Preview: Breaking down all nine teams ahead of FA20
TORONTO — It’s the height of the CFL off-season as several of the league’s top stars are about to become free agents.
Toronto Argonauts receiver Derel Walker and Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive tackle Micah Johnson headline a list of potential difference makers — and the dominoes could start to fall quickly when the market officially opens at 12:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
The last week has already seen a flurry of movement, as teams and pending free agents were allowed to begin communicating from Feb. 2-9 after the new collective bargaining agreement opened a negotiating window nine days before free agency.
What do the next few days hold? CFL.ca breaks it all down with a team by team preview.
Despite potential target Michael Couture returning to Winnipeg the day before free agency, plenty of possibilities remain for Ed Hervey and the BC Lions entering Tuesday. Hervey has already had a busy off-season, shuffling his coaching staff and bidding farewell to receiver Duron Carter after just one season, but the fourth year general manager isn’t about to sit on his hands.
While pending free agents Odell Willis and Shawn Lemon could open up holes on the defensive line, it’s no secret the Lions’ priority this week rests on an offence that failed to live up to expectations in 2019. Fortifying the offensive line and finding a new complement to receiving star Bryan Burnham should top Hervey’s list.
Lions fans might hope for a reunion between quarterback Mike Reilly and pending free agent Derel Walker. The two connected often throughout their four seasons in Edmonton, where Walker averaged 82.5 yards per game, among the league’s elite. Whereas Burnham is a dominant possession receiver, Walker creates separation like no other.
Finally, the offensive line improved substantially following the addition of new coach Kelly Bates mid-season, but still gave up a league-high 58 sacks. Joel Figueroa and Hunter Steward are set to return, but the Lions could always afford some more protection for their franchise quarterback.
Top 3 Pending FA : 1. Shawn Lemon 2. Garry Peters 3. Odell Willis
Top 3 Needs: 1. Wide Receiver 2. Defensive End 3. Offensive Line
The Eskimos could be one of the quieter teams this week. Then again, General Manager Brock Sunderland has never been shy to make a move. Last year Sunderland signed a handful of stars on day one, including Trevor Harris and Greg Ellingson on offence along with Larry Dean and Don Unamba on defence.
With a veteran core that already includes Harris, Ellingson and rising star running back Shaq Cooper, the Green and Gold are more in need of a tinker than an overhaul. Still, there are some needs, including at defensive back where Money Hunter, Josh Johnson, Don Unamba and national Arjen Colquhoun are among starters that could end up elsewhere. While linebacker Larry Dean could depart, breakout rookie Vontae Diggs and veteran Jovan Santos-Knox are in-house replacements.
Offensively, the 26-year-old back Cooper is ready for more responsibility heading into his third season, likely making C.J. Gable expendable. If the Eskimos do look for more depth at the position, veteran back Jeremiah Johnson from Montreal would be a potential fit, as would versatile back Anthony Coombs, who previously played under Eskimos head coach Scott Milanovich in Toronto.
Finally, if DaVaris Daniels leaves, recently-released pass-catcher DeVier Posey would be a fitting replacement. The Esks are already led by Ellingson, Ricky Collins and national Tevaun Smith at receiver, but the more weapons for Harris the better.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. DaVaris Daniels 2. Larry Dean 3. Josh Johnson
Top 3 Needs: 1. Defensive Back 2. Wide Receiver 3. Running Back
Longtime executive John Hufnagel pulled a veteran move this week, getting ahead of Tuesday’s free agent deadline with the addition of centre Sean McEwen. The local product is a perfect fit and joins Shane Bergman, Ryan Sceviour and Brad Erdos in the middle, with Nila Kasitati and Ucambre Williams on the outside and Justin Lawrence as the potential sixth man.
Starting left tackle and pending free agent Derek Dennis is likely to test the market, and wouldn’t be the only loss this off-season in Calgary, starting with the defensive backfield, where DaShaun Amos has been released, Brandon Smith is pending free agency and Tre Roberson is now in the NFL. Linebacker Cory Greenwood could also be on his way out.
The Stamps have never been big players in free agency, and don’t expect this year to be any different. Still, with holes at receiver following the NFL departure of Reggie Begelton, and the injury history of Eric Rogers and Kamar Jorden, they could always target one of several proven pass-catchers about to become free.
