January 28, 2019

Steinberg’s MMQB: A game-changing off-season is upon us

The Canadian Press

Seeing big names on the free agency list is nothing new. However, I do not think I’m overstating it by saying the 2019 list is unlike any other we’ve ever seen. If even a few of the names at the top of CFL.ca’s top 30 list change teams, we could be talking about multiple franchise-altering moves in one off-season. That’s a game changer.

With no disrespect to Bo Levi Mitchell, it’s his Battle of Alberta quarterback counterpart Mike Reilly that sits number one with a bullet on my list. Mitchell is currently weighing his NFL options and will likely start this season south of the border. Furthermore, if he is on a CFL team in 2019, he’s publicly stated numerous times it’ll be with Calgary and Calgary only.

So that leaves Reilly, who will turn another team into an instant contender if he ends up leaving Edmonton. While there are reports Edmonton has made significant contract offers to Reilly in recent days, it seems anything but certain he’ll be back in green and gold next season.

» View CFL.ca Free Agent Tracker
» Debate: What’s next for Brandon Bridge?
» CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents

As has been speculated numerous times across the Canadian football-verse this winter, the BC Lions seem like a solid bet to win Reilly’s services. BC is where Reilly started his professional career almost a decade ago and it was General Manager Ed Hervey who brought him to Edmonton prior to the 2013 season when he served in the same capacity.

If Reilly does hit the open market, though, it won’t just be the Lions and Esks throwing bags of cash at him. Now that the Riders have hired their head coach, the quarterback vacancy is a priority. The Riders wouldn’t be afraid to go hard after Reilly, which would drive his asking price up even more.

If it’s not Edmonton, Reilly will transform wherever he lands. No one combines a deadly aerial attack with the ability to run the field like Reilly does. From Adarius Bowman, to Derel Walker, Brandon Zylstra, and Duke Williams, Reilly helps turn good receivers into bona fide superstars.

The other quarterback at the top of the free agent table has the chance to make a sizeable impact, too. Trevor Harris is going to get paid, whether it’s by the Ottawa REDBLACKS or another team. Outside of Reilly and Mitchell, no other quarterback has been more consistent than Harris over the last four seasons.

For whatever reason, I keep coming back to Saskatchewan as a great fit. For the sake of argument, say Reilly ends up in BC or stays in Edmonton. In that case, the Riders still need to fill their quarterback vacancy, and will still have lots of money to spend. A proven performer like Harris fits the bill in a big, big way.

Brock Sunderland and the Esks will look to keep Mike Reilly in Edmonton beyond Feb. 12 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Of course, the incumbent is always the favourite in a situation like this. After all, Ottawa was the team that gave Harris his first big contract after his breakout season with the Argos. He’s had a ton of success with the REDBLACKS, which is why I feel like they’re still the leading candidate here.

It’s not just quarterbacks to keep an eye on, either, and it’s the Stampeders to keep an eye on in that regard. Micah Johnson, Ja’Gared Davis, and Eric Rogers all make our top 30 list and all three would be sought after targets if they made it to free agency.

Under John Hufnagel, Calgary has typically allowed potential high-priced free agents walk, preferring to go with more affordable, but lesser-known, commodities. It’s worked for them for the last decade and after a Grey Cup triumph in 2018, I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

In the nick of time

As we wrote last week, the Saskatchewan Roughriders got it right by promoting Jeremy O’Day to the top of their personnel food chain. Under the gun immediately, the team’s new vice president and general manager wasted no time in making his big decision. Not only did O’Day get it right by hiring Craig Dickenson as his new head coach, he crucially wasted no time in doing so.

Hiring from within is the right call for the Riders here. Because Chris Jones left a little later than most coaches do, the Riders had an entire staff in place and under contract. Dickenson was one of Jones’s original hires and is as familiar as it gets with the team and the current staff.

But it’s also a well-deserved honour for the long time special teams coordinator. Dickenson has served in that role with five different CFL teams and the NCAA’s Montana Grizzlies. Add to that a couple of stints on special teams staffs with the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders and you get a good idea of how much experience Dickenson is working with. The man has been coaching the sport since 1995 and has earned his first head coaching gig.

And, because O’Day and the Riders moved so quickly to make this hire, Dickenson isn’t too far behind the eight ball, either. We are less than a month away from 2019 free agency, which is a stretch of time a team is best suited to have a head coach in place for. The fact Dickenson was on the staff prior helps a lot, too.

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Unlike any other sport, a head coach in professional football is extremely involved in personnel decisions. In fact, the outgoing Jones is a perfect example of just that. Jones has made a reputation of targeting players to fit his defensive scheme. That scheme calls for fast, versatile players he can plug into different spots on the depth chart.

Not everyone goes about business the same way, though. Philosophies are different, game plans vary, and each coach has a different idea of what players fit their scheme best. Sure, a good coach adjusts to the personnel given to him, but it’s still far more desirable to have a GM and head coach working in concert going into signing season.

For a lot of the same reasons, the sooner a full coaching staff can be set, the better. For instance, new Lions head coach DeVone Claybrooks has had his staff in place for more than a month. Just imagine what that BC war room looks like right now as they get ready to hit free agency next month.

You’ve got Claybrooks, GM Ed Hervey, defensive coordinator Rich Stubler, and offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson in there with fresh faces like Bryan Chiu, Nik Lewis, and Drew Tate. Once free agency hits, they’ll have had about two months to get a cohesive and comprehensive list in order.

Sure, Dickenson and his staff in Saskatchewan haven’t had the same amount of lead-time heading into free agency. But let’s not forget both he and O’Day were in place prior to Jones’s departure, meaning they already had a say in the team’s off-season plans. That fact should mitigate a lot of the potential growing pains a new staff could encounter, especially so late in the game.

The Riders didn’t anticipate having to make a pair of crucial hires in January. Give them a lot of credit though, because they’ve moved swiftly to fill both of them. It’s all systems go in Regina.