TORONTO — The Bombers were bold, the REDBLACKS got their quarterback of the future and the Argos and Alouettes were also busy, as day one of the CFL Free Agency whirlwind is in the books.
It’s not surprising Winnipeg is the talk of free agency so far, as GM Kyle Walters backed up his word by making significant upgrades in the opening hours. But while the Bombers were expected to add hometown talent Andrew Harris from the start, the surge didn’t end there.
On top of adding a dynamic dual-threat running back with a national passport, Winnipeg added an elite young receiver in Ryan Smith; some national help on the O-line in Jeff Keeping; and two key additions on the defensive side of the ball in Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings.
“Winnipeg really made a conscious effort to improve its roster and put the Bombers in a position where they could contend for a playoff spot,” said CFL.ca’s Justin Dunk.
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“A flurry of activity early and the wait to see where Ted Laurent went defined the first day of free agency.”
– CFL.ca insider Justin Dunk
At the end of the day, though, the Bombers weren’t the only team making a splash. The REDBLACKS made a big move at the quarterback position, turning heads with the signing of 29-year-old quarterback Trevor Harris to be the heir apparent to Henry Burris.
Harris was an MOP candidate through part of his first full season as starter with the Argos and was far and away the best available quarterback on the market — and Ottawa’s number one target heading into the day.
“[He was] our number one target, something we had to accomplish in order to solidify that position – a little bit for this year but more so for the future,” said GM Marcel Desjardins. “I think all the REDBLACKS fans saw what he can do when we played very well against us here in Ottawa and throughout the season really, so we’re thrilled to have him.
“He’s glad to be here and part of what we have going on here in Ottawa and this is great for the REDBLACKS.”
While the Bombers and REDBLACKS made the marquee signings, the biggest free agent heading into Tuesday appears to be staying put as reports out of Hamilton indicate Ted Laurent has signed an extension.
The Argos focused on bolstering their offensive line in front of franchise quarterback Ricky Ray, landing nationals Josh Bourke and Corey Watman. The Alouettes re-signed a couple of their own on the defensive side of the ball, including starters Mitchell White and Winston Venable, and on offence caught some off guard with a reunion with receiver Kenny Stafford.
National talent was at the forefront for Chris Jones and the Riders, who signed big offensive lineman Andrew Jones and reportedly receiver Shamawd Chambers. The Lions, meanwhile, bolstered their secondary by adding Brandon Stewart and former third overall pick Mike Edem as well as a familiar face on offence in receiver Nick Moore.
And as he promised, John Hufnagel was silent on the opening day of free agency as the Stampeders stayed away from the free agent rush.
Here’s a team by team breakdown of what happened on Tuesday:
|| WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
Kyle Walters asserted his team was looking to upgrade in free agency, not just fill holes, and on Tuesday he backed up his word as the Bombers made all the biggest headlines.
The Bombers’ GM assured all eyes will be on Winnipeg at the start of the CFL season, where the league’s most revamped team will look to compete with West Division powerhouses Edmonton and Calgary with the help of some key new faces on both sides of the ball.
“Out west, Winnipeg really made a conscious effort to improve its roster and put the Bombers in a position where they could contend for a playoff spot.”
– CFL.ca Insider Justin Dunk
Outside of the obvious marquee signings of Andrew Harris and Ryan Smith, the addition of former Argo Jeff Keeping addresses a key shortcoming in national O-line depth on that side of the ball.
On defence, meanwhile, the jolt for the Bombers was just as big, as the acquisition of defensive tackles Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings almost single-handedly transform Winnipeg’s defence. Those two will team up with Jamaal Westerman, a national who ranked second in the CFL in sacks last season, to form one of the best defensive fronts in the CFL.
Finally, the Bombers also made a significant upgrade on special teams with the addition of kicker/punter Justin Medlock, one of the top kickers in the league.
At the end of the day the Bombers improved their team through free agency in many different facets.
|| BC LIONS
After letting defensive back Cord Parks walk in free agency, the Lions fortified their back end on defence with the additions of veteran Brandon Stewart and former third overall pick Mike Edem. But the biggest move the Lions made was on the offensive side of the ball, where the team reunites with former 1,000-yard receiver Nick Moore.
