You know we are in the heart of the CFL off-season when you’re spending more time than you care to admit checking out the 2023 Free Agent Tracker. It looks like a phone book (anyone under 25 ask your parents what that is) and is filled with All-Stars.
This time of year is not just about preparing for the upcoming free agency roulette. It’s also about coaches getting hired, players healing up from the past season, and organizations executing their off-season programs.
Every general manager has a vision in their head about what an optimal winter looks like from internal development to landing that key pass rusher. Here is my ultimate wish list for each team during this “hibernation” period between the end of the Grey Cup and the official start to Free Agency in February.
I hate to say this because we all loved watching Nathan Rourke in 2022, but at the top of Rick Campbell’s list must be to instill a strong sense of ownership for Vernon Adams Jr. The Lions made a shrewd move at the end of August trading for the former Montreal Alouettes starter, and they need to be all-in on the former All-Star.
With 32 teams, the NFL is always desperate for quality passers, and I would be shocked if Rourke isn’t signed south of the border. For Adams Jr., this is an opportunity to prove the upward trajectory we saw in him in 2019 is still within him, and with a trio of 1,000-plus-yard receivers, he easily could have the most productive season of his career.
Also on the Lions’ wish list is continuity on the offensive line with every starter set to become a free agent. Finally, reserving the best banquet hall in Vancouver for an epic retirement party for Bryan Burnham better be high on Amar Doman’s list. Considering the atmosphere created at BC Place this year, I have no doubt Burnham will get the send worthy of a five-time West Division All-Star.
This is an easy one. What is top of the list is for Jake Maier to learn from last year’s playoff loss. Growth as a star quarterback is rarely a linear journey and the list of star athletes that experienced pain before glory is a lengthy one.
We saw more good than bad from the second-year passer as Maier went 6-3 as a starter after replacing Bo Levi Mitchell and finished with 14 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. Coach Dave Dickenson and his staff will no doubt use his 22-12-138 yard day in Calgary’s 30-16 playoff loss to the BC Lions as a springboard for a monumental off-season.
Much like with Adams Jr. in BC, Maier will look at the players surrounding him and realize the tremendous opportunity in front of him. The Stamps signed Reggie Begelton and the team’s leading rusher (Ka’Deem Carey), receiver Malik Henry, and starting centre (Sean McEwen) are all under contract for the upcoming season. Calgary led all CFL teams with West Division All-Star nominations and Maier’s growth this off-season could play such a big part of the fate of the entire West Division.
This may sound odd, but at the top of Chris Jones’ wish list is for Tre Ford to make his life as difficult as possible — in a good way.
The Elks’ head coach cannot be satisfied with his first year back with Edmonton, as the team finished dead last in passing yards. Taylor Cornelius showed plenty of flashes in 2022 but we know Jones is never afraid of shaking things up at the most important position in sports.
It’s been over 40 years since a quarterback was drafted as high as Ford was (eighth overall). I can’t imagine the team spent that sort of draft capital for a career backup. A perfect off-season means Ford continues to grow as a passer to the point where Jones and his coaching staff have to agonize about who gets to start in Week 1.
On a smaller, but still important wish level, Edmonton is hoping for a full recovery for veteran defensive back Aaron Grymes who was out all of last season with a torn ACL. With so much turnover going on in the Elks secondary, having a steady veteran presence can only benefit all the youth we will see next year.
Bob Young and Scott Mitchell must be wishing that Bo Levi Mitchell not only saw all the billboards welcoming him to Hamilton but that the multi–Grey Cup winner heeds them as well.
If advertising doesn’t work, Hamilton must ensure they retain the services of receiver Tim White. White went from “up and coming star” in his rookie 2021 season to All-Star status in his sophomore year, leading the league in receptions (94) while putting up 1,265 receiving yards. Bringing back one of the game’s best young receivers will go much further to getting Mitchell to sign a long-term deal than any amount of clever photoshopping.
The other big wish is far less tangible and that is for Orlondo Steinauer to remind his players this team is better than what their overall record was. The Tiger-Cats went 5-1 to conclude the season. That run included wins over Winnipeg and Calgary.
There were many deserving head coach candidates out there for the Alouettes brain trust to choose from. In Jason Maas, the team thinks it’s gotten it right.
Finding the right coach to steward a team with plenty of talent was at the top of the team’s wish list. Over the last decade Montreal has seen eight different individuals serving as head coach. The result has been just two playoff wins and one winning regular season. The Blue Bombers have shown what consistency within an organization can bring. A long stay on the Montreal sidelines for Maas is the perfect wish for the Als.
Speaking of new coaches, general manager Shawn Burke needs to get new coach Bob Dyce stability at quarterback. Last season Ottawa was last in offensive touchdowns. They could move the ball, as they were middle of the pack in total yards and second down conversion rate, and had the same average yards per play as the Toronto Argonauts.
The team’s inability to score touchdowns can be traced back to the early season-ending injury to Jeremiah Masoli. Despite getting a full season out of Darvin Adams and 15 games from Jaelon Acklin, Ottawa just didn’t get high enough production from the quarterback position.
As for Dyce, he has to be wishing he can have the same success that he had the last time he worked with fellow coaches Khari Jones and Barron Miles, who have been brought on board to serve as the team’s offensive and defensive coordinators. The last time they were all on the same sideline was as members of the 2013 Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders.
We can talk all we want about Cody Fajardo struggling to regain his 2019 form, but it is impossible to fully assess any quarterback when they are under the sort of pressure that Fajardo faced in 2022. It’s not just the fact that the Roughriders were last in sacks allowed, but it’s the sizeable gap between them and the second-worst pass blocking team in the CFL.
Saskatchewan allowed a franchise-worst 77 sacks which was 24 more than the second-worst team, the Edmonton Elks, who gave up 53. So yes, the top of the Jeremy O’Day’s wish list is to bolster the offensive line. My question is will it be through big game hunting in free agency and going after a Stanley Bryant or a Derek Dennis, or is it about internal development and under the radar signings like the recent additions of Jeremiah Poutasi and Jerald Hawkins?
Is there the equivalent of a “swear jar” for penalties that can be implemented and not go against any of the CBA rules? If so, the Riders coaching staff must be wishing for one as the team was last in penalties committed per game at 9.6.
I know there has been some chatter that McLeod Bethel-Thompson will retire, but if I’m Pinball Clemons, the No. 1 priority on my list is to sign their Grey Cup-winning quarterback to an extension.
This is taking nothing away from the late-game heroics by Chad Kelly, but you need two capable quarterbacks to win in this league. Just ask the BC Lions or the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
On a more psychological level, I bet management is wishing the players will do their best to fight off complacency. It’s a totally understandable emotion and we have seen it in all sports. So many teams fall flat on their face after winning a championship. When the Argonauts won the Grey Cup in 2012, they went on to have a sub .500 record with no playoff wins until upsetting Calgary in 2017. The year after the team went 4-14 but to be fair much of that was the result of Ricky Ray’s career-ending injury.
Of course, if your goal is to get to the Grey Cup, then Toronto must do whatever it takes to bring back the ultimate good luck charm in Ja’Gared Davis, who has been a part of the last six Grey Cups.
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
The team with the shortest wish list is the Grey Cup runner up Winnipeg Blue Bombers. With Zach Collaros, Dalton Schoen and Brady Oliveira all locked up the offence has an excellent foundation to build from and on the defensive side the return of Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill means the Bombers have only a couple stars hitting free agency.
As strange as this may sound, Kyle Walters will be hoping for a boring and uneventful off-season with no massive news beyond the retention of some quality offensive linemen.