Open Market: Recapping Day 1 of free agency
TORONTO — After months of anticipation, the first day of CFL free agency was anything but quiet.
Edmonton Eskimos fans were devastated to see their team lose Reilly — the face of the franchise since arriving in 2013 — but General Manager Brock Sunderland had all the right answers, signing star pivot Trevor Harris and a handful of big names on both sides of the ball.
» Team By Team: Who won Day 1 of free agency?
» Free Agent Tracker: Who’s still available?
» Rumour Mill: The latest on Jennings, Loffler
The defending Grey Cup Champion Calgary Stampeders held their ground, re-signing Bo Levi Mitchell to a four-year deal after the two-time Most Outstanding Player tested the free agent market.
And finally, two of the CFL’s biggest defensive stars were also on the move, as defensive end Willie Jefferson joined the Riders’ biggest rival in Winnipeg and Saskatchewan answered by signing an equally dominant defender in Micah Johnson from Calgary.
Of the 180 pending free agents, roughly 40 signed new deals on Tuesday. Here are five highlights from the first day of free agency:
QB carousel keeps spinning
As 12 quarterbacks hit the open market on Tuesday when the clock struck noon, Mike Reilly was the first domino to fall. By then a mere formality, Reilly’s four-year deal totaling $2.9 million set the wheels in motion for what would become a frantic first day of free agency.
The Lions’ big move set off a chain reaction among quarterbacks in the CFL. While the Eskimos replied by signing Trevor Harris, the Argos and Riders reportedly made a strong push to sign Bo Levi Mitchell — then, when Mitchell re-signed with Calgary, the Riders re-signed Zach Collaros, who could be the team’s starter in 2019.
“It’s obvious that Edmonton was a team that wasn’t willing to go without one of the big three,” said CFL.ca’s Davis Sanchez. “That set the stage for the rest of the teams and how they were going to adjust and spend their money, because none of them spent it on a quarterback.
“It showed that after the big three, the rest of the teams didn’t seem like they wanted to commit a big percentage of their salary cap to a quarterback.”
Sanchez notes that there were two determining factors for each of the three quarterbacks making big free agent decisions on Tuesday: long-standing relationships, and the opportunity to win football games.
“I’ve said throughout this process that it’s not as important for guys to go to places where they have history with a GM or a coach — I think more important is to go somewhere where you think the team is built to win,” said Sanchez. “When you look at all the top guys, both factors came into play. Guys all went to places where teams are built to win right now, and they have relationships.”
What does this mean for all other parties when it comes to football’s most integral position? The Bombers and Ticats were already set going into free agency, while the Argos are likely to lean on James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson. While the Als could see camp competition between Johnny Manziel and Antonio Pipkin, among others, the biggest question is in Ottawa, where the REDBLACKS’ current projected opening day starter is the unproven Dominique Davis.
There are still potential starters on the market, including 26-year-old Jonathon Jennings, whose previous success in the league and perceived ceiling make him an intriguing option for any remaining team in need of a quarterback. With Mitchell, Harris, Reilly, Nichols and Collaros all in the same division, the West could get even crazier in 2019, but the carousel isn’t done spinning yet, as Travis Lulay, Kevin Glenn and Brandon Bridge are a few of the other big names available heading into the second day of free agency.
Powell ready to ride
It didn’t take long for last year’s second-leading rusher to find a new home. William Powell was allowed to walk by the REDBLACKS on Tuesday, with Riders new general manager Jeremy O’Day jumping at the opportunity to upgrade at the running back position.
It was a strange turn of events for those looking on, including Sanchez.
“You don’t see top running backs leave their team very often to go somewhere else,” he said. “Some say that import running backs are a dime a dozen. What it does do for an offence is it gives a veteran presence back there in protection and stability in the backfield.
“You can find guys from free agent camps, but knowing the CFL game from a protection standpoint, that’s huge as well, not to mention he’s one of the league’s top rushers for two straight years .”
