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December 20, 2021

MMQB: Let the free agency speculation begin

Peter Power/CFL.ca

It feels like the CFL’s quarterback carousel has been busy every off-season over the last number of years. I don’t see that being any different as we prepare for 2022. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are at the forefront of this coming year’s conversation.

With at least one significant decision to make, the Ticats will have a massive impact on the quarterback market when free agency opens in February. Both Dane Evans and Jeremiah Masoli are pending free agents and, knowing what they accomplished this season, it seems unlikely both will be back in black and gold going forward.

“I do want to be here,” said Evans last week. “But I’m going to owe it to myself to see what free agency is about. I’ve never been in that position before, so it’s something that I don’t really know what to expect going into it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love this city.”

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Shawn Burke’s move from Hamilton to the GM role in Ottawa will only add fuel to speculation of Dane Evans and Jeremiah Masoli’s futures ahead of free agency kicking off in February (Peter Power/CFL.ca)

You can’t blame Evans for wanting to explore his options. Hamilton’s Grey Cup starter has been very effective when given the opportunity over the last two seasons. And, getting his first real crack at free agency at the age of 28, Evans realizes the opportunity in front of him.

Much the same is true for the 33-year-old Masoli. The way Masoli played down the stretch and his performance in the 108th Grey Cup has his stock high going into free agency. When healthy in 2021, Masoli was Hamilton’s starter. Does that give him the leg up as the preferred option if the Tiger-Cats retain only one of their high-profile quarterbacks?

Adding to the intrigue is Shawn Burke, who was confirmed as the second general manager in Ottawa REDBLACKS history over the weekend. Now Hamilton’s former senior director of player personnel and co-manager of football operations, Burke joins the REDBLACKS after nearly 15 years with the Tiger-Cats.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for speculation to begin about Burke’s connection to Masoli and Evans. The dots are easy to connect on the outside because, well, it just makes too much sense.

Burke needs to find a quarterback to go forward with in Ottawa. It didn’t work with Matt Nichols. Caleb Evans showed flashes in 2021, but not enough to make him the starter going forward. If the REDBLACKS were to invest heavily in one of Evans or Masoli, you could understand why.

Of course, it’s no guarantee one or both of Hamilton’s quarterbacks are elsewhere next season. There was outside speculation about moving one of Masoli or Evans after 2019, but both were back this year for another run to the Grey Cup. With both coming up on free agency, though, this time feels different, despite how well the two worked together.

“I would love to be teammates again,” Evans said. “I love and respect Jeremiah. I think he’s a hell of a teammate, I think he’s a hell of a guy. I have no clue that’s going to happen with that. If it happens, it happens, but I honestly have no clue.”

Head starts

With the official 2022 Free Agent Tracker launching late last week, a couple teams got a head start with some important signings. It started with Calgary signing defensive back Tre Roberson to a two-year contract before Montreal locked up one of the league’s most dangerous quarterback-receiver connections in Vernon Adams Jr. and Eugene Lewis, respectively.

Roberson returned from the NFL late in the 2021 season and was a seamless fit in his familiar boundary corner position. To get Roberson under contract so early is a nice piece of business for the Stampeders. They’ve taken one of the top potential free agents off the board while locking up a cornerstone piece of their defence.

Roberson didn’t seem to a miss a beat upon his return and re-established himself as one of the CFL’s best shutdown corners in short order. Knowing how difficult it is to create separation on him, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re talking about “Roberson Island” a lot in 2022. Having Roberson for a full season, with a full training camp, will be huge for Calgary.

Tre Roberson’s staying in Calgary, which gives the Stamps a major item checked off of their off-season to-do list (Photo: The Canadian Press)

And then there’s Montreal, where general manager Danny Maciocia made his decision at quarterback emphatically. By signing Adams to a two-year extension, Maciocia has made it clear about who he’s going forward with, even after his acquisition of Trevor Harris late last season.

“We’re going to keep investing in VA,” Maciocia said after the announcement. “He’s got a tremendous upside, future. His ceiling is extremely high.”

I think they’re making the right decision, with no disrespect intended to Harris. Upon arriving in Montreal, Harris did a nice job steadying the ship and ensuring the team made it two straight playoff appearances. But, when healthy, Adams is one of the league’s most electric players, while also being more than six years younger than Harris.

And, with Lewis coming back, the Alouettes have kept one of the league’s best connections intact. Extremely close with his quarterback off the field, it’s no coincidence Lewis has cemented himself as an elite receiver the last two seasons with Adams as Montreal’s starter.

Despite a shortened season, Lewis finished 36 yards short of a second straight 1,000-yard campaign. With nine touchdown catches, Lewis almost doubled his output from 2019 and finished second overall behind only teammate Jake Wieneke’s 11. Locking him in for another year was a no-brainer.

The Als and Stamps won’t be the only teams getting head starts in free agency. Let’s see how many high-profile names come off the board before Feb. 8.

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