January 12, 2012

Obrand: Great start to 2012 off-season

Richard Obrand

TORONTO — Ricky Ray was traded where? Henry Burris was dealt for whom? How many new coaches are there?

Free agency period has yet to even begin and the 2012 CFL off-season is already off to a whirlwind of a start.

To recap: Toronto acquired two-time Grey Cup champion Ricky Ray in exchange for pivot Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and the second-overall pick in the 2012 Canadian Draft.

Long-time Stampeders QB Henry Burris was sent East for Kevin Glenn, offensive lineman Mark Dewitt and a conditional draft pick, after Burris lost his starting job in the late stages of the 2011 season to Drew Tate.

There have also been plenty of coaching changes to report.

The Argonauts got the carousel rolling in early December when they named former Alouettes offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich head coach. 

Two weeks after Milanovich landed in Toronto, the Grey Cup champion Lions announced that Mike Benevides will be the one chosen to fill the larger shoes left behind by Wally Buono.

The third head coaching vacancy was filled in mid-December when the Roughriders gave 34-year old Corey Chamblin the keys to Riderville.

Finally, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats waited slightly longer than their fans would have liked, but the appointment of former Stampeders offensive coordinator George Cortez seems to have reenergized Steeltown.

Suffice it to say, it has been a very significant off-season for the CFL.

With free agency just over one month away, there are plenty of noteworthy names who may find themselves in new uniforms when the 2012 season kicks off.

In B.C., Benevides may be forced to begin his new job without one of his most dominant players on the defensive side of the ball, as Dante Marsh is set to become a free agent.

The eight-year CFL veteran had another strong season for the Lions in 2011, registering a team-best four interceptions and 60 tackles.

However, the most pressing issue for the Lions will be trying to retain kicker Paul McCallum. The 42-year old Vancouver native was a dominant force for the Lions last season, connecting on a CFL record 94.3 per cent of his field goals.

McCallum also set a new record for most consecutive field goals by connecting on 30 in a row. Regardless of his age, McCallum is most certainly high up on Buono’s to-do list.

In Edmonton, two defensive stalwarts are on the verge of becoming free to test the market.  Linebacker Rod Davis and defensive end Greg Peach are surely near the top of GM Eric Tillman’s priority list.

Last season, Davis accumulated 79 tackles, one interception, two fumble recoveries and five sacks.

The 6-foot-2, 240 lbs. Davis has improved on his stats in each of his three seasons with the Eskimos and he would be a highly sought after commodity if he opted to enter free agency.

Peach, on the other hand, is coming off an injury-plagued season that saw him miss six games with an ankle injury.

Regardless of whatever injury concerns there might be, Peach can serve as a reliable and valuable addition to any defensive line across the league.

Stampeders General Manager John Hufnagel might be in the best position heading into free agency, as he has just five players that require attention.

Linebacker Marc Calixte, punter Burke Dales, veteran receiver Arjei Franklin, defensive back Brandon Isaac and Tim O’Neill are all slated to become free agents.

Arguably the most sought-after free agent in this year’s pool will be Roughriders receiver Andy Fantuz.

Fantuz returned to the Riders midway through the 2011 campaign after a failed attempt at cracking the NFL’s Chicago Bears’ roster. He registered 13 receptions for 175 yards in four games before suffering an ankle injury that cut his season even shorter.

There is no denying that Fantuz will generate a heap of interest, so just how far will general manager Brendan Taman go to try and keep him in green and white?

After coming up just short in their pursuit of the Grey Cup, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have some interesting names on their free agent list.

While Bomber fans would certainly enjoy seeing Canadians Ian Logan and Brendon LaBatte back on the field in 2012, the team’s biggest concern lies on the offensive side of the ball. Specifically, both starting quarterback Buck Pierce and backup quarterback Joey Elliot are eligible to become free agents.

In Hamilton, Bob O’Billovich nabbed the coach he wanted and now he’ll have to work at securing his pending free agents.

Kicker Justin Medlock is coming off a successful season that saw him connect on 89.1 per cent of his field goals, while defensive end Justin Hickman is fresh off a career-season at defensive end.

The third-year Ticat had a league-best 13 sacks and has proven to be one of the CFL’s elite pass rushers.

The Argonauts have been among the most active in the early stages of the off-season. With the acquisition of Ray, the Argos also secured receiver Andre Durie, running back Jeff Johnson, cornerback Jordan Younger and defensive back Matt Black.

General manager Jim Barker now faces the task of re-signing veteran Canadian linebacker Kevin Eiben, as well as safety Willie Pile and cornerback Byron Parker.

Finally, Montreal general manager Jim Popp received an early free agent gift when quarterback Anthony Calvillo announced that he will be returning for another year under centre for the Als.

Popp will have two key players to retain in cornerback Mark Estelle – who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 9 – and offensive lineman Scott Flory.

For a more detailed look at free agency, our 2012 Free Agent Tracker features a list of every potential free agent.