The Canadian Press
After we selected each West Division team’s most intriguing pending free agents last week, we turn our focus to the East. But before we do that, we’ve already had a few high-profile free agents come off the board!
David Menard – Our nomination last week for BC’s most intriguing pending free agent is coming back for another year. The defensive lineman was a beast off the edge in 2022 and finished with a career-high nine sacks, which was good for fourth in the league.
» Market Ready: The 2023 CFL Free Agent Tracker
» Steinberg’s MMQB: West Division’s most intriguing free agents
» Ferguson: Breaking down the free agent quarterbacks
» Nye: Top 3 pending FAs on every East team
Bryan Burnham – Speaking of the Lions, one of their all-time greats has opted to call it a career. In eight seasons with BC, Burnham was a five-time West Division All-Star and three-time CFL All-Star. During that time, he established himself as one of the league’s best possession receivers and one of the best to ever play the position with the Lions.
Reggie Begelton – Some in Calgary weren’t sure what Begelton was going to do with free agency approaching, but that question was answered quickly. The talented receiver returns to the Stamps for a sixth season and for a full year with Jake Maier at quarterback.
And now, to the East Division’s most intriguing pending free agents.
Toronto Argonauts: A.J. Ouellette, running back
The Argos don’t win the 109th Grey Cup without Ouellette and his two crucial, bruising touchdowns runs. And, let’s be honest: they probably aren’t in a position to play for the Grey Cup this year if not for how Ouellette stepped up in the regular season. Elevated to the top of the depth chart after Andrew Harris’s injury, Ouellette steadied Toronto’s run game and picked up all kinds of steam along the way.
It feels like Ouellette is just starting to scratch the surface of what he’s capable of in the CFL. He’s a physical runner who’s extremely difficult to bring down on first or second contact. Ouellette is also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield and put that on display multiple times in the second half of the season.
Obviously returning to the Argos is a solid option for Ouellette after winning it all last month. Even if Toronto and Harris re-up for another year, you can bet Ouellette would be a big factor in that offence if retained. But knowing how much there is to unlock with this player, I could see multiple teams putting significant offers in front of Ouellette if he made it to free agency.
Montreal Alouettes: Eugene Lewis, receiver
The 2022 East Division Most Outstanding Player has only known one CFL team, which is why a return to the Als seems most plausible here. Lewis loves Montreal and he’s developed into one of the league’s elite receivers during his five seasons there. But Lewis also knows the advantageous situation he finds himself in after another huge season.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, there’s going to be other teams that want me this year,” Lewis told the Montreal Gazette last month. “We’re not going to sit here and act like that’s not a real thing. Montreal’s in the driver’s seat right now because I’m still under contract. I know how old I am. We’re only in our prime as players for so long and we only do this for so long. At some point in time, you have to be a little selfish.”
Knowing how integral Lewis was/is to Montreal’s offence, making him one of the CFL’s highest paid receivers feels likely. But if that isn’t in the cards for whatever reason, Lewis is right: he’ll have multiple teams ready to reward him with a massive deal, much like what we saw one year ago with Kenny Lawler.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats: Bo Levi Mitchell, quarterback
The Ticats gave up significant assets to acquire Mitchell ahead of free agency, which gives them the obvious leg up. While Mitchell has stated multiple times he’s interested in going to market, Hamilton is still positioned as the frontrunner due to their obvious desire to make the two-time Most Outstanding Player their guy.
The Tiger-Cats would be a great landing spot for Mitchell. While the 2022 season didn’t live up to expectations, we’re still talking about a team with a highly respected head coach, a solid offensive line, a passionate group of fans, and a recent track record of winning. All those things tend to be important to players in Mitchell’s situation.
If he does hit the market, though, Mitchell will have options. Saskatchewan has long been rumoured as a destination for Mitchell and you don’t have to squint to see the fit. If Nathan Rourke ends up signing south of the border, the Lions will have a significant void to fill. In fact, with whispers about a potential McLeod Bethel-Thompson retirement in Toronto, there are likely more teams unsettled at quarterback than not.
Ottawa REDBLACKS: Lorenzo Mauldin IV, defensive line
After two seasons in Hamilton, Mauldin absolutely exploded in 2022 with Ottawa and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player as a result. Mauldin led the league with 17 sacks and finished with 43 defensive tackles and two forced fumbles to complete an absolutely dominant campaign.
Mauldin signed with Ottawa as a free agent ahead of the 2022 season and was an incredible fit. As such, exploring a second season with the REDBLACKS would make a lot of sense. For the team, you can see why keeping one of their bright spots from a frustrating season would be a priority, especially knowing how high the expectations were coming in.
But you can bet Mauldin knows how coveted players at his position are. Whether it’s been Willie Jefferson, Shawn Lemon, Ja’Gared Davis, or David Menard in recent years, imposing defensive linemen are sought after come February.