The Riders have other needs than the running back position, but after last year’s platoon of Marcus Thigpen, Tre Mason and Cameron Marshall, Powell brings a little more experience and stability to the offensive backfield. The question is, after Mason showed flashes of potential last season, how big of an upgrade is the 30-year-old running back?
Clearly Jeremy O’Day sees something in Powell, who was singled out among several capable backs in free agency including Tyrell Sutton, Jeremiah Johnson, John White and Brandon Rutley. Chris Rainey was the other running back scooped up off the market. Either way, Powell adds an intriguing new wrinkle to a Rider offence that ranked third-last in the league in total offence last season with 322 yards per game.
And for Ottawa? It appears Powell wasn’t a priority for GM Marcel Desjardins, who extended Mossis Madu and allowed Powell to walk. There are plenty of other options at running back, so look for the REDBLACKS to add some more depth in the coming days.
Whatever the case, with Harris, Powell, Spencer (NFL) and Ellingson all departed, Ottawa’s offence will not be what we remembered the next time it takes the field.
Esks answer back after losing Reilly
After three nervous months, Eskimos fans can finally take a breath. Their worst fears became reality on Tuesday when Mike Reilly became a BC Lion, but on Tuesday General Manager Brock Sunderland was busy patching things up.
With Trevor Harris, the Eskimos have an elite-level quarterback — widely considered to be in the top-three of the CFL — who has a strong rapport with the head coach and GM. He costs less than Mike Reilly, giving the Eskimos savings that have allowed them to be more competitive elsewhere in free agency.
On offence Harris is joined by a couple of familiar faces, as left tackle SirVincent Rogers and Greg Ellingson have followed him from the nation’s capital. Rogers joins Colin Kelly and Travis Bond, who both re-signed on Tuesday, on a revamped O-line that could feature three American starters.
Sanchez says the additions of Dean, Unamba and Ellingson should have a positive impact on the team in 2019.
“Larry Dean and Don Unamba are both guys who came from Hamilton, so there’s a history with the coaching staff that’s over there and I know Phillip Lolley is a huge Larry Dean fan, he had his breakout year in ’17 under Phillip Lolley,” he said.
“Losing Walker but getting Harris and adding his receiver, Ellingson, you add instant continuity. You lose your No. 1 receiver but you get a guy who’s close, talent-wise, to Derel Walker, and he has built-in chemistry with Harris, which in the CFL game, with those switch and releases and rub routes, that cohesiveness is very important.”
With Duke Williams and Bryant Mitchell headed south, upgrading the receiver position was a must for Sunderland, and the veteran GM took action. In addition to Ellingson, the Eskimos also signed DaVaris Daniels and Ricky Collins, complementing an explosive, veteran core that already had Kevin Elliott, Kenny Shaw and Kenny Stafford. With the offensive-minded Jason Maas, the Eskimos’ attack could look a lot like Ottawa’s high-octane unit of the last several seasons.
Equally impressive was Sunderland’s work on the defensive side of things. With an already-stout D-line, including ratio-breaker Kwaku Boateng, dominant inside man Almondo Sewell and edge rusher Alex Bazzie, the Esks have a talented and experienced front-seven after adding Jovan Santos-Knox, Larry Dean and SAM linebacker Don Unamba.
Despite adding Anthony Orange, the Eskimos’ secondary still need some work — especially after losing highly-touted halfback Aaron Grymes to BC — but the revamped defence under new DC Phillip Lolley shows promise of a big rebound in 2019.
Has the balance of power shifted?
Forget the year of the horse, it’s been a decade since the Calgary Stampeders started their dominance of the West Division, winning a handful of division titles and a few Grey Cups to boot. While Bo Levi Mitchell returns, the Stamps are suddenly facing new threats in the always-contentious West.
The Riders have added Micah Johnson, the Bombers scored Willie Jefferson and the Eskimos have revamped their front-seven, creating three of the best defensive fronts in the league. The BC Lions will also be a big factor moving forward after adding several of the league’s top free agents on Tuesday, including a top quarterback.
