All nine front offices in the Canadian Football League went to work this week as Tuesday marked the official opening of free agency. The free-agent frenzy that ensues is always something to behold, and it was especially notable this year, thanks to an unprecedented number of big fish making their way to the player pool.
1) B.C. Lions
They got Mike Reilly and built around him. Ed Hervey's vision is becoming clear and it has the Lions the early leaders heading into the season.
1) B.C. Lions
They got Mike Reilly and built around him. Ed Hervey's vision is becoming clear and it has the Lions the early leaders heading into the season.
2) Edmonton Eskimos
This is almost a completely new team and one filled with bona-fide stars. Both sides of the ball look scary and if chemistry starts early the Eskimos will soon be the real deal.
3) Calgary Stampeders
This is a decision made out of ultimate respect for a team that has dominated the league for the past decade. Lots of moving pieces but don't be dumb and count the Stamps out.
4) Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Still in desperate need of another high-end receiver but the Bombers defence got better and they should be right in the thick of what will be a good battle in the West.
5) Hamilton Tiger-Cats
A club that is surely to finish atop the East Division, with a solid crew of veterans on both sides of the ball, especially a star in Jeremiah Masoli at QB.
6) Saskatchewan Roughriders
They'll one again lean heavily on a defence to make a push this season. Could be a darkhorse pick but I doubt it.
7) Toronto Argonauts
With James Franklin expected to be the No. 1 QB, he's got plenty of weapons around him to succeed. The defence is mostly the same as last year...good thing they're in the weak East.
8) Ottawa Redblacks
They were decimated by free agency but this is a club that has been to the Grey Cup three times in the last four year. For their next trick, they'll have to prevent a cross-over from the West.
9) Montreal Alouettes
Despite some solid upgrades through free agency, still don't see Montreal making much of a push. Another lost seaosn in La Belle Province.
In total, 140 free agents hit the open market and almost instantly teams started to make a splash — including the movement of three of the CFL’s best quarterbacks. Other household names in other positions also switched colours, giving some fan bases across the country newfound optimism for 2019. Not all clubs were winners, though, with a few teams swinging for the fences only to strike out after long and hard negotiations.
Here’s a look at how each team fared over the last week, in order from best to worst.
The B.C. Lions stole the spotlight even before the free-agency curtain opened, nabbing Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly, inking the 34-year-old to a four-year, $2.9-million deal ($725,000 per season).
By acquiring Reilly, who has led the CFL in passing yards the last three seasons, the Lions found a new face for their franchise and second-year general manager Ed Hervey made it clear a new regime has arrived.
Not only did Hervey get Reilly, but he also gave his new pivot plenty to work with, adding receivers Lamar Durant from the Stamps and the controversial Duron Carter. The Lions also spent big to protect Reilly, adding former Blue Bombers right guard Sukh Chungh to a three-year deal worth a whopping $250,000 per season.
On defence, B.C. added versatile defensive back Aaron Grymes, a player well known to Hervey during their time together in Edmonton, as well as DB Chris Edwards, who also arrives having spent all of last season with the Eskimos as their starting strong-side linebacker.
You've got to hand it to the Eskimos. Not many other teams would have recovered so well after losing their franchise player.
The Eskimos could have been viewed as major losers this week after losing Reilly. They continued their sales pitch right to the end, matching — and likely exceeding — the hefty price tag the Lions gave to the star pivot. But instead of wasting time licking their wounds, Eskimos general manager Brock Sunderland clearly had a back-up plan — and what a plan it was.
A former assistant GM of the Ottawa Redblacks for four seasons (2013-16), Sunderland pillaged his former home, adding a trio of Redblacks to his team. They replaced Reilly with Trevor Harris, who is coming off a stellar season with the Redblacks, where he eclipsed 5,000 passing yards for the first time in his career.
Along with Harris on the train out of Ottawa was No. 1 target, receiver Greg Ellingson, among the best at his position, and left tackle SirVincent Rogers, a CFL all-star in 2018. Edmonton also inked American receivers DaVaris Daniels and Ricky Collins, and added Canadian Anthony Parker. All are key additions, which should help ease the pain of losing Duke Williams and Mitchell Bryant, both of whom jetted to the NFL and Derel Walker, who signed with Toronto.
As busy as Edmonton was on the offensive side of the ball, they were equally aggressive in re-shaping the defence.
The Eskimos signed three highly regarded linebackers in the league, including the East Division’s nominee for top defender, middle linebacker Larry Dean; a CFL all-star in Don Unamba, who had a stellar campaign at strong-side linebacker with Hamilton last season; and former Bomber Jovan Santos-Knox, who will secure the weak side following a breakout year in Winnipeg.
There are a lot of moving pieces here, but if Harris and head coach Jason Maas can create some chemistry early, a new and prominent era could be brewing for a club that missed out on the playoffs last year.
The Toronto Argonauts were among the worst teams in the CFL last year, despite being just one year removed from a Grey Cup title in 2017. So it was a bit surprising that when they finally did make some moves, it was mostly re-upping a number of players from the previously disappointing year.
