February 5, 2018

21 Questions: Thoughts on the CFL off-season

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

This off-season has been neither a sprint nor a marathon, but some thrilling, euphoria-inducing combination of the two.

The Lions have a new general manager, the Alouettes hired a coach while big-name quarterbacks James Franklin, Zach Collaros, Darian Durant and Kevin Glenn all have new teams.

Also changing colours come the spring will be Chris Williams, Odell Willis and Charleston Hughes, and the same goes for recently-released Adarius Bowman, although we don’t know where he’ll end up.

Try to take a break and catch your breath when you can, because things aren’t about to slow down. Free agency opens on Feb. 13, with more than 140 players due to go on the open market, including some of the game-breakers that will be winning games next November.

» View free agent tracker
» CFL.ca’s Top 30 Pending Free Agents
» Position of Strength: Depth defines FA DBs

Then there’s the draft. Mini-camps. More trades. More cuts.

I bring this column back after a popular debut last year at this time, but I’ll be honest, it’s one of my favourite to write because in the CFL off-season, there’s just so much going on. All nine teams have a chance and the opportunities are endless.

With that, here are some of the questions, among many others, that have crossed my mind as the off-season continues:

1. Are the Riders the new Grey Cup favourite?

The Riders have had a busy off-season, signing their offensive and defensive MOPs Duron Carter and Willie Jefferson to extensions, acquiring Zach Collaros from the Ticats and landing one of the CFL’s top pass rushers in Charleston Hughes.

The work is far from over for Chris Jones and co., but the Riders have few major concerns going into free agency. Are they the Grey Cup favourite at this point in the off-season? If Collaros is the franchise QB they’ve been looking for, and Hughes and Jefferson can wreak havoc as advertised, no team has improved like Saskatchewan.

2-A. Should the Ticats trade, sign or pass on Manziel?

With the Jan. 31 signing deadline has passed (the deadline imposed by Johnny Manziel’s agent, at least), there’s no end in sight to the Johnny Football saga in Hamilton. What we know is that the Ticats aren’t about to let the world pass them by, signing some key extensions the past week, releasing Emanuel Davis and even trading for Vernon Adams Jr.

The latter move could have significant implications on what happens with Manziel. Could the Ticats view Adams as their new quarterback of the future, making Manziel one of their top trade chips? Possibly, especially considering Adams’ age (25) and fit in June Jones’ system.

June Jones and the Ticats may have already made up their minds about Johnny Manziel (The Canadian Press)

2-B. Where could Manziel land in a trade?

If Manziel does become a trade chip for the Ticats, what’s the logical landing spot? While there are plenty of possibilities, Montreal remains the obvious landing spot. The Als are the one team with a clear opening at quarterback, and likely the only club willing to pay what Manziel is looking for to play in the three-down game.

With the history between Manziel and Mike Sherman and the mutual need, Manziel going to Montreal might make the most sense out of anything right now.

3. Diontae ‘4K’ Spencer? 

Diontae Spencer flashed his immense potential on a record-breaking night in the Hammer last season, running to a 496-yard total in a win over the Tiger-Cats. If Spencer can stay healthy and return kicks all season, perhaps the elusive 4,000-yard mark is a possibility?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but why not dream? Spencer possesses the qualities you look for in that type of player, some of those demonstrated by Pinball Clemons and Chad Owens. In 2012, Owens broke Clemons’ record of 3,840 combined yards in a single season, and he went over 3,000 combined yards in back-to-back seasons.

Unleash Diontae 4K!

4. Will Josh Freeman win the Als’ starting job?

Without a proven CFL quarterback to compete with, Josh Freeman should be in the driver’s seat to start at quarterback for the Als. That could work well for first-time CFL head coach Mike Sherman, who’s gotten a glimpse of Freeman during their time south of the border.

Yes, I’m confident saying it: unless it’s Johnny Manziel, I don’t see anyone with a real chance to unseat Freeman as the Als’ projected starting quarterback come June.

