April 6, 2018

Under the Radar: 12 underrated off-season moves

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Earlier in the week Jamie Nye listed his top 10 faces in new places for 2018.

No easy task considering the amount of movement across the league this off-season, from quarterbacks Zach Collaros and James Franklin to star Canadians Jerome Messam and Jamaal Westerman.

It got me thinking, what are some of the off-season’s most underrated moves?

In no particular order, here are 12 moves that haven’t gotten a lot of attention this off-season, but could play a significant role in their team’s success this year:

Otha Foster III

Joel Figueroa, Odell Willis and Gabriel Knapton were the big off-season acquisitions in BC, but the signing of Otha Foster from Saskatchewan could prove critical for Ed Hervey’s new-look club.

The Lions have focused on the trenches this off-season, and rightly so, but questions remain in the secondary. That’s where Foster’s athleticism, versatility and experience can help an otherwise-unproven defensive backfield. The 29-year-old racked up 173 tackles in his first three seasons in the league and could make some big plays behind a new and improved defensive line.

Defensive back Otha Foster rejoins his former GM in Ed Hervey with the Lions (Geoff Robins/CFL.ca)

Brandon Rutley

The competition is heating up on the west coast, where Brandon Rutley will challenge Jeremiah Johnson for the top running back gig. While Rutley is two years younger and has fresh legs — he only has 248 career carries next to his name — Johnson has been one of the league’s most productive running backs the last two seasons.

If Rutley can win the job, he’ll make quite an impact alongside Chris Rainey in the Lions’ backfield.

John White

C.J. Gable owns the Eskimos’ backfield going into the season, but I was both surprised and impressed that the Eskimos were able to bring back John White. White’s injury history likely limited his value in free agency, but let’s remember how he bounced back from a ruptured Achilles earlier in his career, along with the fact that he’s just 26 years old.

With Travon Van also in the mix, the Eskimos are deep at running back this year and I still think White can regain his 2016 form that made him one of the top-ranked running backs going into 2017. Depth across the board should make the Eskimos a contender in the West.

Emanuel Davis

One of the top-ranked free agents a year ago, Emanuel Davis ran out of favour in Hamilton last season, struggling with injuries and eventually being replaced in the starting lineup. He was released before free agency, and Calgary wasted little time adding him to an already-stout veteran backfield.

Davis can play half or corner and will likely take over Ciante Evans‘ role at field corner as Evans moves to Tommie Campbell‘s old spot on the boundary. Look for a resurgence from Davis on DeVone Claybrooks’ defence.

Former Ticats defensive back Emanuel Davis played only six games in 2018 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

John Ojo

The John Ojo signing was big news in the football fishbowl that is Saskatchewan, but outside of Rider Nation Ojo’s addition didn’t turn too many heads. The move fills a massive need on Chris Jones’ defence, as the 6-foot-3 Ojo can play boundary corner following the departure of Kacy Rodgers II.

Ojo will have to prove he’s still on top of his game after a couple of years out of football, last playing in the CFL in 2015 before suffering an Achilles injury. But if he can return to form, he’ll be a late off-season steal for the Green and White.

Anthony Gaitor

The Bombers made plenty of headlines this off-season, bringing Winnipeg native Nic Demski to their offence and star nickleback Chandler Fenner to the defensive equation, among other additions. The biggest signing not talked about came before free agency started in Anthony Gaitor.

The former BC Lion can play corner or half and will be an important piece on Richie Hall’s defence, a unit that’s trying to improve after allowing 33 passing touchdowns and 321.6 yards per game through the air — both the worst in the CFL. Gaitor’s addition stabilizes that unit following the departure of T.J. Heath.

Vernon Adams Jr.

The Ticats are Jeremiah Masoli‘s team going into the season, but with all the Johnny Manziel talk, don’t forget about Vernon Adams Jr., who was acquired from Saskatchewan in the Charleston Hughes trade. The Oregon alum is almost a forgotten prospect in the three-down game, but he’s quietly watched and learned the last two seasons and comes to the league with an impressive set of skills.

He also fits June Jones’ offence to a tee, making him a darkhorse candidate to take the starting job at some point in 2018 should Masoli struggle.

Vernon Adams (right) remains an intriguing prospect at just 25 years old for the Ticats (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Cleyon Laing

One of the most underappreciated stars in the CFL, Cleyon Laing signed a two-year deal to stay in Toronto, where his CFL career first began in 2013. Laing is the heart of the Argos’ defence at his tackle position and a ratio-breaker to boot, helping the Boatmen boast one of the league’s top-ranked defences a year ago.

Laing is physical and aggressive and has a penchant for making big plays in important games, which has helped him win back to back Grey Cups with Ottawa and Toronto. And he does it at a position that’s usually not noticeable to the naked eye.

Josh Johnson

I’m going a little off the board with Josh Johnson, who hasn’t played in the CFL since 2015 and did not appear on a roster in 2017. But the 27-year-old is talented and versatile and should earn a starting role in the REDBLACKS’ secondary, coming off a stint with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016.

In two years with BC, Johnson played 34 games and recorded 92 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions. He makes for a nice addition alongside fellow defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy.

A.C. Leonard

With A.C. Leonard joining Jonathan Newsome, the REDBLACKS may have their best pass-rushing duo since joining the league in 2014. Those two players will wreak havoc on Ottawa’s D-line, which will benefit statistically from Noel Thorpe’s pressure defence (the same one that allowed John Bowman to hit 19 sacks in 2015).

While the addition of Charleston Hughes allowed Leonard to get away from Saskatchewan, don’t sleep on him. Converted from a receiver, his athleticism makes him a defensive player of interest in 2018.

The former Rider duo of Jonathan Newsome and A.C. Leonard (pictured) has been reunited (David Chidley/CFL.ca)

Philip Blake

The Alouettes won a race against time by signing Philip Blake just before free agency, securing one of the best Canadian guards in the CFL. Blake, 32, helped the Als go their first three games without allowing a sack in 2017, while his absence during an injury was noticeable when he was forced to miss nine games.

The Als’ O-line needs to be better in 2018 no matter who’s playing quarterback, and the presence of Blake should help.

Joe Burnett

While Kavis Reed added a couple of front line starters to the Als’ secondary this off-season in Tommie Campbell and Mitchell White, he also brought in some depth with Dominique Ellis and Joe Burnett. Despite turning 32 next November, the latter is a savvy signing that can still contribute at this point in his career.

Burnett has experience and versatility, with the ability to play both half and SAM linebacker on a defence that’s improved substantially on paper from a year ago.