TORONTO — Winter is here, but there’s plenty of football news to consume in the Canadian Football League off-season.
The next five months offer plenty to keep tabs on for football fans, from coaching changes in December to the annual free agent frenzy in February.
So far, Jason Maas has moved from Edmonton to Regina, Rick Campbell is BC bound, Paul LaPolice is off to the nation’s capital and the Alouettes’ search for a general manager appears to be nearing a conclusion.
With plenty more to come, CFL.ca asks one off-season question for every team:
Can the Lions find some help for their franchise quarterback?
Mike Reilly‘s four-year, multi-million dollar deal on the first day of free agency made him arguably the league’s biggest signing in two decades. Yet a franchise quarterback didn’t answer all of the Lions’ woes, as they lost 10 of their first 11 games en route to a five-win season.
The Lions need to find another receiver for Reilly, someone who can complement one of the league’s best possession receivers in Bryan Burnham — a replacement for Duron Carter, who just wasn’t the answer after converting on just 67 of 108 targets while struggling to make plays downfield. Think Derel Walker, Darvin Adams or Shaq Evans — all able to play out wide and create separation.
Up front should also be a priority. Though the O-line improved with the arrival of coach Kelly Bates, the Lions still allowed a league-high 58 sacks. A proven, veteran offensive tackle like Derek Dennis, Stanley Bryant or Jermarcus Hardrick could make a significant difference in front of Reilly.
Will C.J. Gable return for another season in Edmonton?
Despite having the second lowest rushing average among starters (4.9 yards per carry, ahead of only Don Jackson), C.J. Gable hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark for a second year in a row. Now, the Eskimos need to decide whether the pending free agent fits their plans for 2020. Will experience trump age for the 32-year-old?
Gable is well known for his ability in the passing game as a run blocker and receiver, and other running backs around the CFL have thrived into their 30s including Andrew Harris (32) and William Powell (31). But Shaq Cooper is a player on the rise, and was even part of the backfield in the post-season when Gable was healthy.
It’s possible both players, who are pending free agents, could return to form a 1-2 punch in 2020. Either way, the Esks hope to improve a rushing attack that ranked sixth in the league with 90.3 yards per game, and second-last with 4.5 yards per carry.
Should the Stamps spend on a backup for Bo Levi Mitchell?
If Nick Arbuckle is ready to move on to bigger things this off-season, that would open up a significant vacancy at the quarterback position in Calgary. Of course the hope is that Bo Levi Mitchell can play all 18 games plus playoffs, but that didn’t happen anywhere last year as all nine teams were forced to start their backup at some point.
Many argue that Mitchell’s lucrative contract signed last February could provide challenges elsewhere on the roster. Either way, overlooking the backup job would be a mistake. The Stampeders have a proven track record of developing young pivots, but were still fortunate that an unproven Arbuckle was able to step in and play well during Mitchell’s seven-game absence in 2019.
Maybe the Stamps believe 24-year-old pending free agent Montell Cozart is ready for a bigger role next season. Otherwise, their search for a backup will likely take them to free agency on Feb. 11 for a veteran with CFL experience.
Will the Riders go receiver shopping in free agency?
If the Riders are going to open their wallet in February, the receiver position could quickly become a priority. Cody Fajardo has emerged as a dangerous downfield passer, while the addition of Jason Maas as offensive coordinator means the Riders could become even more vertical offensively in 2019.
Maas, who had plenty of dynamic weapons during his time in Edmonton, is sure to have an influence on Saskatchewan’s spending this off-season. Emmanuel Arceneaux and Naaman Roosevelt are pending free agents, while No. 1 receiver Shaq Evans could test NFL waters, leaving Kyran Moore and Jordan Williams-Lambert as the team’s top pass-catchers under contract.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Can the Bombers re-sign Willie Jefferson?
A three-sack, two-fumble performance in the Grey Cup underlined an unforgettable season for Willie Jefferson. Jefferson’s impact as a defensive player simply can’t be measured, as the 6-foot-7, 248-pound pass rusher set a record for his position in pass knockdowns while adding 12 sacks and six forced fumbles.
