February 19, 2018

Steinberg’s MMQB: The 5 most impactful free agent signings

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

The 2018 free agency period is well underway and it has seen a good number of big time players change locales.

To kick off this week’s MMQB, we’re counting down the top five impact makers heading to new destinations, and you’ll notice a theme: defence, as our top five includes just one offensive player.

The impact five

5. Jerome Messam, RB, Saskatchewan Roughriders

At the age of 33, there were some who wondered if teams might be hesitant to bring Messam into the fold. For me, though, Messam was too attractive a weapon to be ignored. The Canadian tailback has racked up three straight 1,000-yard seasons and has 21 combined touchdowns over the last two seasons in red and white.

The only question on the Messam front was the right fit, as CFL.ca’s Davis Sanchez broke down with me last week:

“You sign Jerome…as a team that wants to win right now,” Sanchez said. “You’re not going to sign a 33-year-old tailback for the future, he’s right now; so a team that needs a tailback can take a run right now and win.”

With how active the Riders have been over the last week or so, I think it’s safe to say winning now is their top priority. Sask was seconds away from an appearance in the 105th Grey Cup and Chris Jones is serious about getting his team over the hump in 2018. There’s more risk of an imminent drop-off with a veteran like Messam, but for me, he makes them more dangerous in the immediacy.

» Official Free Agent Tracker
» A team by team look at free agency
» Still Shopping: A look at team needs

4. Alex Bazzie, DE, Edmonton Eskimos

It didn’t take long for the Eskimos to make a splash in free agency, as they got Bazzie to sign on very early. It’s a bit of a changing of the guard on the defensive line in Edmonton. This off-season alone, the Esks have said goodbye to Odell Willis (trade), Phillip Hunt (released), Marcus Howard (released) and Euclid Cummings (free agency). The signing of Bazzie, however, is a big time addition.

After spending time with three NFL teams (Indianapolis, Carolina, Arizona) in 2017, Bazzie returned to the BC Lions for the final few games of their season and was an instant impact maker. In six games, Bazzie racked up three sacks, 12 defensive tackles, and was generally a beast off the edge.

I’m anxious to find out two things in his new home. What does he do with a full training camp and a season with just one team, as opposed to four? There’s something to be said for continuity and Bazzie had next to none of it in 2017.

Also, how much harder to handle will he be on a team with a disruptive interior defensive line? Even with Cummings’s departure, Edmonton still has the likes of Almondo Sewell and Da’Quan Bowers in the middle of their line, which should make it more difficult to protect from Bazzie.

3. Loucheiz Purifoy, DB, Ottawa REDBLACKS

And here come the DBs, as Ottawa’s signing of Purifoy allowed them to land one of 2018’s most sought after eligible players. It was something Sanchez forecasted right from the get go.

“The more I talk to guys around the league, his name comes up, (because of) all the things he can do,” Sanchez said on the eve of free agency. When you take into account two specific things, you can understand why Purifoy was a top target last week: his age and his versatility.

Loucheiz Purifoy could be a key player on Noel Thorpe’s defence in 2018 (The Canadian Press)

Because he turned pro after his junior season at the University of Florida, Purifoy is entering his third professional season relatively young; he just turned 25 in December. That is an attractive attribute knowing his pro development curve might still be trending upward, and for a long-term fit.

Purifoy’s ability to truly play all over the field is a huge asset, too. The REDBLACKS will be able to use him in a variety of different ways. We know he can cover, as he played in the backfield during his college career and racked up three interceptions this past season as a safety and halfback with the Lions.

But Purifoy’s ability to be flexed as a linebacker is what made him such a valuable commodity. In his 2016 rookie season, Purifoy’s ability as a blitzer was highlighted; he recorded three sacks and finished with four forced fumbles. I’m curious to see how widespread Purifoy’s usage is on his team, because Ottawa certainly has options.

2. Tommie Campbell, DB, Montreal Alouettes

Along with Messam, Campbell is the biggest free agent departure from the Stampeders, and their loss is Montreal’s gain. Campbell brings the Alouettes a ton of experience; he’s been to two straight Grey Cup games with Calgary following five years in the NFL. On a team looking to find its way like Montreal, Campbell’s pedigree in the locker room could go a long way.

On the field, Campbell’s best attribute is his combination of size and speed. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Campbell is a physical match for most of the receivers he’s covering, even physical players like Adarius Bowman and S.J. Green.

It’s not like he gives up speed with his impressive size, either. Campbell spent most last season opposite Ciante Evans on the corner for Calgary, and was a key part of the league’s top pass defence in 2017. In two seasons with the Stamps, Campbell averaged 54 defensive tackles and racked up five total interceptions. He should be the anchor of Montreal’s secondary in 2018.

1. T.J. Heath, DB, Toronto Argonauts

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers had a herculean task when it came to keeping their outstanding defensive unit together for the coming season. The Bombers managed to figure out extensions with Maurice Leggett, Ian Wild, and Chris Randle, but said goodbye to a few key figures, too. The most significant of those names is Heath, who returns to the place his CFL career started.

Heath signed with Toronto to start the 2016 season before being moved to Winnipeg along with an eventual first overall pick in a blockbuster deal that sent Drew Willy the other way. Well, as part of a defence that combined for 55 interceptions in 2016 and 2017, Heath was a perfect fit.

The Argos added the top-ranked defensive back in free agency in T.J. Heath (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

We’re talking about a ball hawk here, plain and simple. In two CFL campaigns, Heath has averaged six interceptions per season, and the defending Grey Cup champs weren’t going to say no to a player like him.

What really impressed me in 2017, though, was Heath’s ability to be involved in all facets of the defence. He finished third on the Bombers with 63 defensive tackles, behind only Taylor Loffler and the departing Sam Hurl. Heath will be a nice fit in Toronto’s backfield, especially with the departure of Derico Murray and the uncertain future of Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.

The big three(s)

We’re having fun with numbers today, and a pair of teams got important work done in threes. When looking at the list of free agents for the Stamps and REDBLACKS, I identified a key trio both teams needed to prioritize. The teams followed suit and ensured they brought those three key players back.

In Calgary, it was Ciante Evans, DeVaris Daniels, and Roy Finch, with the latter two getting done as the deadline got closer. Evans is the cornerstone of the Stamps’ aforementioned stellar pass defence and needed to come back. Daniels was perhaps the most impressive potential free agent on offence and, well, Finch is the defending Most Outstanding Special Teams Player.

As for Ottawa, I identified three players on offence: Alex Mateas on the line and a pair of receivers in Brad Sinopoli and Diontae Spencer. Mateas is a huge, versatile piece on the offensive line and has a Canadian passport to boot. As for the receivers, Sinopoli is the physical guy the REDBLACKS use to exploit matchups over the middle. Spencer, on the other hand, is a big time deep threat and adds huge value in the return game.

Every team loses players in free agency, but for the Stamps and REDBLACKS, locking up their key trios was crucial. Both teams made sure exactly that happened.