VANCOUVER — A new head coach has invigorated the BC Lions and their fans following a forgettable 2019 season.
With the dismissal of DeVone Claybrooks, former Ottawa REDBLACKS bench boss Rick Campbell takes over in BC as the team hopes to build on a basement-dwelling season. Questions remain for the Lions’ coaching staff, however, as only the defensive coordinator position has been filled (Campbell will take on those duties).
The team does already have solid pieces in place, with the entire running back room locked in for next season and 2017’s Most Outstanding Player, Mike Reilly, behind centre moving forward. The Lions also have one of the best pass-catchers in the league, Bryan Burnham, at their disposal in 2020.
After a 1-10 start to the campaign last season, the Leos would go on to win just four more games and finish at the bottom of the West Division with a 5-13 record. Can a new-look coaching staff and some off-season shuffling turn things around in Vancouver?
Front Office/Coaching Staff
Rick Campbell is the Lions’ bench boss heading into the 2020 season, which should make the team and fans excited moving forward.
Campbell’s track record as a head coach speaks for itself after leading the Ottawa REDBLACKS to three trips to the Grey Cup (2015, 2016 and 2018) and winning the championship in 2016 against Calgary. He transformed a 2-16 expansion team in 2014 into a Grey Cup finalist the very next season and then won it all the following year. Under Campbell, the REDBLACKS enjoyed playoff football for all but two seasons.
With the hiring of Campbell just a few weeks old, he has yet to determine the rest of his coaching staff. Campbell will serve has the team’s defensive coordinator but the offensive coordinator job has yet to be confirmed. Jarious Jackson is the incumbent. In his introductory press conference, Campbell said the process of naming coaches will be completed in the near future.
General Manager Ed Hervey faced his biggest challenge yet after missing the playoffs in 2019 and changes had to be made. Last off-season’s hire of DeVone Claybrooks did not provide immediate results. That led to a coaching change, marking two coaches in as many seasons for the Lions.
Pending Free Agents
The BC Lions’ pending free agent list remains long with just one player with an expiring contract in February putting pen to paper so far. Whether they bring back some of the biggest defensive names on the free agent list like Odell Willis, Shawn Lemon, Garry Peters, Crezdon Butler and Aaron Grymes should become a bit more clear in the coming weeks.
On offence, finding a viable option for a backup behind Mike Reilly is likely a priority, while locking in Canadian pass-catcher Shaq Johnson should also be high on Hervey’s to-do list. The Lions won’t have to worry about the running back position after extending both John White and Brandon Rutley in November.
Special teams will also be a focus for BC as returner Ryan Lankford and punter Josh Bartel are both pending free agents and the team doesn’t have a starting kicker signed to a contract.
Lemar Durant is under contract for next season but two other starting national pass-catchers, Shaq Johnson and Rashaun Simonise, have expiring contracts. Having three starting Canadian receivers would give Rick Campbell ratio flexibility across the board, especially on defence and the offensive line.
By season’s end, the Lions were starting two Canadians on their offensive line — David Foucault at right guard and Hunter Steward at left guard. Foucault, who started all 18 games for the Lions and played at both guard and tackle, and Steward are both pending free agents. Jean-Simon Roy, who appeared in seven games in 2019, also has an expiring contract. David Knevel will return for the Leos after appearing in three games including a start at left tackle in Week 21 against Calgary.
David Menard is a pending free agent after tallying a career-high 12 tackles and notching a pair of sacks while starting eight games at defensive tackle. Defensive back Isaiah Guzylak-Messam is under contract after transitioning from the defensive backfield to linebacker part way through last season. He made 11 starts, collecting 37 tackles, a sack and was second on the team in special teams tackles with 14.
Running backs Jamel Lyles and Wayne Moore will also return next season. Quarterback Brandon Bridge is a pending free agent.
Last year’s massive free agent signing, Mike Reilly, still has three years remaining on his contract meaning the quarterback position likely isn’t a top priority for the Lions. However, finding a backup pivot might be.
There are three other quarterbacks on BC’s roster but none are proven to be reliable backups. The Lions could lock up both pending free agent pivots, Canadian Pivot Brandon Bridge and Danny O’Brien. But perhaps Rick Campbell and his staff will go after one of the many free agent quarterbacks available instead.
Free Agents – Brandon Bridge, Danny O’Brien
Ed Hervey and the BC Lions wasted no time locking up their running backs before the calendar even changed from 2019.
