January 12, 2023

CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

TORONTO — We are quickly closing in on one of the most highly-anticipated dates on the CFL calendar.

Free agency arrives Feb. 14 at noon ET, as contracts are set to expire, signalling plenty of movement on the way.

While some of the players listed will sign extensions, it’s time to release our annual list of the top 30 pending free agents.

The ranking was determined by a panel of CFL.ca staff and analysts, taking into account age, production, national status and position scarcity. It assumes players are testing free agency and avoids taking into account NFL potential, the possibility of retirement or the odds of signing a contract extension.

Finally, note that the players listed are only those whose contracts will expire on Feb. 14, not those who have been released.

Without further delay, here are CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents:

*Indicates national status.

Jump: 30-21 | 20-11 | 101

30
JOEL FIGUEROA
OL | BC

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

The 33-year-old left tackle played in all 18 of the Lions’ regular season games in 2022 and for the third time in his four years with the club was named the team’s outstanding offensive lineman as the club transitioned from Michael Reilly to Nathan Rourke at quarterback. Figueroa has thrived in his time with the Lions, signing extensions with them in 2018, 2021 and 2022. Should he choose to hit the open market, he’d no doubt have plenty of options.

29
FOLARIN ORIMOLADE
DL | CGY

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

His stats may not overwhelm you – he had 37 tackles, six sacks and an interception in 2022 – but Orimolade began to make a name for himself last year, his third with the Stamps. In the 17 games he played, the 27-year-old seemed to be all over the field and a magnet for big plays. The Stamps develop talent well and if Orimolade makes it to the open market, he’ll likely have a long list of teams that are interested in him. 

28
JAMEER THURMAN
LB | CGY

Larry McDougal/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

In his fourth season with the Stamps, Thurman made the move to middle linebacker and put together another impressive campaign. His 73 tackles were second-best on the team and he tied Titus Wall for the team lead in interceptions, with three. He was second on the team in forced fumbles, with two. Just 27, Thurman still has plenty of good football in front of him and will be a sought after player if he hits the open market on Valentine’s Day. 

27
MICAH JOHNSON
DL | HAM

The Canadian Press

THE LOW DOWN

At 34, Johnson still had a very productive year in Hamilton. The veteran defensive tackle put up seven sacks and was a key part of a Ticats’ defence that led the league in run defence. His age shouldn’t scare off too many GMs. Johnson has remained effective on the field and has names like Charleston Hughes and the recently retired John Bowman and Odell Willis to point to as examples of d-linemen that stayed impactful well into their 30s. 

26
GARRY PETERS
DB | BC

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Garry Peters was an integral part of the BC Lions defensive secondary in 2022, racking up a career-best five interceptions, just behind Jamal Peters’ six for the league-lead. The 31-year-old totalled 44 tackles on defence and three on special teams and would be a welcome addition to any team looking for a veteran to add to their roster if he leaves the Lions Den.

25
LARRY DEAN
LB | SSK

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Dean came all the way back from injury in 2022, finishing third in the league with 101 tackles, while adding three sacks and a pair of interceptions and forced fumbles. It was quite the showing after being out of the game for two years (with the pandemic preceding Dean’s 2021 training camp injury). At 34, we don’t know how long he can sustain that type of productivity but Dean has shown himself to be an excellent veteran presence on a team, which should have teams interested in his services this year. 

24
SHAWN LEMON
DL | CGY

Stampeders.com

THE LOW DOWN

In his 11th season in the CFL, Shawn Lemon proved to be a valuable asset to the Stampeders defensive line and showed no signs of slowing down his production. The 34-year-old was second in the league in sacks, tying his career-high with 14. He also had four forced fumbles to go along with 29 tackles. Any team hoping to upgrade their pass rush would welcome Lemon with open arms if he decides to depart from Cowtown.

23
PETE ROBERTSON
DL | SSK

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Something worth noting about Robertson when we look at his work from the 2022 season: the 30-year-old had seven of his nine sacks on the season in the first five weeks of play, before he was injured. The Riders were 4-1 at that point. Of course, you can’t attribute all of the good or bad of a team’s season to one person, but the Riders had a good thing going early on and it was disrupted. Robertson has a knack for getting to quarterbacks and that can help spark a defence and steer a team in the right direction in its season. 

22
ADARIUS PICKETT
DB/LB | MTL

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Pickett’s second season with the Als and in the CFL was a breakthrough. The 26-year-old had 73 tackles, an interception, four sacks and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries in 2022, as a Day 1 starter at the SAM linebacker spot. Pickett also found the end zone in a Week 19 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS. 

