Montreal Alouettes were finally granted permission to participate in free agency — more on that in a second — and after losing the likes of Harris, Lewis and Wieneke, they tried their best to recuperate. The Alouettes have made QB Cody Fajardo the face of the franchise, while providing him a backup with Caleb Evans, both of whom inked two-year deals. They managed to add receiver Greg Ellingson, which should help so long as he can stay healthy, with other notable signings including OL Justin Lawrence and DB Jumal Rolle.

10 The CFL has taken over ownership of the Alouettes, officially ending its relationship with the estate of Sid Spiegel and Gary Stern. It’s a sad state of affairs, even if the CFL has “initiated an accelerated and formal sales process” that is being led by outside council (Park Lane) and claims to have “serious interest” from parties in Montreal and across the province of Quebec. In talking with league sources, the former ownership pretty much stopped all spending, using free agency as a hook to force the league’s hand into taking over the team. The CFL has reinstated Mario Cecchini as the team’s president, returning him to a position he held just weeks ago before a decision by the prior ownership not to renew his contract.

11 Ottawa and B.C. were mostly quiet, though credit to the Redblacks for building a good defence with DL Mike Wakefield, LBs Jovan Santos-Knox and Gary Johnson Jr., as well as DB Cariel Brooks. Ottawa believes in its roster and with a new coaching staff led by Bob Dyce, there’s a quiet confidence they can make waves in the East after finishing last in 2022. The Lions took a hit on the O-line with the loss of Figuero and Godber, making centre Michael Couture their prized free-agent signing.

12 Let’s wrap with way-too-early-to-say predictions for 2023. The West: Winnipeg, B.C., Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatchewan. The East: Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal.

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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