The Lions inked starting tailback John White to a one-year deal on Nov. 27, keeping the 28-year-old with the team through 2020. White amassed 1,004 yards and four majors on the ground to go along with 341 yards on 46 catches out of the backfield, solidifying himself as the unquestionable starter for the Leos. With his first 1,000-plus yard rushing campaign of his career under his belt, the five-foot-eight, 195-pounder will hope to build on that success in his second year in the orange and black.
Less than a week later, BC locked in its only pending free agent running back, Brandon Rutley, to a one-year extension. The 30-year-old was a perfect complement to White in the backfield, creating a dynamic one-two punch on offence. He appeared in 11 games for the Lions last season and carried the rock 61 times for 341 yards, including a 111-yard effort against the REDBLACKS in September.
Free Agents – N/A
Two of the Lions’ top receivers in 2019 are set to return next season in Bryan Burnham and Lemar Durant. Burnham finished the campaign second in receiving yards (1,492), just behind 2019’s Most Outstanding Player Brandon Banks, and hauled in a career-high 11 touchdown passes. Before his second-ending injury in Week 17, Durant was in the middle of a career year for the Lions. In 15 games, the Vancouver native hauled in 57 passes for 810 yards and five touchdowns.
Twenty-three-year-old Jevon Cottoy will likely see a larger role on offence in 2020 after amassing 386 yards and a touchdown last season. With two Canadians returning in Cottoy and Durant, BC could try and get a third national back in the fold, Shaq Johnson, who is a pending free agent, to add some ratio flexibility elsewhere on the roster. Johnson was a great complement to the one-two punch of Durant and Burnham, catching 39 passes for 597 yards and two majors.
The Lions could look to target a big-name receiver in free agency to replace Duron Carter, who was released following the season. Carter failed to impress in his lone season in BC, managing just 614 yards and three touchdowns despite being targeted 108 times.
The offensive line was not an area of strength for the BC Lions in 2019. By season’s end the team allowed a league-worst 58 sacks. After an offensive line coaching change half way through the year, things improved and Reilly was allowed more time to make plays during a failed late-season playoff push.
That being said, it wouldn’t hurt the Lions to shop the free agent pool for a few new pieces to insert on the line. Canadian Sukh Chungh, who missed the final eight games of the season with a fracture in his leg, and Joel Figueroa, who was the Lions’ team nominee for Most Outstanding Lineman for the second straight year, are both set to return and will be a good starting point for Hervey and company to work with.
Three quarters of the BC Lions starting defensive line have expiring contracts in Shawn Lemon, David Menard and Odell Willis.
Lemon, who was acquired via trade from the Toronto Argonauts in the middle of last season, and Willis will likely be the top priorities for the Lions heading into free agency. Lemon led BC in sacks (eight) to go along with 19 defensive tackles and three forced fumbles in 10 games played. Willis had four sacks and 23 tackles on defence to go along with two on special teams and collected two forced fumbles.
Even so, BC struggled to generate pressure last season, sacking opposing QBs just 28 times, one more than the league-worst Montreal Alouettes. Perhaps the team will go after an upgrade in February.
One of the Lions’ top priorities might be signing one of their starting linebackers from 2019 in Maleki Harris to a new contract. Harris played in 17 games for BC in 2019 at middle linebacker and the 27-year-old tallied 67 defensive tackles, one special teams tackle and an interception in his first season in the orange and black.
National linebacker Jordan Herdman-Reed started five games for the Lions and played in 16 in total, amassing 37 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Central Washington’s Kevin Haynes started 10 games and added 35 tackles. Both are back on the roster for 2020.
Only one of the BC Lions’ starting defensive backfield is locked in for next season, T.J. Lee, while the rest are pending free agents.
Crezdon Butler, Branden Dozier, Garry Peters and Aaron Grymes could all hit the open market in February. Statistically, Branden Dozier (70 defensive tackles and an interception) and Garry Peters (63 defensive tackles and an interception) could be considered the best of the bunch but Grymes is considered one of the best halfbacks in the business.
As a team, the Lions were fourth-worst in the CFL for interceptions (17) and tied a league low in turnovers forced (32), so adding in a few more playmakers in the secondary from the free agent pool could be a necessity.
With the release of kicker Sergio Castillo this off-season, the Lions will be on the hunt for someone new this February as they currently do not have a starting kicker under contract. Josh Bartel, who handled punts in 2019, is a pending free agent. The Lions could look for someone who can handle both duties when the free agency period opens.
Free Agents – Josh Bartel