Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes
There’s no doubting the biggest remaining name in 2021 free agency. In fact, linebacker Henoc Muamba was arguably the top available player even before big names started signing this month. We’re now almost two weeks into signing season, though, and Muamba remains noticeably without a contract.
Whoever does end up signing the reigning Most Outstanding Canadian is getting an impact maker in every sense of the term. Muamba is the type of player that solidifies a defence at worst and, in many cases, transforms one. That’s exactly what he did the last two years with the Montreal Alouettes.
Despite a 5-13 finish, Muamba led the way as Montreal’s defensive resurgence started in 2018. That year he finished the season with 108 defensive tackles, five sacks, and an interception en route to being named an East Division All-Star. Those 108 tackles were good for second overall behind only Calgary’s Alex Singleton.
A year later, Muamba picked up right where he left off. Once again, his 93 tackles had him finish second overall, this time behind Hamilton’s Simoni Lawrence. Led by Muamba, the Alouettes took another step forward on defence in 2019, which played a huge part in the team posting a winning record (10-8) for the first time in seven years.
Muamba’s efforts went recognized more loudly on a winning team. He was named Most Outstanding Canadian for the first time and received a CFL All-Star nod for the first time since 2013. While it doesn’t sound like Muamba and new Alouettes’ general manager Danny Maciocia will be able to settle on a contract, you have to believe he’ll land somewhere before the start of the coming season.
Sure, in uncertain times, Muamba might have to make some financial concessions compared to more normal circumstances. That’s the world we’re living in right now and every big name CFL player has dealt with the same reality over the last few months. But Muamba has two things going for him: he’s one of the league’s best linebackers and he holds a Canadian passport.
There just aren’t very many players that affect things the game and the ratio like Muamba can. Defensively, we’re talking about a select few players, like Toronto’s Cameron Judge and Hamilton’s Ted Laurent, who can be mentioned in the same conversation. Muamba is too valuable a player to pass over.
You don’t have to look hard to start finding natural spots for him to land, either. Any one of Hamilton, BC, Ottawa, or Edmonton would nice fits for what Muamba brings to the middle of a defence. Caps are tight and financial situations are being closely monitored, but Muamba is a franchise-defining defensive player.
2021 free agency will be two weeks old on Tuesday of this week. I’m fascinated to see how much longer Muamba remains unsigned.
Give ‘em credit
Apparently all Pinball Clemons needed was a cancelled season to kick his overhaul of the Toronto Argonauts into high gear. Pinball was measured but active one year ago in free agency, mainly because he’d only been on the job as general manager four months. Even still, the Argos added Matt Nichols, DaVaris Daniels, Juwan Brescasin, and Alex Bazzie for 2020.
When that season wasn’t able to go forward, it gave Toronto nothing but time to plan their approach for the following year. Upon taking the reins in October 2019, Pinball talked about returning the Argonauts to the top of the pack. We have no clue how it will all come together on the field, but give him credit: he’s been aggressive in accomplishing that goal.
As Chris O’Leary wrote last week, you can’t help but take notice of what Toronto has accomplished over the last two weeks. In fact, it actually started earlier, when the Argos and Ottawa REDBLACKS essentially swapped Nichols for Nick Arbuckle in a strange flurry of activity on February 1st.
Arbuckle’s addition is exciting, as Toronto brings in the top prize of the 2020 off-season. Ottawa was elated upon acquiring him from Calgary 14 months ago due to what he accomplished in relief of Bo Levi Mitchell the prior season. There’s no reason the Argos shouldn’t be just as excited for a quarterback they plan to build around for years to come.
But the signing of Arbuckle helps Toronto navigate the salary cap a little easier, too. As an unproven CFL starter, Arbuckle wasn’t commanding the same dollars of those like Mitchell, Mike Reilly, or Trevor Harris. While still paid well due to his position, Arbuckle’s salary comes in lower compared to most other spots, allowing the Argos to be aggressive elsewhere.
And aggressive they’ve been. Toronto acquired receiver Eric Rogers and defensive lineman Cordarro Law from the Stamps and signed them both. They restructured with Daniels and re-signed pending free agents Brescasin and Drake Nevis. And that was only the beginning.
The Argonauts added future Hall of Famer Charleston Hughes shortly after he and the Riders parted ways. Sure, he’s 37 years old, but Hughes has led the CFL in sacks four straight seasons and got an entire year away from the constant pounding of a football season. Add on a healthy chip on his shoulder thanks to his departure from Saskatchewan and Hughes feels like he’s in line for another monster season.
Odell Willis comes in after a down 2019 in BC but with the potential for a resurgent season, especially if he ends up on the opposite side of Hughes. John White joins Toronto’s backfield coming off a quietly impressive season with the Lions that saw him rack up 1,004 yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
And then Cameron Judge topped it all off. The ratio-busting outside linebacker had an outstanding 2019 with the Roughriders, racking up 61 tackles, five sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. It was another high profile defensive signing, and also the one with the most long-term potential. Judge is just 26 and looks like he’s just getting started.
Sometimes we see aggressive off-season work like Toronto’s pay off immediately. The work of Kyle Walters in early 2016 with Winnipeg is a perfect example and was eventually a huge factor in a Grey Cup win. Sometimes, though, numerous additions don’t come together immediately, as the BC Lions would attest to most recently.
Regardless of the end result this season, though, you can’t help but admire what Pinball has done since the calendar flipped to February.