Former NFL pivot Josh Freeman should have a chance to start for the Als in 2018 (The Associated Press)

5. Where will John White go?

John White is one of the more intriguing free agents to me because he could offer strong value as one of the league’s most explosive young running backs. Yes, I say this even after White’s second season-ending injury of his career.

The latest setback, a season-ending knee injury suffered early in 2017, may scare teams away. But if I need a running back, I’m taking advantage and adding a potential star to my offensive backfield. Yes, White doesn’t come without his risks, but the upside is too big to ignore.

6. Who has the best quarterback tandem in the CFL?

The quarterback musical chairs this off-season has led to some new looks across CFL depth charts. Many assumed Zach Collaros and Brandon Bridge would make up the best 1-2 punch at quarterback in the CFL, but that duo now faces some competition.

Darian Durant is as reputable a backup quarterback that you will find around the league, as the Bombers finally have a sturdy option behind Matt Nichols. And in Edmonton, the league’s top insurance policy in Kevin Glenn has completed his nine-team circuit and will back up the reigning MOP.

But I like really like the combination of James Franklin and Ricky Ray in Toronto. For the first time in a while, Argos fans won’t have to hold their breath every time Ray takes a hit. That will go a long way for Marc Trestman’s club as well as the stability of the Argonauts.

7. Are the Stamps in a mini-rebuild?

For those banking on changes after another Grey Cup heartbreak, they may be arriving. From my perspective, there’s been a pretty clear mandate from John Hufnagel and the Stamps’ front office for this club to get younger this off-season.

Josh Bell (retirement) and Charleston Hughes (trade) are already out; Dan Federkeil is rumoured to be retiring; and veteran mainstays Jerome Messam and Jamar Wall are currently without contracts as free agency approaches. The list of players Hufnagel has extended features mostly players under 30, including Kamar Jorden, Derek Wiggan, Brad Erdos and Randy Richards.

An exception is Brandon Smith (33), who will be back in Red and White, but it looks like the Stamps are looking to make some changes and get a little bit younger as a football team.

Josh Bell’s retirement means the Stamps’ defence could look a little younger this spring (Alex D’Addese/CFL.ca)

8. Can the Esks replace the production of Bowman and Zylstra?

The Eskimos were among the deepest teams in the CFL at receiver last season, even having to sit rookie standout D’haquille Williams late in the year when everyone was healthy. That depth will be tested this year following the departure of Bowman and Zylstra.

I believe the Esks are good with who’s on the roster. I’m really excited to see Bryant Mitchell in an expanded role. Mitchell showed massive upside last season, racking up 482 yards and three touchdowns in seven games. Williams, Vidal Hazelton and Kenny Stafford can also help fill the void, not to mention a returning Derel Walker.

That unit should still be among the CFL’s best next season catching balls from Mike Reilly — even without Zylstra and Bowman.

9. Is Zach Collaros an elite quarterback?

It’s been one of the most popular debates on CFL.ca, and while I’m not ready to say Zach Collaros is a top-three CFL quarterback (I would consider Ricky Ray or Trevor Harris for that third spot before Collaros, at least for now), I wouldn’t hesitate to call him elite.

I think the fresh start will do Collaros wonders in Regina, but more than anything he’s got the faith of the franchise behind him. With the Riders, Collaros has got some great weapons, some familiarity in Chris Jones and Stephen McAdoo, and most importantly, a coaching staff and a front office that has full belief in him to be a franchise quarterback.

10. Who should the Argos look to at running back?

The sudden departure of James Wilder has left an open door in the Argos’ backfield, with no one in place to fill it. It’s unfortunate for the Boatmen because Wilder might have been a leading MOP candidate in 2018 and an up-and-coming face of the franchise for a team with a change of direction.

Still, Marc Trestman’s offence will produce next season, and someone will be there to take the hand-offs from Ricky Ray and/or James Franklin. Brandon Whitaker might not be the guy, but the Argos should look to a veteran who’s got some experience in the CFL game and can thrive in pass protection.

