When CFL.ca asked me to piece together a Top-10 best pending free agency defenders list, I obliged. Then I started trying to work the list down from a starting point of around 70 high-calibre names. That list became 60, then 50 and at that point I just felt like we were ignoring so many talented players that it didn’t make sense.
So, here we are at a list of top-50 pending free agent defenders. I attempted to put them in order of how I’d craft my big board, but let’s be real, with this many names working through different systems at different positions, this group is all about respect.
Every last one of them will be highly sought after by their own club before Feb. 8, or a new team as soon as free agency opens.
50 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats LB Jovan Santos-Knox
A year removed from playing in Edmonton and growing in the CFL game with Winnipeg, Santos-Knox acclimated himself nicely to Hamilton, showing he can adapt and thrive in multiple situations.
49 – Montreal Alouettes DL Woody Baron
Even in a COVID-shortened season, Baron’s performance was there and so was the production with a CFL career-high six sacks in just 14 games.
48 – Calgary Stampeders LB Fraser Sopik
Anyone who watched Western’s Vanier Cup run knew Sopik was a playmaker and that’s continued on special teams in 2021. I expect he’ll get looks from multiple teams as a high-end specials prospect capable of taking significant linebacker reps in the near future.
47 – Edmonton Elks DL Kwaku Boateng
An off year for everyone in the Elks defensive attack, but Boateng’s value and impact as a Canadian aren’t in question.
46 – Saskatchewan Roughriders DB Nick Marshall
Always around the football, perhaps because he gets a significant number of targets, Marshall is one of the well known names up for grabs if the boundary corner carousel begins.
45 – Edmonton Elks DL Mathieu Betts
Much like Boateng, there were large chunks of 2021 where Betts seemed to create little impact on the game, but his past work has shown what’s possible and late 2021 film shouldn’t be too detrimental to his interest.
44 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers LB Thiadric Hansen
The first true Global success story, Hansen has gone from fun side story to Global poster child taking more reps on defence. Anyone interested in bolstering their global standing would be wise to approach him, but I doubt he lands anywhere but Winnipeg.
43 – BC Lions DB Anthony Cioffi
From SAM linebacker to free safety, Cioffi has shown a unique flexibility, sure to be an attractive feature for a creative defensive coordinator in say, Edmonton?
42 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats DB Frankie Williams
Remembered for his return game ability, Williams kicked inside from field corner to field halfback thanks to his increased playmaking in the open field. There’s much to like about Frankie’s game when healthy.
41 – Ottawa REDBLACKS LB Micah Awe
One of the lone bright spots in Ottawa’s defence throughout the year, Awe is a tackling machine and heavy hitter worthy of interest from the right fit.
40 – Ottawa REDBLACKS DB Abdul Kanneh
Similar to Awe, Kanneh was a difference maker when healthy in 2021 and should be back with defensive coordinator Mike Benevides in 2022 to grow on the positives.
39 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats DB Jumal Rolle
From field corner to boundary corner with the greatest of ease, Rolle has become the constant in Hamilton’s secondary over the last couple years, always ready to fill the void in need.
38 – Calgary Stampeders DL Derek Wiggan
A veteran, but one with plenty to offer in locker room culture and CFL savvy.
37 – Edmonton Elks DB Jonathan Rose
Constantly jumping into the fray from the corner, Rose’s length and ability to play the ball in the air are services much sought after, but I expect general manager Chris Jones to make head coach and defensive coordinator Chris Jones happy by keeping Rose in Green and Gold.
36 – Montreal Alouettes DL Nick Usher
Usher made the move in free agency from Edmonton to Montreal and was consistently creating a mess in the backfield at Percival Molson Stadium. His price might be too high for some considering the Alouettes contract, but there will be a smart fit for Usher.
35 – Toronto Argonauts DL Cardarro Law
In a season filled with rotating names and varying body types across the Argos defensive line, Law jumped out to me consistently as a difference maker. If he wants a full-time role elsewhere someone will give it to him.
34 – Saskatchewan Roughriders DL Micah Johnson
The potential of a game wrecker with the build of a superhero, Micah Johnson remains one of the more influential pass rushers from the interior across the league.
33 – Saskatchewan Roughriders DB Ed Gainey
Gainey makes plays on the football and has an understanding of the boundary halfback position that gives a calming influence to all those around him on the field.