21
STEVEN DUNBAR
WR | HAM

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Think for a moment about the ups and downs that the Tiger-Cats endured in 2022. Hamilton receivers lined up last year at different points looking for passes from Dane Evans, Matthew Shiltz, Jamie Newman and Jalen Morton. Dunbar, 27, rolled with the punches and put together his first 1,000-yard season in just his second year in the league. Dunbar pulled in 72 passes and had six touchdowns last season, earning himself an East Division All-Star nod along the way. 

20
KAMERON KELLY
DB/LB | HAM

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

The 26-year-old made a big leap in his second season in the CFL, posting a career-best five interceptions (tied for second in the league) to go along with two sacks and 50 tackles. That effort was rewarded with Kelly being named an East Division and CFL All-Star last season for the first time in his career. An All-Star entering into his prime, Kelly should have plenty of options if he chooses to look beyond Hamilton in free agency.

19
JAMES BUTLER
RB | BC

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Butler burst onto the CFL scene for the 2022 season. The second-year back had seven rushing touchdowns and 1,060 yards, trailing CFL rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey (1,088) by just 28 yards. He also proved to be very effective in the receiving game. Butler led all running backs with 384 receiving yards and found his way to the end zone for four majors.

While the CFL is predicated on passing and downfield ball movement, the versatile skillset of the 27-year-old would make him an impactful offensive addition should he become a free agent in February.

18
JULIAN HOWSARE
DL | HAM

Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Howsare has demonstrated steady improvement in each of his four seasons since entering the league with the Ticats in 2018. In 2022, he produced a career-high seven sacks and tied with Malik Carney for the team lead. He added 30 tackles and two interceptions and was selected as an East Division All-Star for the first time in his career.

Howsare was a pillar among the Hamilton defensive line in 2022 and played a pivotal role in his team’s push for the final playoff spot in the East. In the Eastern Semi-Final against the Alouettes, Howsare elevated his play and registered seven tackles and sack.

17
JOVAN SANTOS-KNOX
LB | HAM

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Santos-Knox proved to be not only an integral part of Hamilton’s defence, but also showed he was one of the most consistent defensive players of the 2022 season.

He set a new career-high in tackles with 105 and finished second in the league in the category behind Saskatchewan’s Darnell Sankey (122). The fifth-year linebacker was named an East Division All-Star and helped lead a Tiger-Cats defensive front seven that allowed a league-low 82.9 rushing yards per game.

16
JA’GARED DAVIS
DL | TOR

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

If you’ve followed Davis’ career at all, you know what comes with every instance of his free agency. Sign this dogged pursuer of quarterbacks — this versatile defender that successfully played some impromptu DB in the 2021 Eastern Final to save a touchdown — and you’re headed to the Grey Cup. Davis has now played in six straight Grey Cup games and has a pair of rings to show for it. The 32-year-old is a one-man model of a winning culture, wherever he plays.

15
JANARION GRANT
WR/RET | WPG

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

In his third season in Winnipeg, Grant proved to be one of the most electrifying return specialists in the league. He showed off his game-breaking ability throughout the season and finished with 817 punt return yards and two punt return touchdowns, leading the league in both categories. Grant proved equally effective on kickoff return, running back 31 kicks for 782 yards and a touchdown return. He had two playoff return TDs, including a record 102-yard punt return score in the Grey Cup and any GM would surely love to add him to their special teams unit if he hits the open market.

14
JACKSON JEFFCOAT
DL | WPG
(EXTENDED 01/16/23)

Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

 Jeffcoat has been a key piece in what has become a revered Winnipeg defensive front seven. Should he become available there is no doubt his skillset and pass-rushing ability would make him a valuable asset along any defensive line.

Jeffcoat appeared in 12 regular season games with the Bombers this season, recording 20 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and his first interception since his rookie season in 2017. Despite suffering a Grey Cup loss, Jeffcoat’s impact on the championship game was undeniable, with two tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

13
TREVOR HARRIS
QB | MTL

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Harris enjoyed something of a renaissance in his first full season with the Alouettes, throwing for 4,157 yards with 20 touchdowns to 12 interceptions after he became the team’s starter in Week 3. More importantly, he helped get the Als past a slow start and into their first Eastern Final in eight years. Will the Als, under Harris’ former offensive coordinator and head coach Jason Maas, invest in a few more years with him to see if they can take the next step to the Grey Cup? If they don’t, Harris – who pours tremendous amounts of time and money into maintaining his fitness – clearly has something to offer to a team. 

12
MCLEOD BETHEL-THOMPSON
QB | TOR

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

There has been some uncertainty surrounding the future of Toronto Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, but there’s no denying his ability to play one of the games most important positions.

The veteran quarterback finished the year as the league-leader in passing yards with 4,731, while his 23 touchdown passes ranked him third. Bethel-Thompson set new career-highs in passing yards, attempts (579) and completions (387) en route to posting the best statistical season of his career and helping lead Toronto to their first Grey Cup championship since 2017. Does he stay in Toronto or decide to take his talents elsewhere?

