The Canadian Press
A new era is officially under way in Vancouver, as the BC Lions say goodbye to Wally Buono and hello to the future.
The times are uncertain on the west coast, where all-time coaching wins leader Buono has resided since joining the Lions in 2003. But with the unknown also comes excitement, as the Lions usher in a new direction and a different perspective, shaped by young, innovative minds.
New general manager Ed Hervey saw progress in 2018, his team finishing the season 6-3 to get back into the post-season. This off-season he’s already checked off his No. 1 box, hiring a head coach of the future in DeVone Claybrooks, Grey Cup-winning coach of the Calgary Stampeders.
With success, however, comes expectation. Hervey and the Lions will face a new pressure in 2019, knowing a playoff berth alone isn’t enough. Fans in BC are clamouring for a winner, one that can finally challenge the Stampeders in the West Division hierarchy.
As imaginations run wild, with dreams of signing Mike Reilly and boasting one of the CFL’s top defences, the coming months will be critical in the Lions’ future blueprint.
It was pretty much the unthinkable in April 2017, when the Edmonton Eskimos fired arguably the CFL’s most impressive up-and-coming general manager. Ed Hervey would have to be patient, but eventually Wally Buono called with the opportunity of a lifetime.
Hervey would become the successor to the CFL’s godfather, and now, entering his second season as GM, the contingency plan is complete in BC. In 2019, the Lions will be built almost entirely in Hervey’s image, making the upcoming off-season a critical one for the Leos.
Hervey’s first season as the Lions’ GM was a productive one. He rebuilt one of the league’s stingiest secondaries, while his savvy mid-season pickups including DeVier Posey, Tyrell Sutton and Micah Awe helped the team return to the playoffs after missing in 2017. What can he do for an encore?
With Wally Buono’s retirement plans known for some time, Ed Hervey has had several months to think about the Lions’ next head coach. He also had no shortage of choices, as DeVone Claybrooks, Corey Chamblin, Noel Thorpe, Paul LaPolice and Jaime Elizondo were all among highly-qualified candidates.
There was no hesitation in choosing Claybrooks, widely considered the league’s top up-and-coming prospect among coaches. Claybrooks built some of the CFL’s most daunting defences in Calgary, capping it all off with a Grey Cup in November. He’s young, innovative and, as a former player, can connect with his players.
There’s always uncertainty with a first-time head coach, but the belief across the league is Claybrooks is ready to take the next step in his career and become a successful bench boss.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
The Lions have 37 pending free agents, giving Hervey plenty of flexibility in his second off-season at the helm. The list includes the team’s entire starting secondary along with starters at receiver, running back and the offensive line.
With quarterbacks Travis Lulay and Jonathon Jennings also pending free agency, the Lions could be the most different-looking team in 2018. That kind of flexibility is just one reason that many have linked the team to top pending free agent Mike Reilly, who could return to Vancouver and bring several Eskimos teammates with him.
An expiring collective bargaining agreement has likely prevented the team from acting quicker on signing pending free agents. Odell Willis was extended last week, and Hervey would no doubt prefer to trim down his long list of expiring contracts in the coming weeks. For now, though, the Lions are one of the biggest mysteries of the off-season, with starters at every position set to hit the market.
Sophomore linebacker Jordan Herdman was a revelation for the Lions last season, stepping in for an injured Solomon Elimimian to record 56 tackles and two sacks. He should have a regular starting job sewn up for the club in 2019 and is a potential ratio-breaker.
Canadian receivers Cory Watson and Shaq Johnson are both pending free agency. Johnson is emerging as one of the league’s more intriguing young national pass-catchers, combining for 857 yards and five touchdowns over two seasons. Signing him should be a priority, even if the team is expecting a step forward from Danny Vandervoort in his third season.
Potential starters David Foucault and Peter Godber are both back in 2019, while Cody Husband and Hunter Steward are pending free agency. Charles Vaillancourt and David Knevel are also under contract.
On defence, Julien Laurent and Junior Luke are rotational players and potential starters. Both are unproven but will be back in 2019 in a bid to earn more playing time. Anthony Thompson is a key national free agent in the secondary.
All in all the Lions have some promising young nationals with the potential to start, but there are more questions than answers going into the off-season.
After signing an extension last month, Ricky Lloyd is the only Lions quarterback under contract through 2019. That’s not entirely shocking, as Jonathon Jennings has already revealed his intention to test the market while 35-year-old Travis Lulay is a wildcard. Surely the Lions would find value in the former Most Outstanding Player, but perhaps not as a starter.
With the coaching search complete, Ed Hervey’s top off-season priority is finding a bona fide number one starting quarterback.
Jeremiah Johnson, Chris Rainey, Brandon Rutley and Tyrell Sutton all had pretty important roles in the Lions’ backfield at one point or another throughout 2018. All four are pending free agents. With Johnson (31) and Sutton (31) both on the wrong side of 30, and Brandon Rutley coming off a season-ending injury, it wouldn’t be surprising if the team goes in a different direction altogether.
The Lions’ top four receivers from 2018 are all pending free agents. Bringing back Bryan Burnham should be a priority for Hervey, as the 28-year-old is coming off another strong season with 1,029 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns. He’s emerged as one of the most reliable possession receivers in the CFL.
If the team wants to get younger, Emmanuel Arceneaux could be wearing different colours next season. DeVier Posey, who returned from the NFL on a one-year deal, is also up for free agency and could head elsewhere. Whatever happens, there are plenty of star receivers around the CFL that could become available — and the Lions will have the cap flexibility to sign them.
International tackles Joel Figueroa and Jovan Olafioye anchored the Lions’ O-line last season and are both on expiring contracts. The team also stands to lose key Canadians in Hunter Steward and Cody Husband, making up four of the team’s five starters going into the previous season.
David Foucault and Peter Godber are potential starters with a Canadian passport, while returning American Antonio Johnson has started in the past. But Ed Hervey has work to do on the O-line for the BC Lions.
With Davon Coleman and Odell Willis both under contract, the Lions are in good shape on the defensive line. Signing Shawn Lemon should be Hervey’s next task. The 30-year-old had a big second half of the season with the Lions, recording 10 sacks in 13 games.
Defensive tackle Claudell Louis and Canadians Junior Luke and Julian Laurent are all under contract, making the D-line an area of strength heading into the off-season.
Micah Awe and Bo Lokombo will be two free agent priorities for the Lions at linebacker. Lokombo is versatile and also contributes on special teams, while Awe has emerged as a regular starter and one of the league’s most feared tacklers.
Regular starters Solomon Elimimian and Jordan Herdman are both under contract through 2019. Herdman has become a ratio-breaker for the Lions and deserves to be a starter.
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The Lions’ entire starting secondary from 2018 is up for free agency, including SAM linebacker Otha Foster and Canadian safety Anthony Thompson. That group surprised many last year, with journeymen Winston Rose, Anthony Orange and Garry Peters all exceeding expectations.
It may be difficult for Hervey to bring all of his starters back, as the Lions’ defenders are no longer flying under the radar.