The start of CFL free agency Tuesday gave general managers their first real chance to begin re-tooling their teams for the 2020 season.
While some big names remain, here’s a look at how teams helped — or hurt — themselves and what lies ahead leading up to next month’s CFL combine in Toronto.
It should be noted that things could change if, or when, the top available players like receiver Derel Walker (65 catches, 1,040 yards, six TDs last season with Toronto), offensive lineman Derek Dennis (2016 CFL top lineman with Calgary) or running back C.J. Gable (consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons with Edmonton) sign new deals.
With Bralon Addison (95 catches, 1,236 yards, seven TDs) now a Minnesota Viking, Hamilton signed speedy receiver DeVier Posey, the ‘17 Grey Cup MVP with Toronto, in free agency. He joins a receiving corps anchored by Brandon Banks, the CFL’s most outstanding player last season (112 catches, 1,550 yards, 13 TDs). Prior to free agency, the Ticats re-signed former starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, giving them two solid options under centre with Dane Evans also back. Linebacker Larry Dean’s return should fill the void created by Justin Tuggle’s move to Edmonton. More importantly, the Ticats also signed defensive linemen Ted Laurent, Dylan Wynn (11 sacks) and Ja’Gared Davis (13 sacks) to extensions. The club still doesn’t have a kicker/punter after releasing Canadian Lirim Hajrullahu last month to pursue NFL opportunities.
Defence was a priority in free agency for new GM Danny Maciocia, who added nine defensive players from the open market while re-signing defensive back Ciante Evans and defensive linemen Woody Baron and Bo Banner. After finishing last overall in sacks last year (27), the Alouettes hope American defensive end Adrian Tracy returns to the form he had in 2016-17 when he recorded seven and nine sacks, respectively, with Hamilton. Veteran defensive end John Bowman (eight sacks) continues to mull his CFL future. Before free agency, Maciocia signed starting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., receivers Mario Alford and Eugene Lewis and offensive linemen Sean Jamieson, Kristian Matte and Langdon Rice to extensions.
GM Marcel Desjardins bolstered his defence in free agency by adding Canadian defensive lineman Cleyon Laing, defensive back Abdul Kanneh and linebackers Don Unamba and national Christophe Mulumba-Tshinanga. Laing and Kanneh were with Ottawa when it won the 2016 Grey Cup. Desjardins, whose team finished with the worst record in the league last season, did a lot of work prior to the free-agent period, re-signing the likes of kicker Lewis Ward, offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan (both Canadians), punter Richie Leone and defensive back Sherrod Baltimore to extensions. But his biggest moves were hiring former Winnipeg offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice as head coach, then obtaining the rights to quarterback Nick Arbuckle from Calgary and signing him to a two-year deal before he could hit the open market.
With three vacancies on its offensive line, Toronto extended Canadian Jamal Campbell before adding veteran Canadians Dariusz Bladek and Philip Blake in free agency. And with three 1,000-yard receivers hitting the open market, the club signed DaVaris Daniels. The addition of Americans Craig Roh, Alex Bazzie, and Drake Nevis along with Canadian Fabian Foote should help the defensive line. The Argos solidified their quarterback corps prior to free agency, re-signing McLoed-Bethel Thompson and adding former Winnipeg starter Matt Nichols. That’s one less thing for rookie head coach Ryan Dinwiddie to worry about heading into training camp with the Argos trying to return to the playoffs after two straight misses.
GM Ed Hervey had many needs entering free agency with B.C. allowing a CFL-high 58 sacks last year while finishing tied for second-last in sacks registered (28). The Lions, who finished last in the West last year, secured defensive linemen Micah Johnson, Ryan Brown, Chris Casher and J.R. Tavai. Johnson had four sacks last year with Saskatchewan after a career-best 14 with Calgary in 2018. How Johnson, Casher (seven sacks last year with Calgary) and Tavai (seven sacks in ‘19 with Ottawa) complement each one another will be interesting to see. American tackle Ryker Matthews should help the Lions’ offensive line but the CFL combine and draft will give Hervey another chance to bolster his Canadian content up front.
Rarely a player on the first day of free agency in previous years, president/GM John Hufnagel addressed his needs early, signing five players alone Tuesday. Adding American defensive backs Richard Leonard and Branden Dozier certainly helps with the departure of Tre Roberson and DaShaun Amos and Brandon Smith’s retirement. Punter Ronnie Pfeffer also fills a need with the retirement of veteran Rob Maver. And after re-signing Montell Cozart, last year’s third-string quarterback, Hufnagel added former Argo Dakota Prukop, setting up a battle during training camp for the backup job behind veteran Bo Levi Mitchell. Prior to free agency, Hufnagel signed Sean McEwen, formerly Toronto’s starting centre.
GM Brock Sunderland landed defensive backs Jonathon Mincy, Jermaine Gabriel, Trumaine Washington, Anthony Covington and Caleb Ham as well as linebackers Justin Tuggle and Korey Jones on the first day. Among the departures were defensive backs Josh Johnson, Tyquwan Glass and Monshadrik Hunter as well as linebackers Don Unamba, Larry Dean and Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga. Also moving on were receiver DaVaris Daniels and defensive lineman Alex Bazzie. Sunderland also made a coaching change, hiring Scott Milanovich to replace the fired Jason Maas. Before free agency, the GM extended Canadian offensive lineman David Beard and starting quarterback Trevor Harris.
It was a quiet free-agent period for GM Jeremy O’Day but that’s not to suggest he hasn’t been busy. O’Day signed 14 players to extensions prior to Feb. 11, including Canadian offensive lineman Dan Clark, receiver Shaq Evans, defensive back Ed Gainey, linebacker Cameron Judge and punter Jon Ryan. O’Day also locked up starting quarterback Cody Fajardo, then re-signed linebacker Solomon Elimimian and Canadian defensive lineman Jordan Reaves. O’Day did dip into free agency to sign quarterback James Franklin while losing Blake, Bladek and Johnson. After the Riders finished atop the West Division with a 13-5 record, the club opted to take care of its own rather than bring in new faces.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
GM Kyle Walters took the biggest name off the free-agent list Monday by re-signing defensive lineman Willie Jefferson to a two-year extension. Jefferson, the CFL’s top defensive player last year, was regarded as the best player on the open market after a career-best 12 sacks and emphatic performance in the Bombers’ 33-12 Grey Cup win over Hamilton (three sacks, two forced fumbles). He was among 13 players Walters extended prior to Tuesday, including quarterback Zach Collaros and offensive linemen Stanley Bryant, Michael Couture, Jemarcus Hardrick and Pat Neufeld. Quarterbacks Nichols and Chris Streveler (Arizona, NFL) are gone, but Walters secured many core elements of last year’s championship squad.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press