Eskimos General Manager Eric Tillman hasn’t been sitting idly by since he stepped into his role back in mid-September. He’s made trades, releases, a few signings and he’s currently down south in the United States scouting talent.
When 10:01pm Edmonton Time arrives on February 15th marking the opening of the 2011 CFL free agency period, the Eskimos will likely stay quiet according to Tillman. If he does delve into the free agent market, it will be for one specific reason.
“We’ve said from day one that our mantra is the backbone of all successful franchises in our league is a strong Canadian nucleus,” said Tillman. “Our focus is going to be to upgrade that aspect of the club over the next couple of years and that’s something that doesn’t happen overnight.”
The Eskimos have been active over the last couple of months. They’ve signed the likes of slotback Chris Bauman and defensive backs Donovan Alexander and Joel Lipinski. All Canadians if you’ve noticed, leaving Tillman with not much of a desire to make a splash when free agency opens.
“We may, and may is the operative word,” explained Tillman. “We may sign another couple of players or we may not sign a single guy in free agency based on what the marketplace bears but via free agency, via trades, via the draft. Those are all ways that you can improve your Canadian content.”
The Eskimos do need to improve their Canadian depth along the offensive line. Obby Khan of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will likely be available, but at what price?
Down the list there is Hamilton’s George Hudson and Brian Ramsay. Toronto’s Jeff Keeping may also present an interesting option. Alex Gauthier was available, but the asking price was likely too rich for Tillman’s blood.
The best Canadian receiver left is the Tiger-Cats’ Adam Nicolson, but the cupboard is probably full at that position after signing Bauman.
Basically, we’ve come to the end of the line as far as available free agents go to help the Eskimos. The next step for Tillman is to explore the trade route.
“A lot of talks, but that’s the norm in this league. It takes two to tango,” Tillman said. “There are a lot more conversations than there are trades. I suspect we’ll make two or three trades prior to training camp.”
One likely candidate on the way out is right guard Patrick Kabongo, who’s carrying a big ticket and he doesn’t play up to the nasty level an offensive lineman listed at 6’6” and 315 pounds should. The stable is overflowing with talent at running back with Arkee Whitlock and Daniel Porter. Both will likely come to training camp to duke it out for the number one job.
Do the Eskimos try and trade middle linebacker Maurice Lloyd who hasn’t lived up the hype and expectations of his big contract? What about their quarterbacking position? Jared Zabransky’s athletic abilities could be attractive to some teams (attention Jim Barker).
Tillman will be active in the free agent market for available import talent south of the border. In fact, he says he and the rest of the management and scouting team already have a 75 man roster drawn up broken down by nationality and ratio. They’ve identified players they feel will be in Edmonton in June for training camp. It is now just a waiting game to see which players they’ll be able to sign.
“We’ve put the mosaic together and now it’s just a matter of being patient over the next few weeks and seeing which of those guys become available,” Tillman explained. “It’s not a matter of scrambling looking for guys. That work quite frankly, most of it has been done.”
Tillman says the two biggest off-season signings have been landing Kavis Reed as the team’s new head coach and getting quarterback Ricky Ray under contract.
Reed has already been in the ear of his general manager with personnel suggestions. The head coach is the face of the franchise, the ultimate leader, and Reed is trying to set the tone early and send a message to his players that things will be done his way.
The Eskimos have three of their own free agents to consider: Import wide receiver Kelly Campbell, non-import linebacker and long-snapper Tim St. Pierre and non-import defensive back Jason Nugent.
Tillman wouldn’t speak individually about the three potential free agents, but did suggest that it is unlikely that all three will re-sign in Edmonton.
It is safe to say that Kelly Campbell’s time in green and gold is over. Fans will miss the speed, but not the dropped balls and surely not the antics.
It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that St. Pierre returns and competes with Etienne Legare for the long-snapper position. St. Pierre is also useful as a downfield coverman and can play linebacker. Nugent is probably on the bubble, not good enough to play regularly on defense yet an average presence on special teams.
At the end of the day, no blockbuster signings are expected. But the moving truck is ready to back in and ship out some high-priced goods for some younger, cheaper talent.