With the Chris Rainey contract extension earlier in the day, the Lions have put themselves in a good position heading into day two of free agency as they possibly chase down their biggest name yet — Justin Capicciotti, the Simon Fraser graduate who’s been linked to the Lions in the early going.
|| TORONTO ARGONAUTS
Unlike in the past, Jim Barker was busy on his first day of free agency after signing national offensive linemen Josh Bourke and Corey Watman. Both are ratio-busters for the Argos and will help transform an offensive line tasked with protecting Ricky Ray, as the Argos hope their aerial attack will be firing on all cylinders in the team’s first season at BMO Field.
It also appears the Argos will move in a different direction at the kicker position, where free agent and international kicker Swayze Waters may or may not return after the team signed national Lirim Hajrullahu to take over those duties.
What’s next for the Argos? After a busy day one in free agency, there’s no telling whether Barker is done in the free agent game or will continue adding pieces in day two. One thing to keep an eye on will be the team’s pending free agents, from Greg Jones and Tristan Okpalaugo to fan favourite Chad Owens.
|| SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS
While he was already a free agent before Feb. 9, John Chiles was the first player to ink a new contract on free agency day after joining the Riders. But GM and head coach Chris Jones wasn’t done adding speed to his offence, as the Riders later reportedly signed a ratio-breaker at receiver in Shamawd Chambers.
All in all the Riders didn’t make any major headlines on day one of free agency, but with the addition of big man Andrew Jones on the O-line and Graig Newman on defence, Canadian content was a key theme on a solid day at the Riders’ head office.
|| MONTREAL ALOUETTES
Defence was the key theme for the Als on free agency day, as the team started it off by re-signing starting cornerback Mitchell White. The Als also extended star linebacker Winston Venable and are reportedly in on cornerback Jovon Johnson, as that unit continues to be an emphasis for head coach and GM Jim Popp.
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While it appears the Als missed out on big-name free agent Ted Laurent, there’s no lack of starpower coming to Montreal after Tuesday as Kenny Stafford is another familiar face back in Montreal. Stafford will team up with Duron Carter and S.J. Green to form arguably the top receiver trio in the league (although the REDBLACKS might have something to say about that).
|| CALGARY STAMPEDERS
John Hufnagel promised to be quiet early in free agency and he held true to his word as the Stamps did not make any signings — although reports say Hufnagel and the Stampeders did kick the tires on free agent linebacker JC Sherritt.
|| OTTAWA REDBLACKS
The REDBLACKS made the biggest and most surprising news on Tuesday, signing quarterback Trevor Harris from divisional rival Toronto. GM Marcel Desjardins said the position was key for his team going into the week, as the REDBLACKS will lean on Henry Burris on 2016 but need a long-term answer behind him.
“Ottawa has really solidified the fact that it is going to be a contender for years down the road with Henry Burris and Trevor Harris in the fold at quarterback.”
– CFL.ca Insider Justin Dunk
While Ottawa loses some key players to free agency on defence, from Justin Capicciotti to Brandyn Thompson, the addition of Harris fills up a critical hole for the REDBLACKS and helps their odds not just in the future but in 2016.
|| EDMONTON ESKIMOS
The Eskimos didn’t make any major headlines on day one of free agency but did lock up young running back John White for the next two seasons. White spent all of 2015 on the injured list after suffering a devastating Achilles injury out of the gate in training camp, but will return in 2016 looking to take hold of the starting running back position.
After signing extensions for Almondo Sewell and Adarius Bowman, the Esks may not be big buyers this free agency period as day one may have indicated.
|| HAMILTON TIGER-CATS
The biggest news of the day may just be in Hamilton, where it appears Ted Laurent is set to re-sign with the Ticats. Laurent is considered one of the top free agents across the CFL world and single-handedly changes the team’s 2016 outlook, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Outside of Laurent, the Ticats were also busy signing Andy Fantuz to a new contract and also landing free agent linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, a run-stuffer that’ll help shut down opposing running backs. With Laurent potentially taken care of, day two in the CFL should pick up fast.