February 11, 2019

Steinberg’s MMQB: Can free agency fast-track success?

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Free agency can be dangerous in any professional sport, and the CFL is not immune. Thanks to overspending, bidding wars, and misevaluation, making a big splash (or splashes) in free agent waters doesn’t always pay off. But it’s not always that way.

As we are set to embark an unprecedented free agency period, I’ve got a pair of recent examples of big time spending translating to immediate success.

2015 – Ottawa REDBLACKS

Following a difficult 2-16 inaugural campaign, REDBLACKS’ general manager Marcel Desjardins went to work in a big, big way in February 2015. After acquiring Henry Burris prior to their first season, Desjardins gave his quarterback an absolute bevy to work with at receiver.

The results were staggering: thanks largely to their work in 2015 free agency, Ottawa would appear in two straight Grey Cup games and three of the last four. It’s one of the most incredible instant turnarounds I can remember.

The REDBLACKS signed four impact free agent receiver prior to the 2015 season: Chris Williams, Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli, and Greg Ellingson. To say they were successful in year one would be an understatement. With a resurgent Burris at the helm, all four newcomers went over 1,000 yards and combined for 22 receiving touchdowns, with Sinopoli being named Most Outstanding Canadian for the year.

While Ottawa lost out that year to Edmonton in the Grey Cup, they still turned a 2-16 record in year one into a 12-6 mark for their sophomore season. The following year was even more impressive, though. 2016 saw Ellingson finish top five in receiving yards while Williams and Jackson finished with 10 touchdowns each, tied for second in the league.


The group saved the best for last that year, though. Sinopoli caught six passes for 94 yards and a touchdown en route to being named Most Valuable Canadian in the 104th Grey Cup. Jackson, on the other hand, led all receivers that night with 96 yards and just happened to catch the game-winning touchdown in overtime to help top the Stampeders.

Even with Williams and Jackson departed, the legacy of that 2015 free agency period still remains with Ellingson and Sinopoli. The latter took home his second MOC honour in 2018 while both were key pieces as the REDBLACKS lost out to Calgary in the 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw a few months ago.

With Sinopoli under contract for the coming season, the run is guaranteed to continue for at least another season. Ellingson’s situation is far more up in the air, though; after four years in Ottawa, he’s a free agent come Tuesday and will be a hot commodity across the league.

2016 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Bombers have done some good work in free agency in recent years, but they made their most aggressive foray three years ago. What resulted, at least in part, was a crucial turnaround that has reinvigorated fans in Winnipeg and has the team poised for another step in 2019.

The first big free agent signing for the Bombers came a year before with the inking of Stanley Bryant. After anchoring Calgary’s offensive line for parts of four seasons, Bryant signed a big money deal in Winnipeg for 2015. He’s done the exact same thing in four seasons since, and then some; his back-to-back Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman nods speak to that.

One year later, Bryant was blocking for Andrew Harris, as the Winnipeg product signed with his hometown team as a free agent in 2016. Since joining the Bombers, Harris has a pair of rushing titles to his name (2017 and 2018) to go along with his 2017 Most Outstanding Canadian nod; I think it’s safe to say things have worked out.

Free Agency 2019

As Feb. 12 fast approaches, some of the league’s biggest stars are closing in on free agency. CFL.ca has ongoing coverage.

MORE: Free Agent Tracker | The Waggle: FA19 Preview | Top 30 FAs

Winnipeg’s signing of Justin Medlock in 2016 shouldn’t be overlooked, either. While he struggled kicking field goals in 2017, Medlock has been money in his two other years with the Bombers and continues to reside in the CFL’s elite group of kickers.

It comes as no coincidence that 2016 was the year Winnipeg turned things around, either. After four miserable years out of the playoffs, the Bombers returned to relevance in year one with Harris and Medlock. Along with Head Coach Mike O’Shea’s decision to put the ball in the hands of quarterback Matt Nichols, the two newcomers were huge reasons why Winnipeg finished an impressive 11-7 for their first postseason appearance since 2011.

Getting defensive

I know the big focus of free agency this year is at quarterback, and for good reason. Mike Reilly and Trevor Harris are both up for grabs, while Bo Levi Mitchell may very well toss his hat into the ring at some point. But have you taken a peak at some of the truly elite defensive players available come Tuesday afternoon?

A quick glance at CFL.ca’s top 30 list gives you a who’s who of defensive impact makers. While there’s a good chance many will stay put, if even a couple change hands, they could be immediate game changers wherever they land.


Would it surprise anyone if either Micah Johnson or Ja’Gared Davis were to leave Calgary this week? Johnson is the league’s most terrifying interior lineman and will transform any defensive line into a top unit in the league. Davis, on the other hand, is one of two elite pass-rushers potentially available and will be highly sought after.

As much as the BC Lions are being connected heavily to Reilly, you should probably keep an eye on them for Johnson and Davis, too. New Lions head coach De’Vone Claybrooks is the only coordinator Davis has ever played for. Johnson, on the other hand, has had Claybooks as either his DC or defensive line coach in every CFL season he’s played. The connection is too obvious to ignore.

The other elite outside pass-rusher is Willie Jefferson, of course. It seems as if the departure of Chris Jones to the NFL has put his future in Saskatchewan in doubt, which is something the rest of the league would love to take advantage of. Much like Johnson, an addition of Jefferson turns any defensive line into one of the top units in the league.

Finally, the CFL’s most air-tight lockdown cornerback is poised to hit the market, too. Delvin Breaux is almost invisible on a weekly basis, which is the highest compliment you can pay to someone in his position. You don’t see him on television because the ball is never thrown his way. Breaux makes the very best opposing receivers vanish because he’s so good at what he does, and he’ll be a massive loss if Hamilton can’t keep him.