TORONTO — The first day of free agency brought a steady stream of movement across the Canadian Football League.
While the Ticats made early headlines by extending two of their defensive stars in Ted Laurent and Larry Dean, the Blue Bombers were the ones stealing the show, bringing home two Winnipeg natives in Nic Demski and Kienan LaFrance while adding a defensive star in Chandler Fenner.
In BC, Ed Hervey continued to bolster the Lions’ offensive and defensive lines, adding Joel Figueroa and Euclid Cummings to the mix, while the REDBLACKS provided some new pieces for Noel Thorpe with the additions of Loucheiz Purifoy and A.C. Leonard.
For the Riders, adding Regina native Zack Evans to the middle of the D-line must feel like a coup for Chris Jones and company, who may now boast the best defensive line in the CFL.
Later in the day, the Stamps added a familiar face to their defence in the recently-released Emanuel Davis, in addition to signing Ese Mrabure for middle of their D-line. Their provincial rival, Edmonton, added a star pass-rusher in Alex Bazzie.
Getting the final headlines of the day were the Montreal Alouettes, who signed one of the top players on the market in Tommie Campbell.
Plenty of star players remain on the market and will be in play on day two. But first, let’s look at some of the key themes from the opening day of free agency:
1. Lions get a power up
Ed Hervey continued his focus on the trenches for the Lions, adding two big pieces in Joel Figueroa and Euclid Cummings. Cummings adds size and strength on the inside along with Mic’hael Brooks, but the biggest news is, literally and figuratively, on the offensive side of the ball.
Figueroa proved in 2017 he is a premiere tackle in the CFL, allowing only one sack while paving the way for the league’s second-ranked rushing attack. He’ll provide an immediate boost to an O-line that allowed the most sacks in the country last season.
“When you have an offensive tackle that you can just forget about, that’s what every team is looking for and that’s what Figueroa was for the Eskimos last season — someone you don’t have to think about or be concerned with,” said CFL.ca’s Davis Sanchez. “I expect that to be the same in BC.
“Odell Willis told me last year during the season that Joel Figueroa may be the best offensive tackle in the league,” he added. “When I questioned him, he blasted back ‘I know, I go against him every day in practice’. I’m certain Odell was in Hervey’s ear.”
2. Still work to be done
While all nine teams made some moves on Tuesday, the work is far from over, setting up what could be a very eventful second day of free agency.
The Argos were the quietest team, signing some extensions before the deadline but failing to make a splash on the open market. They should be in the market for a defensive back and possibly a running back going into the second day of free agency.
Another team that could be busy on day two is the BC Lions, even though GM Ed Hervey was active on Tuesday. While the BC Lions added some key pieces in the trenches, they lost two stars in the secondary, leaving a couple of big holes on their defence.
“The departure of Chandler Fenner and Loucheiz Purifoy means the Lions are in play on day two of free agency to sign a halfback and a SAM,” said Sanchez. “Aaron Grymes, Jerrell Gavins, T.J. Heath — there’s no doubt they’re in the market day two to sign one of those guys.
“Maybe Mitchell White as the best outside guy available if Ronnie Yell doesn’t come back.”
The offence is just about set in the City of Champions, which is why it was no surprise Brock Sunderland spent free agency’s opening hours bolstering his defence.
One of the day’s biggest moves was the addition of Alex Bazzie, a pure speed rusher off the edge who changes the dynamic of the Esks’ front seven. With Odell Willis and Marcus Howard out and Bazzie in, the Eskimos’ D-line has gotten younger and faster.
“With the trend of rushing three and dropping nine, getting another elite pass rusher gives Mike Benevides options with his three down linemen,” said Sanchez.
Sunderland also alleviated some concerns in his secondary. The Esks brought back boundary corner Johnny Adams and halfback Forrest Hightower, while the door remains open for Aaron Grymes to return.
“A boundary cornerback has to be solid because he gets so many targets every game,” said Sanchez. “Johnny Adams, although not flashy, is a solid boundary corner. He tackles, he’s got great feet, he doesn’t often get beat deep and he’ll tackle — all the things you’ll need from a boundary corner.”
Alex Bazzie has emerged as one of the CFL’s most dangerous speed rushers (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)
4. Demski is a game-changer
The Bombers were among the busiest teams early in free agency, getting one of the CFL’s best SAM linebackers in Chandler Fenner while adding some homegrown talent on offence in Nic Demski and Kienan LaFrance.
A week after signing Adarius Bowman, the Bombers got a unique weapon that can drastically improve their offence in 2017 in Nic Demski.
“Yes, it’s great that he’s a national receiver for their ratio,” said Sanchez, “but just as important is that his skill-set fits into their receiving corps perfectly.
“Darvin Adams is definitely a prototypical X ouside receiver, Adarius Bowman is a deep threat — great at corner routes and posts and in the red zone — and now you have Demski.
“He’s a thicker, lower-body guy who can run option routes, run speed sweeps, he can come in and protect when need be. His body type fits that and that’s a great piece for that core. They didn’t have a guy like that.”
5. Pure joy for Purifoy
We knew that REDBLACKS general manager Marcel Desjardins would be busy on the defensive side of the ball, especially with a new defensive coordinator in Noel Thorpe.
That came to fruition on Tuesday, with Ottawa getting two potential difference-makers in defensive end A.C. Leonard and cover man Loucheiz Purifoy.
Both players fit Thorpe’s system like a glove, as Sanchez explains.
“Noel Thorpe loves physical, rangy defensive backs,” Sanchez, a former CFL defensive back, said. “Expect Purifoy to slide into Jerrell Gavins’ SAM linebacker spot. He played halfback last year in BC but his skill-set is definitely better suited for SAM because of his ability to blitz. That may be what he does best.
“At one time,” Sanchez added, “he was a first-round NFL talent, so you’re getting a guy with a tremendous skill-set who is still relatively new to the CFL game.”
As for Leonard, the receiver-turned-defensive-end has a skill-set that allows him to drop into coverage or overwhelm opposing offensive tackles.
“You can never get enough pass-rushers,” said Sanchez. “Once a wide receiver for the BC Lions, he’s a great athlete. You can never have enough athletes.
“A.C. Leonard gives you options because he’s so athletic. Noel Thorpe loves the zone blitz. AC Leonard is perfect in that system. He’s athletic enough to rush the passer or drop into coverage because he used to be a wide receiver.”
Keep an eye on CFL.ca for what’s expected to be a busy second day of free agency across the league.