32 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers LB Jesse Briggs
The longtime Bombers special teamer was pushed into action at weak side linebacker this season and showed his worth after so much patience. I doubt he’s ever not in Winnipeg, but his skill set has to interest others enough to reach out.
31 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers DL Jonathan Kongbo
Buried behind the embarrassment of riches up front in Winnipeg, Kongbo could likely go elsewhere and be the star of his own show if he chose to.
30 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats DL Dylan Wynn
Interior bull rush with a cowboy’s humility, Wynn is a well thought out and well thought of piece who fits well into almost any scheme.
29 – Calgary Stampeders LB Darnell Sankey
With 97 tackles, Sankey was everywhere in 2021. Will he cover all the turf in McMahon next year, join another club or head south?
28 – Calgary Stampeders DB Jonathan Moxey
A late season push with 24 tackles and two interceptions has Moxey as a rising free agent.
27 – Saskatchewan Roughriders LB Larry Dean
Likely much higher on this list if not for the preseason Achilles tear, Dean is an elite playmaker who will be asked to not only come off two years without game action, but an injury that typically hinders quickness and explosiveness. Two hallmarks of his stellar CFL career.
26 – Edmonton Elks DB Trumaine Washington
When you lead your team in interceptions (five) on a group that was historically poor in creating turnovers, you have to be included in the Top-30 of this list.
25 – Montreal Alouettes DL David Menard
A finalist for Most Outstanding Canadian, all Menard did in his first year with the Alouettes was rack up a career-high eight sacks. The danger here is overpaying for a player with just 18 total tackles in 2021, but the sack number and upside could lure a team outside Quebec to take a chance on the veteran reaching his peak late.
24 – Toronto Argonauts LB Cameron Judge
Getting Judge out of Saskatchewan was a steal for the Argos. Will the man who drafted him and just worked with him in Toronto return the favour by poaching Judge for Edmonton? You have to think Judge is higher than 24th on the Elks’ target board.
23 – Calgary Stampeders DB Deshaun Amos
Before Tre Roberson returned to the CFL I was growing more and more impressed with Amos. Despite having no interceptions in 2021 and five less than 2019, I think the East Carolina product has a lot left to offer.
22 – Toronto Argonauts LB Dexter McCoil Sr.
His impact was undeniable all year long with 60 defensive tackles, nine on special teams, two sacks and two interceptions. The all-around playmaker should be a hot commodity and leaves a large void in the Argos’ defence if he leaves.
21 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats DL Ted Laurent
Emergency appendectomy just before the Grey Cup be damned, Teddy Laurent can still fill the A-Gap and slip through to make a mess in the backfield with the best of ‘em.
20 – Saskatchewan Roughriders DB Loucheiz Purifoy
From BC to Ottawa and now Saskatchewan, Purifoy has always been around the ball and now has 13 career CFL interceptions, never going a full season without picking off at least one pass. His production is consistent and his positional flexibility is ideal.
19 – Edmonton Elks LB Derrick Moncrief
At a long six-foot-two and 220 pounds, Moncrief is an imposing defender who will interest every team in the CFL at some level. Back-to-back four-sack campaigns paired with his every down impact creates a lock for Top-20 most sought after defenders.
18 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats DB Cariel Brooks
Tied or leading the CFL’s interception category for much of 2021, Brooks was often thought of as a hammer at boundary halfback but showed his smoother side with natural ball skills consistently in 2021. Potentially a rising star in the CFL who will be 31 when we kick off 2022.
17 – Saskatchewan Roughriders LB Micah Teitz
Outside of Jesse Briggs I’m not sure one Canadian defender did more to help raise their stock in 2021 than Teitz, who somehow not only survived but prospered playing a significant amount of defensive snaps at weak side linebacker while running around on special teams.
16 – BC Lions DB T.J. Lee
With 71 defensive tackles, 12 special teams takedowns and four interceptions, Lee was arguably the Lions best defender to not win a CFL award (Jordan Williams – rookie, Bo Lokombo – Canadian).
15 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers DB Brandon Alexander
If your team is in the market for a hard-hitting, downhill free safety, Brandon Alexander is the top of that market and should be well sought after if the Bombers somehow let him reach Feb. 8.