At the end of the day, roster changes are nothing new for the Stampeders, who have proven to be the best in the business at scouting and developing young talent. That means they’re more likely to promote from within than to spend big dollars on top free agents. Last year, for instance, Courtney Stephen and Ivan McLennan were the team’s only free agent signings.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. Derek Dennis 2. Cory Greenwood 3. Terry Williams
Top 3 Needs: 1. Defensive Back 2. Wide Receiver 3. Defensive Line
The Riders are in good shape heading into free agency, especially after securing contracts for 2020 with their entire starting defensive backfield. Led by Ed Gainey and Nick Marshall, who both signed extensions this winter, Saskatchewan boasted the No. 1 defence and second-ranked secondary last season, leading the team to its first division title in a decade.
Defensive tackle Micah Johnson and linebacker Solomon Elimimian are two defensive starters expected to test the market. Both players would be difficult to replace, but the Riders’ Canadian depth gives them plenty of options at both positions. Cameron Judge and Micah Teitz form a solid Canadian duo at linebacker while Zack Evans, Charbel Dabire and Makana Henry have all proven capable on the interior.
The wide receiver position should be a priority in the coming days. The dynamic duo of Shaq Evans and Kyran Moore is set to return, but Emmanuel Arceneaux and Naaman Roosevelt are slated to become free agents on Tuesday. New offensive coordinator Jason Maas has connections with some high profile free agents, including DaVaris Daniels and Derel Walker, who both played for him in Edmonton.
While Philip Blake and Dariusz Bladek could go to market, the Riders’ offensive line boasts five qualified starters, led by veterans Brendon LaBatte and Dan Clark and the emerging Dakoda Shepley. Most importantly, the Riders have their long-term answer behind centre, after reaching a two-year extension with Cody Fajardo back in October, though an experienced backup should be of interest.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. Micah Johnson 2. Solomon Elimimian 3. Naaman Roosevelt
Top 3 Needs: 1. Wide Receiver 2. Linebacker 3. Quarterback
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
The biggest question has already been answered in Winnipeg, where Zach Collaros — not Matt Nichols or Chris Streveler — will be the starting quarterback in 2020. Receiver Darvin Adams has also signed an extension along with offensive tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, leaving the Bombers’ Grey Cup winning core largely intact.
On the eve of free agency it was more good news for the Bombers, who reached a contract extension with top-ranked Willie Jefferson. The 29-year-old showcased his game-changing ability in the 107th Grey Cup and spent the weekend touring the Ticats’ and Argos’ facilities, but in the end decided to try and chase another Grey Cup in Winnipeg.
The Bombers still have some holes to fill. Drake Nevis is the only remaining starter pending free agency, though defensive backs Winston Rose and Marcus Sayles were released to pursue NFL opportunities. At receiver, meanwhile, Darvins Adams is locked in as the No. 1 after signing an extension, while Rasheed Bailey and Kenny Lawler will try to take another step forward in 2020.
The Bombers have swung for the fences in the past, attracting top talent to Winnipeg including Jefferson, Adam Bighill and Andrew Harris — all key contributors on a championship team. This year could be a relatively quiet one as there may not be much room to maneuver.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. Drake Nevis 2. Craig Roh 3. Thomas Miles
Top 3 Needs: 1. Defensive Back 2. Wide Receiver 3. Defensive Line
Despite their best efforts, the Ticats were unable to land top-ranked free agent Willie Jefferson, who will stay in Winnipeg. Still, the early indication is the Grey Cup finalists will be serious bidders throughout 2020 free agency. Dane Evans and Jeremiah Masoli form a remarkable quarterback duo, while reigning Most Outstanding Player Brandon Banks leads a talented roster deserving of the contender label in February.
Among pending free agents, offensive tackle Ryker Mathews and defensive tackle Dylan Wynn are two of the best at their respective positions, and either would be a significant loss. At receiver, meanwhile, Bralon Addison is NFL-bound and Luke Tasker is a pending free agent, meaning change is afoot behind Banks on the depth chart. Jalin Marshall, Jaelon Acklin and Marcus Tucker are all capable fill-ins, but the team should target a veteran.
At linebacker, Simoni Lawrence is set to return for an eighth season, but Justin Tuggle and Nick Shortill are both pending free agents. The defensive backfield, however, is in good shape, coming off a breakout season from Tunde Adeleke and the emergence of Frankie Williams, Jumal Rolle and Cariel Brooks. Can the Ticats put the finishing touches on a championship-calibre roster?
With Jefferson out of the equation, Wynn could become the top priority after signing Ja’Gared Davis, as the Ticats look to keep one of the most dominant defences in 2019 intact.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. Dylan Wynn 2. Ryker Mathews 3. Luke Tasker
Top 3 Needs: 1. Wide Receiver 2. Linebacker 3. Offensive Line
After an off-season of uncertainty, the Argos finally have a solution at quarterback with Matt Nichols and McLeod Bethel-Thompson set to compete for the job come training camp. Yet there’s still lots to figure out for Pinball Clemons and John Murphy, who have already disassembled a core that won four games in back-to-back seasons.
