CFL free agency is upon us! It’s the busiest time of the year for all CFL fans, when you realize which one of your favourite players could be on the move while simultaneously dreaming of plucking that All-Star receiver from your hated rival.
While Willie Jefferson’s recent extension with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers took away one per cent of the off-season drama, that still leaves us with plenty of All-Stars, difference makers and young up-and comers to speculate about. When you look at the list, in most cases there is an obvious name that immediately attracts your attention but I’m curious about that “other” player that may get overlooked but could have a significant impact on the 2023 season no matter where they end up.
Let’s take a look at the free agent star attraction for each team and the player I’m more curious to see what their fate is.
Obvious Star Attraction: Nathan Rourke. Technically not on this list…but come on!
Player that has my attention: James Butler
If the Lions do indeed lose Rourke they are going to need to retain/sign as many playmakers as they can get and Butler is one of those rare running backs that you can run much of your offence through. Butler ended the year second in rushing, but it is his offensive versatility that sticks out. Butler’s 384 receiving yards receiving led all CFL running backs in 2021.
Obvious Star Attraction: Shawn Lemon. By putting up 14 sacks to lead the West, Lemon’s numbers prove that age is just a number.
Player that has my attention: Cameron Judge
An elite Canadian linebacker under the age of 30, Judge certainly checks off all the boxes. His time in Toronto last year was a tough season for Cameron but he more than made up for it in 2022, putting together his finest season. He filled the stat sheet in every defensive category including getting his hands on five fumble recoveries. For his efforts, Judge was named both a West Division All-Star and a CFL All-Star.
Obvious Star Attraction: Kenny Lawler. The Elks’ leading receiver put up strong numbers when you consider the uncertainty the team faced for stretches at quarterback.
Player that has my attention: Jake Ceresna
Standing six-foot-five and nearly 300 pounds, Ceresna was an absolute menace at defensive tackle, putting up edge rusher-like sack numbers, with 10 in only a dozen games played. Ceresna was comfortable playing in the middle of all the chaos or lining up on the edge. Ceresna is physical freak who will draw double teams wherever he ends up suiting up in 2023. There are not that many players manning his position that have put the level of pass rush production as Ceresna (23 sacks in his last 43 games) has amassed over the past three seasons.
Obvious Star Attraction: Bo Levi Mitchell. Does he surprise the football world and sign with Hamilton or travel across Canada to be wined and dined by as many franchises as possible?
Player that has my attention: Kameron Kelly
Kameron made the honourable mentions in Chris O’Leary’s Alternate End of Season Awards column. What’s not to love about such a versatile defender that has yet to miss a game in his two-year CFL career, finished second with five interceptions and is just 26 years old? Kelly is that do-it-all linebacker that can be one of the centre pieces for any dominant defence.
Obvious Star Attraction: Trevor Harris and Eugene Lewis. You know what you are going to get with Harris: lots of production in the regular season and at least a playoff win. Lewis has been the best receiver in the CFL the last two years.
Player that has my attention: Jake Wieneke
A deep threat in his college days, Wieneke burst onto the scene last season finishing the year with the highest average yards per catch among receivers, with 30-plus receptions and led the league in receiving touchdowns (11). Wieneke had a down season by his standards in 2022 but did end the year strong with a 5-121-TD game in the final game of the regular season and in a 28-17 playoff win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Wieneke put up 60 yards and scored the game’s opening touchdown.
Obvious Star Attraction: Lorenzo Mauldin IV. Fair to say the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player is on every team’s radar. Question will be, who will be able to afford him?
Player that has my attention: Devonte Dedmon
2022 was a lost CFL season for one of the game’s best return men, but so much of that was his eight-month-long Canadian hiatus as he hooked up with the Miami Dolphins in late January and did not return to the REDBLACKS until late August.
By this point it was a lost season for the organization who was 1-8 when he re-signed. It was only a year ago that Dedmon went full Gizmo Williams, winning Most Outstanding Special Teams Player with 2,841 return yards and three touchdowns, becoming the quickest special teamer to score five return touchdowns. Dedmon can be the ultimate field position weapon, which would be helpful for a team breaking in a younger/less experienced quarterback.
Obvious Star Attraction: Cody Fajardo. There is no way they find a way to reunite, is there?
Player that has my attention: Pete Robertson
Robertson kickstarted the 2022 season in style with seven sacks in the Roughriders’ first four games before a broken foot in Week 5 sidelined him for over 40 days. I remember doing some reckless speculation about Robertson going after James Parker’s 1984 single-season record of 26.5 sacks. The second-year defensive linemen still finished the year tied for fourth in sacks with nine and elite pass rushers are always in high demand. Want proof? Just ask the Argonauts, who needed all four sacks on Zach Collaros to capture the Grey Cup.
Obvious Star Attraction: McLeod Bethel-Thompson. His future has become that much more fascinating now that he has a Grey Cup victory in his resume.
Player that has my attention: Kurleigh Gittens Jr.
I admit this one is a bit of a cheat on my part. I know that sports fans can have short memories, but I have no doubt everyone will be interested in the two-time All-Star receiver. This is more of a public service announcement to not get down on the former Laurier Golden Hawk star for being shut out in the Grey Cup. Gittens caught all nine passes he was targeted on in the Eastern Final, tallying just under 100 yards and caught the final touchdown in Toronto’s 34-27 win over the Montreal Alouettes.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Obvious Star Attraction: Stanley Bryant. The league’s greatest offensive linemen for the past decade would look really weird in any other jersey.
Player that has my attention: Janarion Grant
Grant was not as prolific as some of the other return specialists like Terry Williams and Peyton Logan, yet he still finished the year second in punt return yards and third on kickoff returns. In the post-season however, the 2022 All-Star finished with a ridiculous 433 return yards, two touchdowns and if not for a Robbie Smith blocked field goal it would have been Grant and not Henoc Muamba standing on that stage receiving the 109th Grey Cup’s Most Valuable Player award.