Photo: The Canadian Press
TORONTO — The free agent market officially opens up at noon ET on Feb. 8. While teams have been hard at work trying to sign their key players ahead of next month’s deadline, many appear set to hit the open market in just three weeks’ time.
This year’s pending free agent list is a long one, full of talent in just about every way that a team will need, from all-star calibre starting quarterbacks, to impact players on offence, defence and special teams.
With CFL.ca’s annual Top-30 free agent list coming out on Wednesday, we’ll start with a prospective look at the top of the mountain and ask: Who is the most coveted pending free agent in the 2022 class?
The answer to that question always starts at quarterback and the reigning MOP and back-to-back Grey Cup champion, Zach Collaros, makes a strong case to be the first name on the list. His former teammate in Hamilton, Jeremiah Masoli, heads into free agency as well and the 2019 East nominee for MOP should have the interest of a number of teams across the league.
There are other factors to consider at this time of year, too. We all know the impact that an elite Canadian player can have for a team’s ratio. For teams that have their quarterback in place, an o-lineman, receiver or running back could be the next needed piece in the puzzle. For teams that felt they gave up too much to their opponents in 2021, a defensive player or two could be the top priority and could lift their value beyond simply listing the free agent class as a talent ranking.
There’s also the endless appeal of getting younger at any position, in hopes of propping a team’s championship window open a little longer.
Let’s start with the reigning Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who have been steadily extending players these last few weeks. As busy as GM Kyle Walters and his staff have been, they still have some high profile players to come to terms with, in Collaros, o-lineman Stanley Bryant, running back Andrew Harris, receiver Kenny Lawler and linebacker Adam Bighill.
Collaros has to be priority No. 1 for the Bombers, as his arrival in 2019 lifted the team from perennial contender to champions, to the unstoppable force that they were in 2021. His fit with the club has been well-documented and the hardware that has followed Collaros to Winnipeg — two Grey Cup wins and the 2021 MOP — speaks for itself.
Bryant and Harris will also be high on the Bombers’ list. Bryant won the third Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award of his career in 2021 and is an integral part of the Bombers’ dominant o-line. Then there’s the guy that the o-line is opening up holes for. Harris struggled with injuries for much of the 2021 season, playing in seven games, but showed he can still dominate games when he’s healthy. He rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown in the Western Final and added 80 yards on the ground in the Bombers’ Grey Cup win. At 35 when the season starts, Harris is pushing back Father Time just as well as he is d-linemen and linebackers.
A three-time Most Outstanding Defensive Player, including in 2021, Bighill helped anchor one of the league’s most dominant defences ever. Lawler had a breakthrough year as a receiver, finishing atop the league with 1,014 yards. The 27-year-0ld will be in high demand if he opts to explore options outside of Winnipeg this winter.
Outside of quarterbacks, receiver Bryan Burnham will be at the top of many teams’ lists, should he make it to free agency. The 31-year-old is arguably the league’s top receiver and was just 35 yards shy of cracking the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the fifth consecutive season. Paired with an elite quarterback, Burnham would be a tremendous addition to any offence looking for punch in 2022.
Along with Collaros, teams will have a few options if they’re looking to make some changes at quarterback. Dane Evans‘ extension in Hamilton will send Jeremiah Masoli into the free agent market, where his opponent in the Eastern Final this year, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, appears to be headed as well. After a tumultuous season in Edmonton that saw him traded to Montreal in October, Trevor Harris was released by the Als after their playoff loss and is also available to teams.
Masoli was fifth in the league in passing yards (2,445) with 10 touchdowns to six interceptions and Bethel-Thompson was sixth (2,303), with 12 TDs and 11 interceptions. Harris finished the season with 2,271 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games.
We’ve touched on Hamilton a few times (and will again shortly) but after mentioning Bighill, we should turn our attention for a moment to the man that’s been in that Outstanding Defensive Player conversation the last two seasons, in Simoni Lawrence. The 32-year-old linebacker had the two best seasons of his nine-year career in 2019 and 2021. While his allegiances seem to be woven into the Ticats’ Black and Gold, Lawrence would be a huge addition to any team.
While Andrew Harris might be the highest profile Canadian free agent, there are plenty of other impact players that can help a team’s ratio. Just like last year, linebackers Henoc Muamba and Cameron Judge have expiring contracts. Muamba had 49 tackles, an interception and two sacks with the Argos through 10 games in 2021. Judge, who was the West nominee for Outstanding Canadian in 2019, had a quieter year alongside Muamba, but will likely draw interest from teams that know what he’s capable of.
Edmonton defensive end Kwaku Boateng will likely be high on many teams’ lists. The 26-year-old had something of a down season in 2021, with just four sacks, but posted eight in 2019 and nine in 2018. The Wilfrid Laurier product should have plenty of options if he wants to look at them next month. Ticats’ defensive back Tunde Adeleke should be in a similar situation, coming off of a strong playoff showing and a 44-tackle, two-sack, two-interception season in 2021.
Finally, you can’t talk impact signings without looking at o-linemen. Americans Brandon Revenberg and Ryker Matthews remain unsigned and there are plenty of talented Canadian OLs out there, including Stampeders Sean McEwen and Zack Williams, Edmonton veteran Matthew O’Donnell, the Riders’ Brett Boyko and BC’s Brett Boyko.
There’s a long list of players to choose from and a number of different ways to define who the most valuable free agent is this year. Who’s your pick?