14 – Toronto Argonauts LB Henoc Muamba
The man in the middle was at little to no fault for how the Argos season ended with quick release Ticats passes to the edge. Muamba remains the premier Canadian middle linebacker across the CFL, a fact buried by the chaos of all the names playing around him but his ability to direct that traffic proved further his worth.
13 – Calgary Stampeders DL Mike Rose
Through the first half of the year the CFL’s best pass rusher wasn’t Willie Jefferson or Ja’Gared Davis, it was Mike Rose. By all accounts Rose and Calgary love working together with Corey Mace there keeping a close watch on his progress, so don’t expect any splashy changes here.
12 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats DB Tunde Adeleke
Adeleke’s playmaking and flexibility in the playoffs were a difference maker. He’ll be offered a handsome deal elsewhere, maybe even Ottawa depending on whether the REDBLACKS plan to bring back Antoine Pruneau, or develop Adam Auclair into a free safety full time etc.
11 – Saskatchewan Roughriders LB Deon Lacey
From weak side to middle linebacker in the snap of an Achilles, Lacey made it work and looked natural with 54 defensive tackles and four sacks. Another Chris Jones recruit from 2014 that could likely be heading to northern Alberta.
10 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers DL Steven Richardson
This might seem too high to some, but Steven Richardson destroys the integrity of pockets and has such a great burst running across guards faces to blow up running plays. Even if I’m way off base on this one I just don’t care because I love watching him play and needed to make him Top-10 in this list.
9 – Montreal Alouettes DB Money Hunter
Watching Alouettes games this year, nobody jumped off the screen in coverage more than Hunter, who was always there to get a fingertip on the ball at the right moment. Each of his first three seasons have netted a pair of interceptions. I have no doubt he’ll set a new career high in 2022 wherever he lands.
8 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers DB Winston Rose
Amongst plenty of late-season additions you can argue none was more effective than Winston Rose. Quite the theory for a guy with just five tackles and no interceptions on the year, but a truth nonetheless.
7 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers DL Jackson Jeffcoat
At the start of the year I was convinced this was the year Jeffcoat would overtake Jefferson as the dominant force in Blue and Gold. While the conversation is worth having I’m not concerned about comparison shopping, but rather appreciating his meaningful contribution in back-to-back Grey Cup championships.
6 – Calgary Stampeders LB Jameer Thurman
While Darnell Sankey had far more tackles, Jameer Thurman felt like the heart and soul of the Stamps’ defence for much of the second half of 2021. A drop in overall productivity from his last CFL season of 2018, but a player worth building a defence around.
5 – Saskatchewan Roughriders DL A.C. Leonard
Not since Duron Carter has a player had more of an entertaining and at times tragic ‘rough ride’ for the Green and White. Leonard was a terror with his quick burst and bending ability shortening the edge on pockets, but missed games and took fines for avoidable decisions. Correct some of the choices, refine his game and we could be looking at the best pass rusher of the next five CFL seasons.
4 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats LB Simoni Lawrence
Ho hum, another year of top flight tackling, a handful of sacks and a couple interceptions for Simoni Lawrence. In his eighth season already for Hamilton, Lawrence isn’t going anywhere but it appears neither is his ability to influence the game every snap.
3 – Hamilton Tiger-Cats DL Ja’Gared Davis
That one play in the Eastern Final, chasing down D.J. Foster was enough for me to make Davis a top-five pending free agent. Add in his dominance getting into the backfield in all three playoff games and you have a lock for interest across the league.
2 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers DL Willie Jefferson
Do I really need to explain this one? Last time Jefferson was up for free agency he was wined and dined by MLSE in an attempt to play in Double Blue, visited Hamilton for a tour of the facility and eventually returned to Winnipeg. Two championship rings later and rumoured to be setting down permanent roots in Manitoba it looks pretty smart, but that won’t stop executives from asking again.
1 – Winnipeg Blue Bombers LB Adam Bighill
While this top billing could be argued on behalf of Bighill’s on-field play, it’s his ability to set the tone of a locker room and hold everyone accountable that does it for me. Bighill is a leader, a top end playmaker and a productive middle linebacker. There are many powerful cogs in the Bombers’ wheel, but Bighill is one of the biggest.