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November 30, 2018

O’Leary: Quarterbacks will dictate 2019 free agency

The Canadian Press

With the release of the 2019 CFL free agency list on Friday we are now 74 days away from what could be the start of a drastic overhaul to rosters across the CFL.

The quarterback position should be the one that sets the tone for the rest of the signings in the league. The list of pending free-agents is a who’s who of talent in the CFL. Headlining that list are Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly, Trevor Harris, Jonathan Jennings, Zach Collaros, Travis Lulay, Ricky Ray and Brandon Bridge. That’s just eight out of 15 free-agent QBs. Sharing the last three MOP awards, it’s safe to say that Mitchell and Reilly will be the two biggest dominos to fall.

If both were to make moves — Mitchell will look at NFL options while Reilly should expect his phone to ring with at least inquiries from the majority of teams in the league — Alberta’s teams would be scrambling to put new faces to their franchises, which could leave the 2018 picture of CFL starting QBs looking like it was thrown in the blender.

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» CFL.ca Free Agent Tracker: Who could hit the open market in 2019?
» By the Numbers: 2019 Free Agency at a glance
» Nye: The All-Free Agent Dream Team

Will Mike Reilly hit the free agent market? (Arthur Ward/CFL.ca)

What’s really interesting is that if Reilly and Mitchell both make moves, what comes next? While there’s been a lot of talk about this bumper crop of free-agent QBs, there are just as many talented receivers out there with the world at their sticky fingertips.

To name a few: B.J. Cunningham, Greg Ellingson, Diontae Spencer, Duron Carter, Brandon Banks, Jalen Saunders, Terrell Sinkfield, Chris Williams, Nic Demski, Weston Dressler, Namaan Roosevelt, DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden, Chris Matthews, Marken Michel, Eric Rogers, Bryant Mitchell, Derel Walker, Duke Williams, Kenny Stafford, Manny Arceneaux, Bryan Burnham and DeVier Posey.

Of course, there are extenuating circumstances on some of those players that are recovering from injuries, or contemplating their career options. And some of those guys will have zero interest in moving. In Ottawa, Trevor Harris’ deal is apparently in place, waiting to be signed. That and the fact that the REDBLACKS came out of the East for the third time in four years to play in a Grey Cup should carry weight with players like Ellingson and Spencer, who were key parts of that success.

But if you’re a receiver and you want to produce and play on a team with a shot of doing something great, who’s throwing you the ball will matter. That’s where the domino factor comes into play. Wherever Reilly (or Mitchell, if he chooses to stay in the CFL) signs, free-agent receivers will likely gravitate to him.

It feels like there’s been an increased emphasis over the last few years on QB depth, as well. There are only nine starting jobs up for grabs every season, but those backup roles will be important spots to fill for 2019 and beyond. Lulay, Cody Fajardo, Drew Willy and perhaps reluctantly, Brandon Bridge, should have options for their services this winter.

Kevin Glenn should be physically up to the task of that backup role, having sat on the sidelines the entire year in Edmonton’s disappointing season. The 39-year-old completed his CFL jersey collection in 2018 but didn’t record a stat while backing up Mike Reilly. If the desire to play is still there, Glenn would likely be a welcome addition to a team looking for the veteran presence he provides. We also need to keep KG in the league long enough to entertain the possibility of taking a roster spot in Halifax if the team can get off of the ground in the future.

Looking at the list of free agents and our breakdown of the numbers, I’d expect the most change in Toronto. The Argos fell hard from the top of the mountain in 2018. They’ll have a new coach and likely a new staff and while they have James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson under contract, they have a league-high 43 free agents on their table. Coming off of a four-win season, this could be a drastically different looking team come spring.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders sit at the other end of the spectrum, with just 26 free agents on their roster. They still have questions at quarterback, though and how they handle that could have a trickle down effect on their roster. Paying for a top-end QB could impact spending on the defensive side of the ball, which has been the Riders’ strength over the last three years under Chris Jones. Willie Jefferson has been the do-everything heartbeat of that defence and it’ll cost to keep him in Saskatchewan. That said, Jones is the only coach Jefferson has known in his five years in the CFL.

With potentially unprecedented player movement, two head coaching hires that still need to be made and throw in how the upcoming CBA negotiations might impact this off-season and it will be a fascinating and unique six months for the league.