I think John White would be perfect for that attack, with the upside of becoming a star, but if not, Jerome Messam might be an intriguing alternative who runs in a similar style of Wilder and is Canadian to boot.

While the Argos look for a new running back, could Esks pending FA John White be the answer? (CFL.ca)

11. What will become of Jerome Messam?

Speaking of Messam, where will the pending free agent land in 2018? It’s not to say Calgary isn’t still an option, but free agency is a week away and no deal has been struck between Messam and the Red and White.

There are plenty of possible fits for a national running back who can change the pace of the game, but I really like the teams in southern Ontario. The Argos and Ticats both have a strong need at running back, where James Wilder Jr. has departed on one hand and on the other, Alex Green is not necessarily proven and could use a strong Canadian complement anyway.

12. Is Adarius Bowman a fit in BC?

People are already talking about possible landing spots for Adarius Bowman, who was released by the Eskimos on Monday. Nothing jumped out at me, but one destination Chris O’Leary mentioned, and it seems to be on everyone else’s list, too, is BC, where Bowman would be reunited with his former GM in Ed Hervey.

It was the Lions who got burned by the Chris Williams signing last year, but Bowman does not represent the same kind of risk for Wally Buono’s club. His game is based off size and strength rather than speed, and I feel that it would complement the skills of Shaq Johnson, Bryan Burnham and Emmanuel Arceneaux very nicely.

Bowman would also bring a different voice to a room that could really use it. The Lions are looking to hit the reset button on a 2017 season that went all wrong, and Bowman’s winning perspective can’t hurt. The last thing I’ll say is that Bowman would get a lot of one-on-one looks in that offence, which bodes well for Jennings’ aggressive attacking style.

Adarius Bowman was released by the Eskimos in a surprise move on Monday (Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca)

13. Is it finally time for Kenny Shaw‘s big breakout?

I had Kenny Shaw primed for a massive season his first year in the nation’s capital. Injuries from Week 1 and on prevented that from happening, but a full off-season means a fresh start for the former Florida State star.

With the potential departure of Diontae Spencer, look for Shaw to emerge as a No. 2 option behind Greg Ellingson in the nation’s capital. Shaw’s elite separation makes him a perfect pairing with Trevor Harris, who will look to Shaw often throughout 2018 — provided he can stay healthy this time.

14. Who should the Als pick first overall?

It’s too early to really narrow down the Alouettes’ first overall pick, but what’s clear is the importance of May’s draft selection for General Manager Kavis Reed. Last year’s draft may have yielded two defensive starters (second round pick Fabion Foote and third round pick Dondre Wright), despite Reed not having a first round pick.

Now is a chance for Reed to really capitalize, and he’ll have a lot to weigh for his team going into the draft. The Als like to play American tackles, and guards don’t usually go first overall, but whatever the case, Reed will have plenty of options — including the chance to trade down — following next month’s combine.

15. Which defensive targets should the REDBLACKS be looking at?

All indications are that Marcel Desjardins is looking to spend some of his free agent dollars on the defensive side of the ball. That’s especially important with the addition of Defensive Coordinator Noel Thorpe and the implementation of his new system.

What are some names Thorpe and Desjardins could target? I’d start with Mitchell White, a shutdown corner who knows Ottawa and the East Division well, and I’d also find out quickly about Canadian WILL linebacker Adam Konar, a ratio-breaker at the position.

The biggest pitch might be for Ted Laurent, who can change not just the ratio but an entire defence. He could be available, and Ottawa isn’t far from home for the Montreal native. Either way, I expect there to be some spending.

Could pending free agent Ted Laurent be a target for Marcel Desjardins come Feb. 13? (CFL.ca)

16. Which free agent signing could help the Bombers the most?

Kyle Walters has hinted towards an aggressive approach in this year’s free agency, as the Bombers’ GM looks to get his team over the hump from contender to more in 2018. So which free agent signing could help the Bombers the most?