It starts with the protection up front, where as many as four starting jobs are currently open. Promising young tackle Jamal Campbell is back, but Calgary product Sean McEwen has signed with the Stampeders and Tyler Holmes and Ryan Bomben are also out, a trio that combined for 50 starts last season. Maurice Simba and 2019 first overall pick Shane Richards are internal candidates, while Dariusz Bladek, Philip Blake and Derek Dennis are pending free agents that should be of interest.
The Argos are also in need of some playmakers. Emerging starter Chandler Worthy is back on a three-year deal, but S.J. Green is out and Derel Walker and Armanti Edwards are pending free agents. DaVaris Daniels, Luke Tasker and Dominique Rhymes should all be on the Argos’ radar if Walker doesn’t return. At running back, Karlos Williams and Bishop Sankey are set to compete for a starting job, though Esks veteran C.J. Gable might be a target of interest.
Defensively, the Argos’ secondary is shaping up nicely following the additions of Tommie Campbell, Jeff Richards and Shaquille Richardson. Bo Lokombo, acquired last week, can play safety and WILL linebacker, while former third round pick Dondre Wright could compete for a starting role. Cleyon Laing would be a significant loss should he depart.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. Derel Walker 2. Cleyon Laing 3. Armanti Edwards
Top 3 Needs: 1. Offensive Line 2. Wide Receiver 3. Defensive Line
In hindsight, losing a franchise quarterback, two top receivers and a star running back in the same off-season wasn’t a recipe for success for the REDBLACKS. With a three-win season behind them, however, there’s reason for optimism in the nation’s capital, as new head coach in Paul LaPolice and enticing young quarterback Nick Arbuckle look to turn things around as quickly as possible.
This week will be an important one for General Manager Marcel Desjardins, who attempts to surround his coach and quarterback with as much talent as possible. With a solid offensive line and Timothy Flanders and John Crockett projected to line up at running back, the focus turns to receiver where RJ Harris and Brad Sinopoli headline an otherwise unproven group. Look for Ottawa to target one of several high profile receivers on Tuesday.
Plenty of turnover is expected on the other side of the ball, too, where Mike Benevides replaces Noel Thorpe as defensive coordinator. Star corner Jonathan Rose and SAM linebacker Anthony Cioffi lead a long list of pending free agents, but the REDBLACKS could also have opportunities to upgrade defensively. That includes on the defensive line, where one of Dylan Wynn or Micah Johnson would boost a unit that’s struggled to generate pressure.
Free agency may not solve all Ottawa’s needs, but some savvy spending along with improved quarterback play could make the REDBLACKS a contender as early as this season, with a little bit of luck.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. Dominique Rhymes 2. Jonathan Rose 3. Anthony Cioffi
Top 3 Needs: 1. Wide Receiver 2. Defensive Line 3. Defensive Back
The days of flying under the radar are over for the Montreal Alouettes. The Als won 10 games last season and hosted their first playoff game since 2014, while 27-year-old Vernon Adams Jr. emerged as one of the league’s most prolific pivots. With new ownership and a general manager in place, Danny Maciocia now looks to make the adjustments that will take his roster from contender to Grey Cup Champion come November.
It’s already been a busy off-season in Montreal, with Bo Lokombo traded, Tommie Campbell released and Chris Ackie and Patrick Levels due to become free agents. All were central figures in 2019, and improving defensively will be a priority after ranking among the CFL’s worst teams in passing efficiency, completion percentage and quarterback sacks.
On offence, a new contract extension for Eugene Lewis ensures Adams will have his No. 1 target back in the lineup. B.J. Cunningham, Quan Bray and Dante Absher could also figure in prominently, though DeVier Posey has been released and is free to sign elsewhere. William Stanback is NFL-bound and Jeremiah Johnson is a pending free agent, but recent signing James Wilder Jr. fills the running back void after being released by the Argos.
The Alouettes were one of the league’s most entertaining teams in 2019 and are primed to take a step forward. It starts on defence, where Dylan Wynn, Micah Johnson, and Cleyon Laing should all be targeted on a D-line that simply needs to generate more pressure.
Top 3 Pending FA: 1. Chris Ackie 2. Ciante Evans 3. Patrick Levels
Top 3 Needs: 1. Defensive Line 2. Defensive Back 3. Running Back