With other teams making improvements in free agency, the Stamps have plenty of work to do if they want to pick up where they left off.
“From initial reaction I would like to let this all soak in and marinate before I jump to a conclusion on this, but it feels like there’s an even bigger tilt in talent between the West and the East,” said Sanchez.
“Looking at the rosters right now, I can’t put Calgary as the top team in the West. If they were to get the guys back from the NFL and a couple of pending guys re-signed they could be up in that conversation with Winnipeg, BC and Edmonton.
“I would say Saskatchewan, without addressing the quarterback situation and losing their best player on defence — after the first day of free agency I would say Sask has dropped when I look at the talent in the West.”
Despite all the Eskimos’ big moves, Ed Hervey brought the ‘wow’ factor for the Lions on Tuesday, flexing his figurative muscles in his second year as the GM by reuniting with Reilly, adding a big, mean guard in Sukh Chungh, and bringing over a few familiar defenders in Aaron Grymes, Chris Edwards and Josh Woodman. The Lions have also added running back John White and Canadian receiver Lemar Durant, with plenty of room to add more on the second day of free agency.
Quiet on the Eastern Front
The pace was a little different in the East, where the REDBLACKS lost several of their pending free agents, the Alouettes did some tinkering and the Argos and Ticats mostly took care of their own pending free agents.
There’s no sense of panic from General Manager Marcel Desjardins in Ottawa, but the fans couldn’t be blamed for being concerned. Their team lost a small handful of stars as Harris, Ellingson , Rogers and Powell found new homes, leaving plenty of uncertainty early in free agency. Though the REDBLACKS appear to have confidence in Dominique Davis, don’t be surprised to see Jonathon Jennings in camp this spring trying to resurrect his career under savvy coordinator Jaime Elizondo.
Jim Popp came up short in his reported bid to woo two-time Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell. Signing the Stamps quarterback would have been quite the coup for the Argos, who waited until the waning hours of the day to make their first deals, signing Kevin Fogg, Chris Rainey and Canadian running back Mercer Timmis. The Argos also fortified their O-line, re-signing Tyler Holmes, assuring they’ll have four quality national starting linemen come the season.
Neither Popp nor Desjardins hit the kind of home run their respective fan bases may have been hoping for, but for Sanchez, laying low early could have its advantages in the coming days.
“I believe the thought process for both Jim Popp of Toronto and Marcel Desjardins in Ottawa is that if I can’t secure one of those top three quarterbacks, or one of the other top five marquee guys that got paid today, there are so many other potential starters still out there in free agency,” said Sanchez. “Because I have a lot of holes on my roster, I’m going to wait for day one to play itself out and use my cap space to fill a lot of holes.”
It’s unknown whether the Argos had significant interest in Willie Jefferson and Micah Johnson, who found new homes on the first day of free agency, but one of the CFL’s most dynamic receivers in Derel Walker remains on the board and is likely a target for Popp.
Down the QEW, the Ticats, who were already in good shape entering Tuesday, made some minor moves, signing Adrian Tracy and Mike Jones to contract extensions while dipping their toe into the free agent waters with Canadian safety and returner Tunde Adeleke. First-year head coach Orlondo Steinauer’s roster is playoff-ready, though the team is reportedly courting free agent defensive end Ja’Gared Davis. After struggling to get to the quarterback last year, a dynamic pass rusher should top the Ticats’ list of needs.
Kavis Reed may have worked in the background on the opening day of free agency, but all in all it was a productive day for the Alouettes’ general manager. The Alouettes got a potential Canadian starter at right tackle in Spencer Wilson, a versatile defender and special-teamer in national Bo Lokombo, a talented young defensive back in Patrick Levels and a former Grey Cup MVP in the speedy DeVier Posey. The Als are also reportedly on the verge of landing all-star safety Taylor Loffler.
What does the second day of free agency hold? We’ll find out, but with players like Derel Walker, Ja’Gared Davis, Chris Ackie and Naaman Roosevelt still up for grabs along with many, many more, the second wave of free agent signings will no doubt be impactful.