January 17, 2020

Which pending free agents should each team look to extend?

Jimmy Jeong/CFL.ca

CFL General Managers have less than four weeks to put the final touches on tackling their free-agent list before they turn into vultures to pick away at each others’ players.

The closer to February 11th we get, the more anxiety managers, coaches, players and fans will feel with some big names still left unsigned.

Now, here is a list of players who I would consider ‘must re-sign’ for teams before February. These are all players that could lead to some desperate times on free agent days for general managers who aren’t able to retain some of these key contributors.

Adding to the intrigue for the team is the fact veteran American CFLers can take three of the now 10 starting Canadian spots and/or replace an injured starting Canadian. The value for those players may increase, especially the players who have completed three seasons with a team that now qualify or four years in the league. Teams will now likely want some depth in the ‘veteran’ American category.

You’ll see that this new rule adds to the trend on my list of players, as do starting Canadians with now 10 starting spots in the new CBA.

» CFL 2020 Free Agent Tracker
» Steinberg’s MMQB: Bombers face pivotal decision
» Checking Down: News and notes from the off-season

BC Lions receiver Shaq Johnson lines up ahead of a play. (Jimmy Jeong/CFL.ca)


Ed Hervey has already locked up two of the top Canadians I’d be looking at: receiver Shaq Johnson and linebacker Adam Konar.

After an extremely disappointing 2019, Hervey will likely want to make some changes, but there are some interesting spots he’ll have to make tough decisions on.

On the veteran American front, Hervey has defensive back T.J. Lee, receiver Bryan Burnham, offensive lineman Joel Figueroa and running backs Brandon Rutley and John White under contract.

So in terms of ‘must sign’ players, there aren’t many, to be honest, in BC

The Lions’ secondary was among the better groups in the league, so Garry Peters, Aaron Grymes and Brandon Dozier have to be considered high priorities — Chris Edwards was released in order to pursue NFL opportunities. Not all of them, of course, but I doubt Hervey would want to be dealing with an entire young group of defensive backs with T.J. Lee.

The Lions also have decent Canadian depth already under contract on the offensive line despite having a handful of potential free agents. Hunter Steward and David Foucault started a lot of games late in the season when the team’s offensive line improved. At least one of them likely needs to return.


John Hufnagel has already either re-signed a lot of the high-priority talent or been forced to release them to pursue the NFL. Losing Tre Roberson and DaShaun Amos in the secondary is not easy as they were two of the best young defensive backs in the league, let alone the team.

Reggie Begelton is also off to the NFL.

But as for must-sign players, receiver Juwan Brescacin has to be on the list. Yes, Hergy Mayala was impressive but you can’t ignore the development Brescacin was seeing with the Stamps. They can’t take many more hits to the receiving corps, nor with Canadian depth.

Defensive end Chris Casher was an impressive pass rusher in his first year. Though they did re-sign Cordarro Law, Casher is five years younger. They’ve seen top pass rushers in Charleston Hughes and Ja’Gared Davis leave in the past two years. Can they really afford to lose another? Although, should we ever doubt that Hufnagel doesn’t already have another one ready on the roster?

Offensive lineman Derek Dennis has been Bo Levi Mitchell‘s blindside lineman for three of the past four seasons and is now a veteran American who could take a starting Canadian spot. I’d think he could be a valuable asset to keep the offensive line cohesive with an added roster bonus.


There has been barely any movement for the Eskimos, but they also just got their head coach in town in the last two weeks to get a real look at the roster.

Now, general manager Brock Sunderland can have a clearer picture of what Scott Milanovich may want to do with this team going forward. Only one extension has been signed (running back Shaq Cooper) and Nick Usher got an NFL opportunity. With 33 potential free agents left to choose, they definitely have a few ‘must-sign’ type players.

Offensive lineman David Beard was the team’s top offensive lineman in 2019 and the second-round pick from 2015 is starting to come into his own on the offensive line. This is an easy ‘must-sign’ player.

Defensive tackle Mike Moore has become a huge compliment to Almondo Sewell on the defensive line and with nine sacks last season, the 26-year old took a big leap forward in his career. Now entering his fifth CFL season at such a young age, the best is yet to come.

The entire starting linebacking corps for the Eskimos is on the potential free agent list, with Larry Dean, Don Unamba and Jovan Santos-Knox all being able to hit the open market. You may not be able to sign them all, but after signing these players to improve that unit and seeing said improvement, you’d hate to see them go.


This list is easy for the Roughriders for ‘must sign’ among the remaining players they haven’t yet dealt with.

Linebacker Cameron Judge is No. 1 on the list. An impact starting Canadian on that defence as he’s grown into a respected player around the league in his three years and is just getting started in terms of a top Canadian in the league. He was the West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Canadian in 2019.

Receiver Shaq Evans became a top CFL receiver in 2019 in his sophomore season and provides a balance of veteran savvy but doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear on his body — Similar to when Naaman Roosevelt came to the Riders a few years ago. You’d hate to lose too many of Cody Fajardo‘s favourite targets going into his second year as a starter.

Note: Both Evans and Judge had NFL workouts so you’ll need that to find a solution before they commit to the CFL.

Pick one: Dariusz Bladek or Philip Blake. The Riders’ depth in terms of Canadian offensive linemen was tested big time last season. With Brendon LaBatte and Dan Clark moving into the twilight of their careers, you’d like to see a young guy like Bladek stick around, though he may want a guaranteed starting spot, which won’t come in Saskatchewan. Blake is a great utility player that may be more likely to re-sign with the Green and White.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive lineman Willie Jefferson celebrates a forced fumble against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw. (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)


Um… this should be easy for one position.


