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February 8, 2018

The 15 most impactful off-season moves…so far

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — The CFL’s marquee off-season events have yet to arrive, but the last few months have provided plenty of breaking news for fans of the three-down game to chew up and analyze.

From a new franchise quarterback in Riderville to a big-name coach landing in Montreal, the off-season has delivered as promised — even without a Johnny Manziel signing.

Starting with the most impactful, let’s look at 15 moves that have defined the 2018 CFL off-season… so far.

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1. Riders find their franchise quarterback?

Jan. 3, 2018 – The Riders acquire Zach Collaros from Ticats. Collaros agrees to a restructured deal on Jan. 19.

The quarterback carousel took its biggest turn early in January, when the Riders sent a second round pick to Hamilton to acquire Zach Collaros.

Kevin Glenn was subsequently released, while the Riders believe they’ve found a long-term answer under centre in the 29-year-old Collaros, who has started a Grey Cup in 2014 and was considered an MOP favourite in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury.

Deals involving quarterbacks are always remembered, and fail or flourish, Collaros will go a long way in determining the Riders’ success in the coming season as Chris Jones’ team looks to cement its status as a perennial Grey Cup contender.

2. Argos fans get their wish as Ray returns

Feb. 2, 2018 – Ricky Ray announces he will return in 2018; signs one-year extension with Argos.

Argos fans chanted ‘one more year’ at the team’s Grey Cup celebration in November, and now they’ve gotten their wish.

Ricky Ray’s decision to return to the Argos for a 16th CFL season was overshadowed by an unforgettable Friday around the league, which also involved new teams for Odell Willis and Charleston Hughes. Yet the veteran quarterback’s decision will have a major impact on the 2018 season, both for the Argos and the rest of the CFL.

While James Franklin may have to wait a little bit longer to assume a starting quarterback job, Ray’s return provides Toronto a stability at the quarterback position that has not been seen by the club in decades. Meanwhile, the 38-year-old is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in his first year under Marc Trestman, and will look to repeat his 2017 success over the next 12 months.

The return of Ray along with star receiver S.J. Green ensures the Argos will at least contend for another East Division title.

Ricky Ray, along with his wife, Allyson, celebrates the Argos’ Grey Cup win last November (Patrick Doyle/CFL.ca)

3. Ed Hervey joins the Lions; Buono to coach last season

Nov. 30, 2017 – The Lions announce that Ed Hervey has been hired as GM, while 2018 will be Wally Buono’s last season as head coach.

Just days after the Grey Cup, the BC Lions signaled a drastic change of direction in the future of their club with the addition of Ed Hervey as general manager. The team also announced that Wally Buono would coach his last season in 2018.

Hervey was one of the best general managers in the CFL before he and the Eskimos parted ways in 2017, making the Lions’ front office addition an intriguing one. And the team’s new GM has wasted no time putting his mark on the roster, locking up key players on the O-line, trading Chris Williams and adding Odell Willis and Gabriel Knapton to the defensive line.

Hervey’s impact on the Lions will be clear from the season-opener in 2018 and well into the future for the Orange and Black.

4. Sherman hire ends long Alouettes coaching search

Dec. 20, 2017 – Kavis Reed’s search for a new head coach ends with the hiring of former NFL head coach Mike Sherman.

After CFL defensive coordinators Corey Chamblin, DeVone Claybrooks and Mark Washington were all mentioned in the Alouettes’ coaching search, things took a sudden turn when the club eventually hired Mike Sherman of Green Bay Packers fame.

Reed’s decision to go with a big U.S. name with no CFL experience comes with some risk for the league’s last-place team in 2017. Alouettes fans may recall two of the more recent examples quite easily: one, Marc Trestman, coming to the league with great success; the other one, Dan Hawkins, lasting only five games before being dismissed.

Sherman has the football acumen to be a great coach in the CFL, something the Als are banking on as they look to change their fortunes after struggling ever since Anthony Calvillo’s retirement in 2013.

Mike Sherman is introduced as the Als’ head coach at a press conference in December (The Canadian Press)

5. The Ticats bring back June Jones

Dec. 4, 2017 – The Ticats remove the interim tag from Head Coach June Jones, confirming he’ll be back in 2018.

The Ticats were clearly a much better team with June Jones as their head coach, winning six of their last 10 games, all coached by Jones, after a winless 0-8 start.

Extending the contracts of Jones, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and top receiver Brandon Banks provide continuity for the Tabbies, who could be considered a contender going into 2018.

