As far as opening day of CFL free agency goes, this year’s edition was pretty tame.
Sure, there were moves made, with some teams dipping into the player pool more than others. But speaking in more general terms, what’s usually a day of fireworks was more flash than bang in 2020.
There are reasons for this, of course. I’d argue the biggest is that we’re starting to see a shift away from the free-agent frenzy we’ve become accustomed to. Because of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, most notably the rise in minimum salary, as well as the continuous climb in pay for starting quarterbacks, there just isn’t enough money to go around.
Furthermore, teams are starting to realize it’s more cost efficient to re-sign players than risk getting caught up in bidding wars on the open market. Not all teams, though, have that luxury.
With that, here’s a look at some of the bigger moves made around the league Tuesday, the first day of free agency.
The Bombers reeled in their biggest fish a day early, inking Willie Jefferson to a two-year contract extension worth $260,000 per season.
Jefferson joins quarterback Zach Collaros, offensive linemen Patrick Neufeld, Stanley Bryant, Jermarcus Hardrick and Michael Couture, defensive backs Mercy Maston and Nick Taylor and defensive tackle Jake Thomas as starters from last year that have re-upped in 2020.
That kind of work set the Bombers up for a light day Tuesday. The only free agent Winnipeg signed was four-year veteran defensive back Josh Johnson from the Edmonton Eskimos. That should help alleviate some of the pain from losing halfback Marcus Sayles and cornerback Winston Rose to the NFL.
Overall, things are looking pretty good for the defending Grey Cup champions.
The Stampeders are usually among the quietest teams come free agency. But this year was a little different.
Still comfortable with much of their current roster, despite some notable turnover, the one area the Stampeders addressed Tuesday was the secondary. Calgary added a pair of veteran defensive backs, inking 2019 CFL all-star Richard Leonard and Branden Dozier. Leonard is a great pickup and Dozier, at just 26 years old, has his best football ahead of him.
The Stampeders’ other big pickup came a couple days ago when they signed Canadian centre Sean McEwen.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders managed to sneak in a contract extension for linebacker Solomon Elimimian right before free agency opened, and from there were limited to minor pieces.
Perhaps the biggest pickup was a player the Roughriders hope to never see on the field, or at least not too often. Backup quarterback James Franklin was the biggest name added to Saskatchewan’s roster.
If somebody knows where B.C. Lions general manager Ed Hervey is hiding his money tree, please let me know. I promise I won’t share.
The Lions were awful in 2019, finishing with a 5-13 record after a 1-10 start. Even with some significant turnover, the Lions have a number of expensive pieces.
Still, that didn’t stop Hervey from diving right in. The Lions boosted their return game with the addition of Chris Rainey, added two up-and-coming defensive ends in Chris Casher and J.R. Tavai, as well as defensive tackle Ryan Brown. Oh, and Ryker Matthews is a great addition to the O-line.
But they saved the best for last, inking defensive tackle Micah Johnson to a one-year deal. Johnson is coming off a down year with Saskatchewan but is still regarded as one of the top D-lineman in the CFL.
What’s more, the Lions are expected to add receiver Derel Walker to the mix in the next day or so.
Edmonton was another team that did a lot of the heavy lifting prior to Tuesday. That included adding two more years to the contract of quarterback Trevor Harris, whose deal wasn’t set to expire until after 2020.
The two biggest names added were defensive back Jonathon Mincy and linebacker Justin Tuggle. Mincy is expected to play the boundary-side halfback position, while Tuggle will be slotted in at middle linebacker.
Like Winnipeg, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were able to retain a fair share of key contributors from last season. That’s a good thing for a club that was as dominant as any in 2019, before falling to the Bombers in the title game.
The biggest move of the day came just moments before the free market opened, with the signing of defensive lineman Dylan Wynn. Wynn is coming off a breakout season where he recorded a personal best 11 sacks.
Hamilton also signed American running back Don Jackson, who had glimpses of greatness in Calgary and should be a solid replacement for the now retired Tyrell Sutton.
Canadian defensive back Courtney Stephen is also a solid addition to an already potent roster.
The Argonauts had the most work to do, so it’s little surprise they made the biggest splash.
After losing a trio of talented receivers, including Derel Walker, SJ Green and Armanti Edwards, Toronto went out and found three more. They signed a pair of Canadians in TJ Jones, who comes to the CFL after years in the NFL, and Juwan Brescacin, while also adding DaVaris Daniels.
Behind Walker, Daniels was considered to be the most coveted among American receivers and Brescacin has as much potential as any Canadian receiver in the league.
Not done there, the Argonauts scooped up a pair of Canadian O-linemen in Darius Bladek and Philip Blake, which should give the QB tandem of Matt Nichols and McLeod Bethel-Thompson decent protection.
Finally, and this might tug at the heart strings of some Bomber fans, Toronto wrapped up their day by inking defensive end Craig Roh.
The expectation when the Alouettes hit free agency was that they were going to take a major hit on defence.
They did, too, seeing Canadian linebacker Chris Ackie, Canadian defensive tackle Fabion Foote and three Americans — defensive tackle Woody Baron, linebacker Patrick Levels and defensive back Ciante Evans — all hit the open market.
But they didn’t lose everyone, snatching back Evans on a new deal after the 27-year-old said he tested the waters only to realize he wanted back. Evans was the biggest pickup on the day for Montreal.
The other fairly big name was defensive end Adrian Tracy.
For a moment there it looked like the Redblacks were going to be extremely active. But after a strong start out of the gate, Ottawa simply disappeared.
The Redblacks wasted little time announcing a pair of notable deals, with contracts given to defensive lineman Cleyon Laing, a Canadian, and linebacker Don Unamba.
That’s about as good as it gets, though, meaning the Redblacks are likely to finish near the bottom of the standings if they don’t add some more significant pieces.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 6:51 AM CST: Corrects info about Don Unamba