December 14, 2020

Steinberg’s MMQB: The top free agent impact makers from 2019

Ryan McCollough/Hamilton Tiger-Cats

We didn’t have a 2020 season, which means we weren’t able to gauge the impact of big name free agents on new teams. I thought Patrick Levels was a great pickup in Hamilton. Micah Johnson had a chance for a huge bounce back year in BC. Richard Leonard seemed like a perfect fit in Calgary. But, until those guys debut, and in some cases re-sign, with their teams for 2021, it’s all a guessing game.

What we do have to go on is the star-studded free agent class of 2019. While stars like Bo Levi Mitchell, Brandon Banks, and Bryan Burnham didn’t end up relocating, a number of high profile players did. So, with the 2021 list of free agents creating some good buzz in the CFL world, let’s take a look back at the last class to step foot on the field.

For this week’s column, I decided to put together some (not all) of the top free agent performers with new teams from 2019. Some, like Mike Reilly (BC) and SirVincent Rogers (Edmonton), weren’t able to live up to the hype surrounding their signings due to injury. Others just didn’t click with their new groups. These guys, however, made huge impacts.

Willie Jefferson – Winnipeg Blue Bombers, defensive line

After returning to the CFL late in the 2016 season, Jefferson cemented himself as one of the league’s elite defensive superstars. Jefferson racked up 22 sacks in 41 games with Saskatchewan and was one of the top names available when free agency opened in February 2019. He took it to a new level after signing with Winnipeg.

While many thought Jefferson would return to the Riders, the departure of head coach Chris Jones seemed to change everything. The Bombers pounced and hit the jackpot, as Jefferson put together a career season en route to a Most Outstanding Defensive Player award and the Grey Cup. Jefferson’s 2019 stats were insane: 12 sacks, six forced fumbles, and one interception. It’s tough to argue any free agent signing made a bigger impact.

Cody Fajardo – Saskatchewan Roughriders, quarterback

Fajardo didn’t make’s 2019 list of Top 30 Free Agents. He flew under the radar when he signed with Saskatchewan on day three of free agency. Heck, Fajardo wasn’t being talked about to start the season. And then everything changed for both the Riders and Fajardo. A few months later, Fajardo was the West Division’s Most Outstanding Player.

Fajardo replaced an injured Zach Collaros in week one and kept Sask close in a tough situation on the road in Hamilton. Fajardo blew the doors off a week later with 360 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, and one more on the ground vs. Ottawa. It started a great run, as Fajardo would lead the Riders to top seed in the West Division. He’d also lead the league in passing yards (4,302) and finished with 28 total touchdowns. Like Jefferson, it’s tough to argue any one free agent made a bigger splash than Fajardo with his new team.

Trevor Harris – Edmonton Football Team, quarterback

General manager Brock Sunderland enacted a heck of a contingency plan when Reilly signed with the BC Lions early in 2019 free agency. Sunderland moved immediately to sign Harris, coming off a career season and a Grey Cup appearance. Had an injury not sidelined him for five games late in the season, Harris would have had a solid case to be in the MOP conversation himself.

Despite only appearing in 13 games, Harris finished second overall with 4,027 passing yards, which marked the fourth time he’d gone over the 4,000 mark. Harris averaged more than 300 yards per game and was on pace for over 5,500 over a full season, which would have easily led the league. With 16 passing touchdowns, six more on the ground, and just six interceptions, Harris’s first year in Edmonton went very much according to plan…minus the injury.

Ja’Gared Davis and Dylan Wynn – Hamilton Tiger-Cats, defensive line

It’s not like the Ticats needed more dominant forces on their defensive line, but that’s exactly what they got with their signings of Davis and Wynn. Joining a group that already boasted Ted Laurent and Julian Howsare, Wynn and Davis turned Hamilton’s front four into the envy of the league in 2019.

After three great seasons in Calgary, Davis led the Tiger-Cats in sacks with 13 and finished second overall. He also racked up three forced fumbles and was named an East Division All-Star. Wynn didn’t sign until May after the Alliance of American Football folded, but it didn’t seem to matter. He emerged as the league’s most dominant interior lineman in 2019, finishing with 11 sacks (fourth overall) and a CFL All-Star nod for the first time. You can be quite sure Hamilton doesn’t play for the 107th Grey Cup without Wynn and Davis.

Derel Walker – Toronto Argonauts, receiver

A revolving door at quarterback and a curious lack of targets in the middle of the season limited Walker’s effectiveness at times. That said, Walker still posted his third season of 1,000 yards or more and caught six touchdowns in his first season with Toronto. Walker went over 180 yards in week five (188 yards, 2 TD’s) and week 12 (203 yards, 2 TD’s), showing he still had elite, game-breaking ability.

Winston Rose – Winnipeg Blue Bombers, defensive back

Rose wasn’t a huge name when he signed with Winnipeg in 2019 free agency. When the season was done, he had established himself as a star. Rose led the league with nine interceptions and was one of the league’s best lockdown corners from start to finish. Rose’s 2019 season paid off, too, as he joined the Cincinnati Bengals for the 2020 campaign.

William Powell – Saskatchewan Roughriders, running back

Andrew Harris racked up most of the rushing headlines in 2019, for good reason. However, Powell had a quiet and understated, but very strong, first year with the Riders. Powell ran for 1,093 yards, good for his third straight season over 1,000 and second overall in the league. He also doubled his career high in touchdowns, leading all CFL tailbacks with 12.

Greg Ellingson – Edmonton Football Team, receiver

When Edmonton signed Harris, the natural next step was to bring in fellow free agent and longtime teammate Ellingson. Already together for three productive years in Ottawa, Harris and Ellingson picked up where they left off in green and gold. When 2019 came to a close, Ellingson had his fifth straight season with 1,000 receiving yards (1,170) and five touchdown catches.

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