The Ticats have brought back all of the same elements that made them successful over the latter half of last season, while Jones has proven in his short time here that he is one of the CFL’s brightest new minds.

6. Noel Thorpe heads to the nation’s capital

Dec. 4, 2017 – The REDBLACKS name Noel Thorpe their new defensive coordinator

Don’t overlook the REDBLACKS’ move to bring in defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe (while re-assigning Mark Nelson to a new position on the staff).

Thorpe is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league, with a proven track record of success that could give Ottawa one of the best defences in the CFL as early as 2018. That could drastically change the East Division (remember the impact that Corey Chamblin had on the Argos, helping them win the Grey Cup last season).

Marcel Desjardins wants the REDBLACKS to be more aggressive on defence, something that is sure to happen with Thorpe calling the shots.

The Noel Thorpe signing in Ottawa could mean big changes to the REDBLACKS’ defence (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

7. The Argos get their QB of the future

Dec. 11, 2017 – The Argos acquire James Franklin from Eskimos. He extends nearly a month later, on Jan. 4.

This move ranks much higher on the list before last Friday’s events, which saw Ricky Ray sign a contract extension and announce his return to the Argos in 2018. Still, the move to acquire Franklin was a big one for the Argos, who haven’t had a young quarterback of his promise in a very long time.

Just stop and consider the complete 180 the Argos have taken over the last year when it comes to their stability under centre. They have a future Hall of Famer in Ray — who not only played 17 games last year but also had one of the best seasons of his career under Marc Trestman — and if Ray gets injured, they have one of the league’s top up-and-coming quarterback prospects in Franklin.

If the quarterback position is most vital for success in the three-down game, the Ray-Franklin duo sets the Argos up for wins in the East both now and in the future.

8. The Alouettes sign former NFL quarterback Josh Freeman

Jan. 12, 2018 – After months of speculation, former NFL first round pick Josh Freeman signs with Montreal

There is a very strong possibility that Josh Freeman will be the Montreal Alouettes’ starting quarterback when they open the season on June 16 in BC.

The Als have a couple of young quarterbacks on the roster in Matthew Shiltz and Antonio Pipkin that they feel, with some patience and development, could be future starters. But they need a veteran to bridge the gap, and the departure of Darian Durant means that Freeman is likely that guy.

Freeman played at a high level in the NFL for a year or two, helping the Bucs make the playoffs before eventually falling out of favour in Tampa and moving elsewhere. At 30 years old, he’s still young enough that if things click for him he can become a legitimate long-term answer for Montreal at quarterback.

Temper expectations and know that it will take some time with Freeman, but his mileage south of the border make him someone to keep an eye on this year in the three-down game.

Josh Freeman appears to be in line to start for the Montreal Alouettes in 2018 (The Associated Press)

9. Durant gets released; joins the Bombers

Jan. 15, 2018 – Alouettes release Darian Durant after one season. He signs with the Bombers on Jan. 20.

Staying on topic, Darian Durant’s time in Montreal lasted just a season as the team released him midway through January. That did not come as a major surprise considering the Als’ three-win season and Durant’s struggles, which saw the veteran throw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15).

It’s not that Durant couldn’t have helped the Alouettes, but the Als didn’t want to commit starter money to a quarterback they may not hand the job to in camp.

Durant’s move from Montreal to Winnipeg signals a change in direction for both clubs. For the Bombers, they finally have a proven backup after struggling in 2017 any time Nichols left the game. Durant may no longer be a top-flight quarterback, but there’s little doubt he can step in and provide some much-needed calm and veteran experience where needed.

Every Grey Cup contender needs an insurance policy, and Kyle Walters’ will be worth every cent.

10. The Lions move on from Chris Williams

Dec. 12, 2017 – The Als acquire Chris Williams from BC for Gabriel Knapton

Chris Williams did not bounce back from his 2016 season-ending injury the way the BC Lions hoped last year, but the former REDBLACKS superstar should not be forgotten.

Williams is still one of the league’s most explosive speed threats at receiver, something Kavis Reed has been looking for in Montreal (the Alouettes lacked a true speed threat in their offence, a need they tried to address with former NFL receiver T.J. Graham last season).

The move has even bigger implications in BC. New general manager Ed Hervey has placed an emphasis on improving in the trenches, and moving Williams for Knapton — while hardly the ‘sexy’ move in the eyes of fans — helps the Lions do that.

Moving Williams’ cap hit while adding Knapton and Odell Willis both line up with Hervey’s plans for the BC Lions in 2018.