The Argonauts spent much of Tuesday trying to prevent superstar quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell from re-signing with the Stampeders – a move that ultimately wouldn’t pay off, despite the Argos offering a contract worth even more than the Reilly deal. Once that money was freed up, so, too, was Toronto’s willingness to spend in other areas.
The biggest move came on Thursday with the signing of Derel Walker, who was in talks with a handful of teams, including Winnipeg and Saskatchewan. He was treated to dinner and sat in a luxury box for an NBA Raptors game; in the end, Walker made off with a one-year deal worth $285,000 – the highest salary among non-quarterbacks in the CFL.
Toronto was heavily drawn to running backs in recent days despite having James Wilder Jr., the self-proclaimed best running back in the CFL, and backup Brandon Burks already under contract for this year. Tyrell Sutton, Chris Rainey, and Canadian Mercer Timmis, all of whom had notable seasons last year, will join the busy backfield. Rainey could be used at receiver and will likely be leaned on most as a returner (he led the CFL last year in kick-off return yardage).
Toronto also made some improvements to a dismal defence, bringing back defensive lineman Shawn Lemon, who they traded to B.C. midway through last year, while also adding former Roughriders Tobi Antigha and Cory Johnson to the D-line shuffle. Linebacker Micah Awe, considered among the hardest hitters in the league, and defensive back Kevin Fogg should also help boost the defence.
Kavis Reed has made some questionable decisions since taking over as general manager of the Montreal Alouettes ahead of the 2016 season. Most notably, he has stripped the team of multiple draft picks and overpaid for players in order to convince them to come to a place that, since he’s taken over has, has built up the reputation as being a player wasteland.
It’s for those reasons that it was somewhat unexpected to see the Alouettes GM make sensible moves this week, improving a roster that still requires plenty of attention but could now be headed in the right direction. There’s little doubt that Reed still shelled out top-end salaries, including being the only GM to give all-star safety Taylor Loffler his perceived value in the $150,000 range, and also backing up the Brinks truck to sign receiver DeVier Posey, who is certainly good, but doesn’t have the resume to match his $200,000 contract.
Still, those are major improvements to a team that won just five games last year. And the day was even better when you factor in a few other notable changes.
Along with Loffler, Montreal boosted their Canadian content by signing guard Spencer Wilson, who was stuck behind a talent crew in Calgary but should earn a starting role with the Alouettes. They also inked linebacker Bo Lokombo, who was born in Congo but grew up in Vancouver, as a potential starter at the weak side.
Assuming the Alouettes didn’t break the bank, signing running back Jeremiah Johnson should help them establish a much-needed running game, especially with Johnny Manziel, who was far from stellar in 2018. The hope is Manziel will take massive steps forward in 2019, much like the rest of the team after three tough years.
They were the first to makes moves on Tuesday, just minutes before the gate opened on free agency, re-signing defensive end Adrian Tracy and Canadian receiver Mike Jones. Those deals, albeit good, don’t exactly count when evaluating free-agency action, as no other team was able to steal them away at that time.
Hamilton’s biggest splash came on Day 2, when they reached a contract with Ja’Gared Davis, inking the former Calgary Stampeders defensive end to a one-year deal worth north of $200,000. Davis is an outstanding D-lineman in the CFL, who was slightly in the shadows in Calgary, playing alongside defensive tackle Micah Johnson. He’ll now help headline a Tiger-Cats crew that also has Ted Laurent and Jamaal Westerman patrolling the line of scrimmage.
Another significant addition to the defence was defensive back Rico Murray, who played six seasons with Hamilton before winning a Grey Cup with Toronto in 2017. Last season, Murray was with the Redblacks, where he earned his third East Division all-star nod.
The signing of three Canadians round out the week for Hamilton, including DB Tunde Adelek, who should offer depth in the secondary while also chipping in as a potential return man, and receivers Shamawd Chambers and Brian Jones.
The Bombers entered free agency with perhaps the fewest needs of any other CFL team.
Indeed, they were in good shape having re-signed a number of notable players from the previous year, including middle linebacker Adam Bighill, the reigning CFL most outstanding defensive player; left tackle Stanley Bryant, who has claimed back-to-back titles as the league’s top O-lineman; defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat; and halfback Brandon Alexander, among others.
It certainly helped that they already had their quarterback, Matt Nichols, in place, and Canadian running back Andrew Harris about to enter his first of a two-year deal in 2019. But while there were certainly some fireworks this week, the Bombers ended the week with a thud.
We’ll start with the good news: the Bombers inked the biggest defensive free agent available in DE Willie Jefferson. Jefferson is head and shoulders above anyone else on the Bombers D-line, and his skillset has the potential to turn a game on every play – yes, he’s that good.
But while Jefferson – along with the signing of defensive back Winston Rose –will certainly make the Bombers defence a unit to be reckoned with, perhaps even making up for the departures of Loffler, Santos-Knox and Chris Randle, they still have a desperate need to upgrade at receiver.
The Bombers did bring back Canadian receiver Nic Demski, who they hope can build off a disappointing finish to last season (he had just four touchdowns and none in his last 11 games), and Demski’s speed is a crucial element of Paul LaPolice’s offence. But how GM Kyle Walters was unable to find another high-end receiver to play with Darvin Adams is almost unforgiveable.
