Nye: A deep dive on the top defensive pending free agents

You know those late night ads that come on with deals that seem too good to be true?

Well, CFL free agency may just be that for general managers looking for defenders.

Look up and down the list and there are quality players across the board.

Charleston Hughes just hit the open market ahead of it opening on Tuesday and was available for less than 24 hours before signing with the Argos. The reigning four-time sack leader isn’t the only pass rusher on the board, though.

You could be looking at Saskatchewan, Montreal or BC, who should all be looking to improve their pass rush. The list is there with players able to get to the quarterback.

You have the grey beard of the group in John Bowman, who is unlikely to play anywhere other than Montreal, but there are a handful of players that would become potential starters if not solid contributors in a rotation at defensive end. Adrian Tracy, Alex Bazzie, Craig Roh and Jonathan Newsome have all been around the block in the CFL. The one thing they’ve all shown in their careers is the ability to provide a steady pass rush.

I’ve also marked down Michael Wakefield on the list of players to watch. He has a lot more career in front of him than the other players listed, but Wakefield quietly put together a season of 32 tackles and four sacks in Ottawa’s rotation in 2019.

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After nine successful years in Edmonton that saw him named a CFL all-star six times, Almondo Sewell will be wearing different CFL colours in 2021 (Dale MacMillan/Edmonton Football Team)

The defensive tackle position is similar. There aren’t the amount of players that you see at linebacker, but there are some all-star names on the list, with Almondo Sewell and Micah Johnson.

Yes, the duo is getting up there in age, but Sewell and Johnson have had stellar careers in the middle of a defensive line and if they are healthier after a year of off-field workouts, whoever grabs them in free agency may be pleasantly surprised by their production.

Then there are some younger players like Ryan Brown and Woody Baron, who have both been run through the Alouettes’ defensive line. They’re both decent rotational players and can be value depth pieces for teams.

I’ve also got my eye on Steven Richardson out of Winnipeg. The 24-year-old, 300-pounder is a shorter tackle and reminds me a bit of former Riders DT Marcus Adams, who put together a decent career disrupting the middle of the offence while allowing players like John Chick and Stevie Baggs to have big years off the edge.

OK, are you ready for linebackers? Because, WOW!!!!!

That’s all I have to say for the players still out there, because there are all-stars all over the place with some Canadian content in the mix, which is vital for success.

Let’s start there with Henoc Muamba and Cameron Judge, who were the two finalists for the CFL’s top Canadian award in 2019. Both the Als and Riders will want to retain these players but other teams in the CFL would be stupid not to have set some cap room aside just in case they can entice one of these stars to their teams.

The Herdman brothers (Justin and Jordan), as well as Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga are depth Canadian pieces but can definitely start in a pinch or serve as a quality backup with special teams prowess.

Now let’s go across the board on the American linebackers available. There are inside players who have already had tremendous careers.

The list starts with Solomon Elimimian. The former CFL Most Outstanding Player had a slow start to 2019 because he was busy with his work with the CFLPA but once he hit the field, he got back to hitting opponents. His 88 tackles in 15 games show another 100-tackle pace.

Larry Dean would look good down the middle of any team as well. Justin Tuggle is a monster linebacker who can hold down the middle but also can rush the passer off the edge if you wish to move him around.

Then you have the players that fit more on either the weak side or strong side linebacker positions. Jovan Santos-Knox was injured in 2019, but when you look at his time in Winnipeg, he was on his way to putting together all-star worthy numbers.

Don Unamba is an all-star and flies all over the field. He had a slow start to his CFL career but is now someone most GMs would have to be looking at to fill a void at the strong side spot.

Deon Lacey hasn’t played in the CFL since 2016 after a few years jumping around the NFL but the Riders quietly signed him for the 2020 season. With Lacey coming back to Canada and again available in free agency, he is another high-quality free agent that may be overlooked.

Patrick Levels enjoyed a breakout year with the Alouettes in 2019, with 86 defensive tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles. He should have teams lining up to talk with him when free agency opens on Tuesday (MontrealAlouettes.com)

Otha Foster is a solid veteran but my sleeper in this group is Kevin Haynes, who was last seen in BC. Sixteen special teams tackles in 11 games is quite impressive for the second-year CFLer, who also picked up three sacks and 35 tackles. There were some in-house comparisons to Adam Bighill in BC for Haynes, so we’ll see if he can live up to those daunting comparisons during the rest of his career.

The other players that can slide in the secondary and the linebacking group are the coverage backers available.

The best is Patrick Levels. If I’m running a team he is near or at the top of a want. He was a true difference maker on defence in Montreal that moved to Hamilton for 2020 but of course we never got to see him there. In his first true season as a starter after being groomed in Calgary, Levels was a standout.

Chris Ackie and Rico Murray are also potential free agents who are very versatile for defences that would love some flexibility with proven CFL veterans.

As for cover players, there aren’t a ton of experienced players but Ciante Evans is still potentially available and still has the talent to hold down some of the best receivers in the CFL.

Kevin Fogg has plenty of CFL experience but had a down year in 2019. His versatility as a kick returner is added value for a player who can compete for a starting spot in the secondary in 2021.

So if defensive players are on your wish list, it appears that’s where the depth is in the 2021 free agent pool.

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