Chris Williams spent only a season with the Lions before being traded to Montreal (BCLions.com)

11. Edmonton brings back Derel Walker

Jan. 12, 2018 – The Eskimos sign receiver Derel Walker to a one-year contract extension

When many thought Derel Walker was NFL-bound, the Eskimos’ dynamic 26-year-old delighted fans of the Green and Gold by signing an extension early in January. That was huge for the Esks’ off-season because it allowed the team to shake off the loss of Brandon Zylstra (NFL) and eventually move on from the highly-priced Adarius Bowman.

Bowman had become an Eskimos icon while Zylstra was the CFL’s leading receiver in 2017, making both players difficult to lose for the Green and Gold. Yet Brock Sunderland and Jason Maas have built and developed one of the CFL’s youngest and most athletic groups of receivers.

Putting the focus back on Walker, let’s recall his first two seasons in the league, when he went off for 2,699 yards in 30 games — an average of 90 yards per game. Only Brandon Zylstra (100 yards per game) has been more productive over the last few seasons. Walker can be a superstar.

12. Duron Carter signs new deal with Riders

Jan. 22, 2018 – Duron Carter agrees to a one-year extension with the Riders

This section of the article practically writes itself. Everyone knows what Duron Carter brought to the Riders in his first year with the club, his value extending well beyond the 1,043 receiving yards and eight touchdowns recorded in 2017.

Carter gave the Riders the personality and confidence needed to take the next step as a Grey Cup contender, with the team winning 10 games and making the playoffs for the first time since 2014, eventually bowing out to the Grey Cup Champion Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Final.

The Riders’ Most Outstanding Player last season made an impact on offence, defence and special teams, and could have an expanded role in the latter two phases in 2018.

Duron Carter had an unforgettable first season in Riderville, helping Saskatchewan reach the Eastern Final (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

13. Charleston Hughes is traded

Feb. 2, 2018 – Charleston Hughes is traded by the Stampeders, first to Hamilton then to Saskatchewan for Vernon Adams Jr.

Charleston Hughes trading in his horseshoes made a profound statement across the CFL, not just on behalf of the Calgary Stampeders but the Saskatchewan Roughriders as well.

For the Riders, acquiring one of the league’s two most dominant pass-rushers of the last decade (you could make an equal case for John Bowman in that regard) signals that this team is ready to take the next step as a Grey Cup contender. The Riders have the best pass-rushing duo in the CFL with Hughes and Willie Jefferson, giving Chris Jones more flexibility on a defence that was menacing in 2017 despite consistently rushing only three defenders.

On the other hand, the Hughes trade highlights somewhat of a youth movement for the Stamps. John Hufnagel’s team has focused on keeping young core players like Ciante Evans, Kamar Jorden, Lemar Durant and Derek Wiggan, while Hughes, Josh Bell and Rob Cote are among the 30-plus contingency that have departed (the latter two retiring).

14. The Eskimos sign Kevin Glenn

Jan. 15, 2018 – Eskimos sign Kevin Glenn

It’s not that this move is only relevant because it allowed Kevin Glenn to make history, becoming the first player ever to join all nine CFL teams. But it doesn’t hurt, either.

Glenn’s move to Edmonton will have football implications as well. The 38-year-old played at an elite level through the first half of 2017, finishing the season with 25 touchdowns (the most for him since 2012) and only 14 interceptions while leading the Riders to within a game of appearing in the 105th Grey Cup.

Now he’ll be an important security blanket for Mike Reilly and the Eskimos, who had to cut ties with promising up-and-comer James Franklin this off-season. Reilly is the reigning MOP and arguably the CFL’s best quarterback, but the Esks know they are in good hands should anything happen to No. 13.

15. Trevor Harris signs a new deal 

Dec. 13, 2017 – The REDBLACKS sign Trevor Harris to a one-year extension

With two months remaining before free agency, there was no real danger of Trevor Harris leaving the Ottawa REDBLACKS. Yet there was still some intrigue around Ottawa’s quarterback situation, with some of the league’s top pivots unsecured going into 2018 and plenty of big names available.

Marcel Desjardins signed Harris to a one-year deal and also signed extensions with Brad Sinopoli and eventually Diontae Spencer. Furthermore, deals with Alex Mateas and Nolan MacMillan assured the REDBLACKS would have most of their offence back from 2017.

That’s big news for an Ottawa team that ranked third in the CFL with 377.1 yards of offence per game in 2018. Meanwhile, Harris threw for a career-high 4,679 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first full season as a starter.