January 21, 2020

O’Leary: Free agents that can get a team over the top

Shannon Vizniowski/CFL.ca

It was a fun Monday afternoon here at CFL headquarters, when the greater contingency of our content team sat down to rank the top-30 free agents before the market opens on players on Feb. 11.

You’ll see the fruits of our labour on Thursday when the list is unveiled.

While I worked on my own list through last week, I’d ask myself the same question whenever I had trouble choosing between players: Who is more likely to help you win a Grey Cup?

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

It was a helpful question but it wasn’t necessarily one that made decisions any easier. Sometimes there’s an obvious yes — a veteran quarterback or an elite pass rusher — but other times it’s those players that are almost invisible when they’re doing their jobs well that make all of the difference.

Without spoiling things on our list too much, here are five players or types of players in random order that I think could get a contending team over the hump, or keep a defending team (hi, Bombers) on the top of the figurative CFL mountain.

Matt Nichols

Our increasingly shortening attention spans might be to blame here, but it’s easy to forget what Matt Nichols was doing before he injured his shoulder this year. He played in nine games and had 1,936 yards passing, with 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. The Bombers were 7-2 and in control of the West Division. They initially stumbled without Nichols, but were steadied with the trade deadline arrival of Zach Collaros and the rest is 28-year-drought-ending history. Nichols had the Bombers in contention to win a Grey Cup, but Collaros (with the help of Chris Streveler) got them there. The team has a decision to make and should it go away from Nichols, he could take a team that’s lost its way in recent years — Toronto and Ottawa make good candidates — and help get them back on track.

Ja’Gared Davis led the Ticats in sacks and forced fumbles in 2019. (Ticats.ca)

Ja’Gared Davis

Grey Cup week is a jolt to the system of many of the players taking part in the game. All of the downtime that players might take for granted during the regular-season gets sucked up into a vacuum of increased media obligations and events. None of that bothers Ja’Gared Davis. The 29-year-old defensive lineman has played in the last four Grey Cups, getting his first three in with the Calgary Stampeders, before signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2019. Davis doesn’t just know how to pick a winner; he’s a valuable piece of the puzzle. He had 13 sacks last year, good for second in the league and added three forced fumbles, recovering one. The Ticats’ defence was laced with heart-and-soul, high-energy type players in 2019 and Davis was certainly one of them. It’s a safe bet that he’ll bring that to whichever team he plays for in 2020.

CanCon on the o-line

It’s free agency 101 to know that one of the first places GMs will look to improve their teams will be the offensive line.

When you can do that with a young and talented Canadian it’s win-win. There are a lot of o-line upgrade options out there this year, but Sean McEwen’s pops out from the list.

McEwen was the third overall pick of the 2015 draft and won a Grey Cup (along with the East nod for outstanding o-lineman) with the Argos in 2017. While things turned bleak for the Argos over the last two seasons, McEwen continued to play well and was the team’s nominee for outstanding o-lineman each year and the team’s most outstanding Canadian in 2018. The Calgary native and former U of C Dino is 26, with lots of good football left in front of him. He started 36 straight games at centre for the team and should receive interest from teams across the league.

A good veteran presence

You see it every year. A team picks up a veteran player with a decorated resume and a lot to offer a team that’s close but just missing…something. Two players instantly come to mind from this year’s free-agent list that fit that bill. S.J. Green and Solomon Elimimian are about as decorated in this league as two players can be. Green is a three-time Grey Cup champion, a two-time CFL all-star and an eight-time CFL East all-star that has gone over the 1,000-yard mark in each of his three years in Toronto. Elimimian turned the bad taste in his mouth from being cut by the Lions into an 88-tackle, four-sack season. Elimimian was a Grey Cup winner in 2011, the league’s MOP in 2014 and a two-time defensive player of the year. He’s 33 and Green is 34. Both can still produce, can set an example for younger players and when things start to matter more late in the season, no moment is too big for them.

Willie Jefferson had a career-best 12 sacks in 2019. (The Canadian Press)

Willie Jefferson

No one free-agent signing can guarantee your team will succeed. We saw Mike Reilly go to BC last year and struggle behind inefficient protection as the season quickly slipped away from the Lions. We saw Derel Walker, arguably the top receiver the league, get a huge payday from an Argos team that would only win four games in 2019.

There’s no exception to that rule, but Willie Jefferson might be the closest thing we have to it in the league. Jefferson has stood out in the CFL from his first season with Edmonton in 2014 and was a key part of the Esks’ Grey Cup-winning team in 2015. Through his 2.5-year stay in Saskatchewan he blossomed into a d-lineman that’s capable of game-changing and game-winning plays, whether it’s a sack, a forced fumble or a pick-six. That skillset was on full display in the last game we saw him play. His three sacks and two forced fumbles helped fuel the Bombers’ defence in their Grey Cup win over Hamilton.

Of course, a player of Jefferson’s calibre and age (28), will get his looks in the NFL. If a team doesn’t see in him what he’s shown in Canada over the last six years, it’s the CFL’s gain. He isn’t the sole answer to one team’s defensive woes — no player is — but Jefferson is a big step in the right direction wherever he lands.