There’s been plenty of talk about their defence, a unit that’s made plenty of plays the last two years but struggled to stop opposing offences from putting up big yards. But while I see some re-tooling there, I think Walters’ biggest move might come on the offensive side of the ball, where his offence lacks a true home run threat.

I’d like to see the Bombers go after a player like Diontae Spencer or Roy Finch, players with that ‘strike the band’ ability who can score on any given play. Spencer would be my choice.

17. Will we see more Trent Richardson in 2018?

While the Riders have released Shakir Bell and Kienan LaFrance, their backfield remains wide open heading into the free agency portion of the off-season. Marcus Thigpen, Trent Richardson and Cameron Marshall are the big names vying for a job there, with Chris Jones likely eyeing a platoon role throughout the season.

Unless another name enters the mix in free agency, say, a John White (entirely possible, of course), that should mean we’ll see more of Richardson in 2018. That’s exciting, because Richardson was starting to look good before hurting his leg late in the regular season last year and then sitting throughout the playoffs.

If Richardson has stuck with it and paid his dues as a new player in the three-down game, I’d love to see what he could do with that rookie season under his belt.

All eyes were glued to Trent Richardson as he made his CFL debut for the Riders in 2017 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

18. Is Masoli the long-term answer for the ‘Cats?

This might be the toughest question on the list. Jeremiah Masoli can be a mesmerizing quarterback in the three-down game, a trait he showed often during a remarkable 6-4 run for the Ticats in 2017. Yet even throughout some of the most inspired play of his career, Masoli completed only 63.7 per cent of his passes last season.

That ranked among the lowest starters in the CFL (yet still ahead of Zach Collaros) and may leave cause for concern regarding Masoli’s long-term potential in a league that allows only two downs before punting.

I think we’re still awaiting a verdict on Masoli. I love the upside, but June Jones should look to find out this season if Masoli’s a place-holder for something bigger or a viable long-term pivot who can bring that city a Grey Cup.

19. Will Chris Williams return to stardom in 2018?

Unlike last year, when Chris Williams came to the Lions injured and wasn’t sure where he might fit in following a mid-season return, the New Mexico product finds in the Als a defined role and a team that believes in him.

Kavis Reed spent all of last year trying to find a speed threat on offence, eventually bringing back former NFL burner T.J. Graham to mixed results last fall. While Williams isn’t the speedster he once was, he can still stretch a defence and should open things up for an Alouette offence that failed to generate big plays in 2017. Could the Williams of old be back in ’18?

Big-name signing Chris Williams fizzled for the Lions, but a fresh start could be what he needs (BCLions.com)

20. How can the Bombers fix their defence?

That’s the question Bombers fans have agonized over this off-season. Mike O’Shea may have more oversight of Richie Hall’s defence in 2018, and those are two of the brighter defensive minds the game has seen the past several decades. But what can the Bombers do to improve on the field?

It may start in the secondary, where the team has welcomed back Chris Randle but could change things up from T.J. Heath and Maurice Leggett. The potential departure of Jamaal Westerman, without really losing much punch at defensive end (Jackson Jeffcoat and Tristan Okpalaugo are a solid duo) could free up cash to spend elsewhere.

Look for free agency to bring big changes to that Winnipeg defence this month.

21. What should the Stamps do at running back?

Jerome Messam and Jon Cornish have different running styles, yes, but the transition from one franchise Canadian back to the other was seamless for John Hufnagel’s football team. The Stamps may not have the luxury of deploying a Canadian running back should they move on from Jerome Messam this year in free agency.

What’s next in the Stamps’ backfield then? Terry Williams was terrific in his only career start, rushing for three touchdowns in a blowout win over the Als. On the other hand, when’s the last time the Stampeders have employed a young, unproven American as their lead back to start a season?

I’d look for the Stamps to bring in a veteran to team up with either Roy Finch (if they can keep him) or the kid Terry Williams. John White could be an option.