Slowly but surely, the long list of CFL players pending free agency on Feb. 13 is starting to dwindle. Yet when it comes to the free agent frenzy, many of the league’s top stars could still go to the market.
Complicating matters is the level of interest in free agents from south of the border. Players like Brandon Zylstra and Duron Carter could join NFL teams this off-season, significantly altering the perceived free agent landscape.
The Lions felt they got a steal in Shaq Johnson in the fourth round in 2016, and last year he justified the hype with a breakout sophomore season. Johnson hauled in 30 passes for 521 yards in 2017, averaging 17.4 yards per catch and emerging as one of the Lions’ top big-play options.
After trading Chris Williams and extending the contract of Emmanuel Arceneaux, Lions GM Ed Hervey should make signing his budding Canadian pass-catcher a priority in the next month or so.
Lulay likely needs some extra time to work back from the knee injury that ended his 2017 season, but if he does return next season, a reunion with the Lions is all that makes sense. Not only does the 34-year-old bring a wealth of experience to the sideline, he also showed last season he can still play at a high level.
Last year, Lulay went over 400 passing yards twice for the Lions, leading them to a 3-2 record before getting hurt.
A devastating knee injury ended an otherwise promising campaign for the veteran Travis Lulay (Jimmy Jeong/CFL.ca)
How good was third-year linebacker Adam Konar last year for the Eskimos? If the Esks have to choose between him and fellow pending free agent JC Sherritt, the choice is probably Konar.
The 24-year-old national came up big for the injured Esks defence last year, stepping in to record 71 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Not only is he an emerging young linebacker but he’s also got the right passport.
He’s flying under the radar, but the 29-year-0ld Hazelton was a solid No. 3 option in the Eskimos’ offence last year behind Brandon Zylstra and Derel Walker. There’s a chance either one or both of Zylstra and Walker end up in the NFL next year, making Hazelton’s contract status significant for the Green and Gold.
In other words, don’t sleep on Hazelton. He was among the CFL’s more productive receivers last season (709 yards in 11 games, 64.5 yards per game) and appears to rank above Bryant Mitchell and D’haquille Williams in Jason Maas’ pecking order. I expect him to be back.
A ‘defensive quarterback’ on the league’s stingiest secondary, Bell has played an integral role in his four seasons with the Stamps, starting with a Grey Cup his first year in 2014. With their entire starting secondary up for free agency, don’t expect the Stamps to let Bell get away — even with the breakout of young Canadian Tunde Adeleke.
Josh Bell has been the quarterback of the Stamps’ defence since joining the team in 2014 (Mike Sturk/CFL.ca)
As mentioned above, the Stampeders could lose some key pieces on their defence this off-season. One of them will not be Jamar Wall, who helped Calgary’s secondary allow a league-low 254.6 passing yards per game. Wall is one of the true shutdown DBs in this league and there’s a mutual fit in Cowtown.
There’s a chance the Riders’ Most Outstanding Player ends up south of the border for a second NFL stint. If not, it’s hard to imagine him getting away from the Green and White.
Last year alone Carter energized the Riders with a career’s worth of headlines and highlight-reel catches. Regina seemed like home to him and the Riders thrived with him in the lineup. If Duron Carter isn’t the best receiver in the CFL, he’s definitely the most entertaining.
Chris Jones won’t hide the importance of Willie Jefferson to his football team. The two won a Grey Cup together in Edmonton in 2015, while Jefferson’s addition to the Green and White helped Saskatchewan win 10 games and make the playoffs for the first time since 2014 last year.
The 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive end is one of the most physically dominant defenders in the CFL, while his skill-set is key to what Jones likes to do, which is rush three down linemen. Even in a three-man rush, Jefferson can cause quarterbacks nightmares.
Willie Jefferson celebrates a sack during the Riders’ 2017 season (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)
While the Bombers’ secondary allowed some big offensive numbers in 2017, boundary corner Chris Randle was not part of the problem. Winnipeg leaned on Randle against many of the CFL’s top receivers, and the 29-year-old out of Utah State answered the bell.
Randle had five interceptions last season, including an eventual game-winning pick in an overtime win over the Als along with a game-sealing pick-six against the Eskimos. With T.J. Heath and Kevin Fogg also up for free agency, it’s hard to envision the Bombers letting Randle leave.
Talk of Johnny Manziel could put this pick in jeopardy, but otherwise the fit between Hamilton and Masoli should be obvious. Masoli and Head Coach June Jones were a dream fit for the Tabbies, with the former playing the best football of his career in 10 starts with the Black and Gold.
If the ‘Cats want to pick up where they left off last season, they need to ensure Masoli is starting for them out of the chute. Otherwise there will be an adjustment period and that could mean some early-season struggles.
Tasker’s value is high after playing a full 18-game season for the first time in his career, recording a career-best 1,167 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Like with Masoli, June Jones’ offence allowed Tasker to be productive, forming a three-headed receiving monster along with Brandon Banks and Jalen Saunders.
From a football standpoint, Banks could leave as a free agent, but Tasker and Saunders together would still form a strong duo in the Ticats’ passing game. Meanwhile, for Tasker, the comfort level in Hamilton and proximity to home make the Ticats a strong fit.
Luke Tasker played a full 18-game season for the first time in his career in 2017 (The Canadian Press)
Perhaps the most obvious choice on this list, Ray will either play for the Argos or retire. Jim Popp is adamant that despite the James Franklin trade, Ray has his starting job back if he wants it in 2018.
It’s an interesting development in Toronto, where the Argos would obviously be better suited long-term to guarantee Franklin a starting role and begin their transition to the future. But loyalty to Ray, who’s won two of his four career Grey Cups in Toronto, is understandable — especially the way he played in 2017.
The 2015 first overall pick took a massive step in his development last season, playing both guard and centre while anchoring Ottawa’s O-line at age 26.
Marcel Desjardins has a long list of off-season priorities, with a 26-year-old emerging premier Canadian O-lineman surely near the top of the list. Players like Mateas don’t usually hit free agency at this stage in their careers.
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