I’m not going to say who between Zach Collaros and Matt Nichols, but the Grey Cup Champs need one of these guys back to try to repeat. But all of a sudden, the replacement options around the league are drying up, with Arbuckle being courted by Ottawa and Masoli re-signing in Hamilton.

Getting Chris Streveler back would be huge as well, but he’s pursuing the NFL for now.

Do I have to put Willie Jefferson on this list or is it too obvious? Seriously, if he’s not going to get an NFL shot, you don’t want him playing anywhere else if you’re the GM of the Bombers. There has to be regret in Saskatchewan for letting him get away.

Defensive tackle Jake Thomas is only 29 and has been an eight-year stalwart at the defensive tackle position for the Bombers. He’s a monster in there and a big reason opposing teams couldn’t get a yard in the playoffs when they needed to.

Offensive lineman Stanley Bryant has now been nominated for the Nissan TITAN Most Oustanding Offensive Lineman award in the previous three seasons. How can you not bring him back? He has been dominant, and if you take a step back at left tackle, that could make a major impact on the running game.

Defensive back Nick Taylor may sound weird as a must sign, but he was one of the improvements made to the secondary for the Bombers. With Marcus Sayles and Winston Rose leaving this off-season, the depth in the secondary has become light all of a sudden. With four years in the league, Taylor is one of those veteran American players.


This is a tough list because there’s a lot of talent here in Hamilton.

Let’s start with Dylan Wynn on the defensive line. I consider him to be the top defensive tackle in the CFL in terms of pass-rushing. He was a huge signing in the off-season last year and becomes a must re-sign this year.

Fellow defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis falls in the same category as Willie Jefferson. The Stampeders have to have similar regret for letting him go. But if he doesn’t get an NFL shot, like Kyle Walters in Winnipeg, can the Tiger-Cats afford to lose him elsewhere with a Grey Cup shot well within range again.

Defensive back Tunde Adeleke was on this list until a few hours ago, but the Tiger-Cats locked him up on a two-year deal. It was a necessary move for an organization that needs to maintain its quality depth of strong Canadian talent if they’ll repeat as East Division Champs.

From there it goes to the offensive line. Ryker Matthews has finished three years in Hamilton, which gives him the ‘veteran American’ status to take a starting Canadian spot. The left tackle moves him into the must sign territory as he’s also just 27-years old. Then you find starting veteran centre Mike Filer. He’s only going to be 30 this year and has been a leader on that offensive line for a while.


When you have a season as poor as the Toronto Argonauts, there shouldn’t be many ‘must sign’ players. Mike Clemons and new head coach Ryan Dinwiddie will want to be able to fill holes in free agency more than likely.

That’s not to say there aren’t talented players in Toronto, but should any of them be considered irreplaceable? No. Not even at quarterback. They need a veteran, but they’ll have options.

I’m going to concentrate on the Canadians for the team as you start by solidifying Canadian depth first.

Defensive tackle Cleyon Laing, offensive lineman Tyler Holmes and centre Sean McEwen are the three must sign players for the same reason. They’re impact Canadians in the trenches who will be tough replace because other teams will have players like these on their must re-sign lists as well. If Toronto starts losing these type of players, they’ll be in bigger trouble than they were last season.


Similar to the Argos, you can’t finish last in the CFL and have a long list of must re-sign players.

But there might be a few more here than in Toronto.

We start with Nick Arbuckle. The REDBLACKS put him high on the priority list for a reason and it would sting to give up a decent draft pick to Calgary and then watch him walk. He’s the guy Paul LaPolice wants to build around and that means they have to get his signature on a contract because Toronto and Arbuckle’s former QB coach Ryan Dinwiddie are waiting in the wings.

Dominique Rhymes is a big-play guy and if you’re building around a new quarterback, he needs a player like Rhymes to throw to.

Jonathan Rose was missed in the secondary by Ottawa after being a CFL all-star in 2018. He also gives another veteran American player to a team who needs to improve on defence. They can’t afford to lose a strong member of their defence who helped them appear in the Grey Cup on a few occasions.

Marcel Desjardins has done well to protect some of his top Canadians from closing in on free agency but there is one that is still without a deal.

Kicker Lewis Ward becomes the only ‘must re-sign’ kicker of the off-season. A record-breaking field goal kicker who would be nearly impossible to replace. Even a drop to 86 percent still gives him a solid conversion rate. He was trusted a little more in year two to kick from long range, which also impacted his numbers.

Montreal Alouettes receiver Eugene Lewis looks to turn upfield after catching a pass from Vernon Adams Jr. (MontrealAlouettes.com)


Danny Maciocia has only been on the job for less than a week as general manager and it shows as the only potential free agent that’s been dealt with is running back William Stanback being released to go the NFL.

So there is a lot of work for Maciocia to do ahead of free agency in the coming weeks. After a surge to the playoffs in 2019, there are some talented players that Montreal needs back to keep the momentum moving forward.

We’ll start with Sean Jamieson and Kristian Matte. The last thing you want is to lose quality starting Canadian offensive linemen.

Canadian linebacker Chris Ackie moved up in the depth chart and showed quite well for the Alouettes. An impact Canadian on defence is another must re-sign for Maciocia.

That brings us to Patrick Levels, who lined up on the other side of middle linebacker Henoc Muamba. Levels came over from Calgary and was an absolute monster for the Alouettes’ defence with 86 tackles and five sacks. The 25-year old showed he could be a perennial contender for all-star consideration.

Finally, wide receiver Eugene Lewis has to be a high priority. There was a lot of inconsistency in the receiving corps around Vernon Adams Jr. last season, except for Lewis. He was reliable and Adams’ favourite target. If Adams was the GM, Lewis would have been signed a long time ago.