So much of the talk in Winnipeg surrounds Mike O’Shea’s contract status, or which of the team’s three quarterbacks will return in 2019. But Jefferson causes nightmares for opposing offences and would vastly improve the Bombers’ chances to repeat next year. If not re-signed, the 28-year-old will be the top-ranked free agent in February.
Could Jeremiah Masoli really stay in Hamilton?
There’s been no real read on what the future holds for Ticats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who continues to recover from season-ending knee surgery back in the summer. Masoli was the East Division Most Outstanding Player in 2018, but may have been surpassed by the younger Dane Evans, who led Hamilton to the Grey Cup with the CFL’s top-ranked offence.
Assuming Evans is the Ticats’ quarterback of the future, there are still many factors involved in Masoli’s next steps. For one, what’s the timeline on his recovery? If it’s late summer/early fall, a return to Hamilton on a one-year deal might make more sense. Second, do teams view the 31-year-old as a long-term answer behind centre following his injury?
At his best, Masoli is one of the league’s most dynamic quarterbacks. In parts of three seasons as the starter in Hamilton he averaged 8.8 yards per attempt and compiled a 52-30 touchdown to interception ratio on 66 per cent passing. If there’s a chance for the Ticats to bring him back, the door should be wide open.
Who will the Argos target to play quarterback?
A year after their failed bid to land free agent quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the Argos are still searching for a long-term answer behind centre. James Franklin couldn’t fit the need, McLeod Bethel-Thompson is viewed as more of a short-term fix, and Dakota Prukop is too much of a mystery this early in his career. So what’s the move?
After missing the playoffs back to back seasons, the Argos are looking to make a splash both on and off the field in 2020. Nothing invigorates a fan base like a big-name quarterback and, with Ryan Dinwiddie Toronto-bound, Stamps prospect Nick Arbuckle is the first name that comes to mind. The 26-year-old showed undeniable upside as Mitchell’s backup in Calgary.
Other possibilities include pending free agents Zach Collaros, Matt Nichols and Jeremiah Masoli. And if all else fails, Bethel-Thompson showed steady improvement in his second season starting games for the Boatmen. Either way, the quarterback position is one decision the Argos need to get right.
Will any Blue Bombers follow Paul LaPolice to Ottawa?
Considering the Bombers aren’t likely to bring back all of Matt Nichols, Chris Streveler and Zach Collaros, all three quarterbacks have obvious ties with new REDBLACKS head coach Paul LaPolice. Ottawa has an obvious need at quarterback ever since losing Trevor Harris, and Nichols and Collaros have both had success under LaPo as starters.
The quarterbacks aren’t the only ones likely on Ottawa’s radar. Receiver Darvin Adams would be an immediate upgrade for the REDBLACKS, while the team could look into a veteran tackle as both Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick are pending free agents. And, though he’s on the defensive side of the ball, Willie Jefferson would be a top target for any team in the CFL.
Money, proximity to home and opportunity to start are all key factors in free agency, but familiarity always plays a role. REDBLACKS fans may want to keep eyes on Winnipeg’s free agent list in the weeks leading up to free agency.
Can the Als find an elite pass rusher?
The Alouettes featured a fast, hard-hitting defence in 2019 under rookie coordinator Bob Slowik, but that unit still had its problems as evident in the Eastern Semi-Final. Trevor Harris wasn’t the only veteran quarterback that picked apart the Als’ secondary, as Montreal allowed a league-worst 74 per cent opponent completion percentage and also ranked bottom-three in opponent pass efficiency, yards per attempt and total passing yards.
A big part of the issue was a lack of pressure, with Montreal ranking at the bottom of the league in both sacks (27) and pass knockdowns (38). To put things in perspective, Grey Cup winning Winnipeg led the league with 78 pass knockdowns, while Edmonton and Saskatchewan led the pack with 56 sacks.
Montreal has defensive backs that can cover, with Tommie Campbell, Ciante Evans and Greg Reid leading the way. Now the Als need a dominant pass rusher. Last year starting defensive ends John Bowman and Antonio Simmons had a combined 11 sacks. The addition of a disruptive pass rusher like Willie Jefferson or Ja’Gared Davis could put the Alouettes over the top in 2020.