11
TIM WHITE
WR | HAM

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Tim White provided a steady set of hands and a proved to be a threat downfield with his play-making ability in 2022. The second-year receiver finished the season as the most targeted receiver in the CFL (145) and totalled 1,265 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Will he be a Tiger-Cat next season or will he decide to see what else is out there? 

10
KURLEIGH GITTENS JR.*
WR | TOR

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

In what was a breakout season for the Canadian pass-catcher, Kurleigh Gittens Jr. recorded his first 1,000-yard season with 1,101 yards, and a career-high five touchdown receptions, leading the Argos’ passing attack. If he doesn’t return to the Argos in 2023, any team looking for an impact receiver with a Canadian passport will take an interest in the 25-year-old.

9
WYNTON McMANIS
LB | TOR

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Before being sidelined with an injury, Wynton McManis was having an excellent season in the Double Blue and was in the conversation for the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player. His eventual game-winning pick-six at Touchdown Atlantic comes to mind when thinking about the big plays that McManis had in 2022. The Argos will surely want to try to keep the WILL linebacker in Toronto as they look to repeat as Grey Cup Champions, but if he does look to test the market, he’ll have options.

8
CAMERON JUDGE*
LB | CGY
(EXTENDED 01/19/23)

Stampeders.com

THE LOW DOWN

Cameron Judge was a big piece of the front seven in Calgary last season that was one of the best in the league. The linebacker enjoyed a career year in his first campaign with the Stamps, tallying 78 tackles, five sacks, two interceptions, two touchdowns, and two forced fumbles. Plus, the 28-year-old holds a Canadian passport, making him extremely valuable to any team who wants to add a ratio-breaking defender to their roster.

7
CODY FAJARDO
QB | SSK

The Canadian Press

THE LOW DOWN

There has been much chatter about Cody Fajardo and if he will remain in Riderville in 2023 but if he doesn’t, he’ll be a welcome addition to any squad looking for a dual-threat quarterback. Fajardo finished the 2022 season with 3,360 passing yards to go along with 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He also used his legs, calling his own number 81 times for 357 yards and eight major scores.

6
NIC DEMSKI*
WR | WPG

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

A versatile, impact receiver with a Canadian passport? That sounds like every general manager’s dream. Demski is coming off his best season in the CFL, hitting career highs in yards (772), touchdowns (10), and receptions (64), playing in just 13 games. The Winnipeg native has enjoyed his time with the Blue Bombers and it’s likely that Kyle Walters will want to keep him around. But the 29-year-old could want to see what else is out there and if he does, he should have his pick of where he wants to play.

5
DARNELL SANKEY
LB | SSK

The Canadian Press

THE LOW DOWN

Darnell Sankey has led the league in tackles in two-straight seasons, solidifying himself as one of the best linebackers in the business. For any team looking for a defender who has a nose for the football, Sankey would be a welcome addition if he does decide to test the open waters. The 28-year-old tallied 120 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and his first career interception in his first season in Riderville. Will he stay put or explore his options?

4
KENNY LAWLER
WR | EDM

GoElks.com

THE LOW DOWN

Despite his Edmonton Elks having a difficult season, Kenny Lawler still impressed in his first year in Green and Gold and will likely be a hot commodity if he does indeed hit the open market in February. In just 12 games, Lawler racked up 894 yards and five touchdowns on 58 catches. Will Chris Jones and Co. make sure the 28-year-old stays in Edmonton or will Lawler find a new home?

3
LORENZO MAULDIN IV
DL | OTT
(EXTENDED 01/18/23)

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

Lorenzo Mauldin IV racked up a league-leading 17 sacks last season, helping the REDBLACKS to a 47-sack season (second in the league). The 2022 Most Outstanding Defensive Player also tallied 43 tackles and two forced fumbles in his first year in the nation’s capital and will immediately add to any defence looking to upgrade its pass rush if he does indeed hit the open market.

2
EUGENE LEWIS
WR | MTL

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

If you searched “CFL highlight reel catch” in 2022, you’d likely be directed to a video of Eugene Lewis. The MOP runner up was third in the league in receiving yards with 1,303 on 91 catches. If he doesn’t decide to sign an extension with the Montreal Alouettes, the 29-year-old will be a welcome addition to any team looking for an impact pass-catcher.

1
BO LEVI MITCHELL
QB | HAM
(EXTENDED 01/24/23)

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

THE LOW DOWN

While the two-time Grey Cup champion and a two-time Most Outstanding Player’s contract currently resides with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who knows if he signs on the dotted line before his contract expires in February? If he doesn’t, his winning record (90-25-2) through his 10 CFL seasons with the Stampeders and his command of the huddle will be a welcome addition to any team looking for a gunslinger to call the shots in their offence.

 

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