Yes, the Bombers did try, even offering competing offers to Ellingson ($250,000) and Walker ($275,000). But there were others out there and the Bombers needed to get one. It’s coming up on 29 years this team has gone without a Grey Cup and with the way the offence currently stands, if something doesn’t change it’s like to hit three decades.
It was hard not to be underwhelmed by what’s been done in the CFL’s most devoted market.
There had been plenty of turnover in the weeks leading up to free agency, including the sudden exit of Chris Jones, who held so many titles – vice-president of football operations, general manager, head coach and defensive co-ordinator, to name a few – that it would seem impossible just for the Roughriders to fill the voids on the coaching staff, let alone improving the product on the field.
As for that last part, they didn’t exactly do a ton to give fans a reason to believe they’ll be better next season – or even close to the 12-win team in 2018. Perhaps the most impressive sell job they did all week was convincing fans and media alike that bringing back Zach Collaros was somehow a win.
While some believe Collaros still has the potential to return to the budding star he once was in Hamilton, what’s more likely is he, well, doesn’t. Yes, the 30-year-old won 10 of his 14 starts but that was no thanks to his play. He ended the year with just nine touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions, and averaged just 214 passing yards per game.
William Powell should ease some of the pressure off Collaros, giving Saskatchewan a legitimate running threat. Powell finished second in league rushing the last two seasons in Ottawa and likely would have claimed the title over Andrew Harris last year, had he not missed the final two games with an injury. Bringing back receiver Naaman Roosevelt and signing Manny Arceneaux also helps, though Arceneaux’s health will be monitored closely after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last season and was limited to just nine games.
Under Jones, the Roughriders had the nastiest defence in the CFL. That took a major hit when Jefferson signed with Winnipeg and Sam Eguavoen jetted to the NFL, but it could have been much worse had Saskatchewan not signed Micah Johnson and AC Leonard – two solid moves.
Every year is seems the Calgary Stampeders are stripped of high-end talent, ruled to be in major trouble and then silence the critics with a long playoff run. That was certainly the case heading into the 2018 season, when the Stampeders said goodbye to Charleston Hughes, Jerome Messam, Marquay McDaniel, Tommie Campbell, Deron Mayo, among others, and still managed to win the Grey Cup.
But as good as the scouting and coaching staff has been, 2019 might be the greatest test yet for this storied franchise. This year they’ve lost Alex Singleton, Micah Johnson, Ja’Gared Davis, James Vaughters, and Jameer Thurman – and that’s all on defence, and doesn’t include DB Ciante Evans, who remains a free agent.
Now, again, it’s foolish to rule the Stampeders out, as history has shown, and it would be far from accurate to suggest they don’t know what they’re doing because clearly they do. But it’s likely the moves they’ll make outside of free agency – given the players still available – that will have the greatest impact on where this team will finish in 2019. And doubters there will be.
Calgary’s greatest move was retaining Mitchell, who, at 28 years old, rivals Reilly for the league’s best QB. It didn’t come easy re-signing Mitchell, as other teams – Toronto and Saskatchewan – were said to offer more money, but in the end, Mitchell seemed to use that leverage to get a higher payday from the Stampeders (he inked a four-year deal worth $2.8 million).
As long as Mitchell is under centre in Calgary’s offence, which also re-upped receiver Eric Rogers, Kamar Jorden and Juwan Brescacin, they should be OK. The Stampeders also re-signed D-lineman Cordarro Law, making the addition of Canadian and former Hamilton DB, Courtney Stephen, the only contract outside its own club.
The Ottawa Redblacks were undoubtedly the losers of the week. With the loss of their starting quarterback, No. 1 running back and receiver, top American O-lineman and dynamic return man, it’s hard to imagine the Redblacks returning to the Grey Cup for the fourth time in five years.
Ottawa was robbed of many of these assets by Edmonton, which seemed predictable heading into Tuesday. The backup plan at this moment is unclear, but the future looks murky at best.
Things seemed to hit a new low when Redblacks GM Marcel Desjardins announced he felt comfortable appointing Dom Davis as the team’s No. 1 pivot. Desjardins would soon come to his senses, signing Jonathon Jennings to an incentives-laden contract.
Jennings is coming off another disappointing year in B.C. where he was called out for his lack of commitment, which sparked a weird war of words between Hervey and Jennings' agent, who predictably disputed the claims. Either way, the hope for Jennings and his new team is that, much like Collaros is Saskatchewan, he can return to the player he was once, when he eclipsed 5,000 passing yards with the Lions in 2016.
Ottawa added veteran corner Chris Randle, who was released by Winnipeg last month, which should boost an already decent secondary. Getting Canadian OL Philippe Gagnon, and receivers Caleb Holley, Nate Behar and Dominque Rhymes, who re-signed late Thursday, under contract should get the ball rolling in rebuilding a new-look offence in 2019.
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 Friday, February 15, 2019 at 11:17 PM CST: Adds latest transactions.