January 25, 2023

O’Leary: The ripple effect of Bo’s signing

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

On Monday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats made me think of that parent that perks up from their seat when they realize things are a little too quiet at home.

The Ticats had been almost eerily silent through this off-season in terms of signing players ahead of the free agent market opening at noon ET on Feb. 14. When the lack of signings came up during team president and GM meetings earlier this month in Kananaskis, all that president of football operations and head coach Orlondo Steinauer offered was that work was being done and they’d continue to be quiet about it.

When a parent recognizes that silence, they can walk into a room full of marker art all over the walls, or a laundry detergent-fuelled slip-n-slide hallway. What the Ticats offered at the end of their silence was much more productive, as they announced on Tuesday that they’d come to terms with Bo Levi Mitchell on a three-year deal.

Mitchell’s signing was a lengthy process that, as he revealed at his introductory press conference, involved visiting with Ticats’ CEO Scott Mitchell while they were both in Hawaii on vacation. Mitchell had contact with officials from multiple levels of the organization before he put his name to that contract.

There were conversations with Steinauer and he wanted to be sure that coordinators Mark Washington and Tommy Condell would be on board this year. He mentioned a conversation with assistant GM and director of player personnel Spencer Zimmerman, who laid out the salaries of recent Grey Cup-winning quarterbacks.

As one Ticats exec said after Bo had been introduced and met with the media, this was a lengthy and important process for them. With that cannonball into the free agency pool, expect the Ticats to continue to make some waves as we get closer to Valentine’s Day.

The Ticats’ news on Tuesday should have a ripple effect on the free agency market. Here are a few of those ripples and other things I’m watching.

» Market Ready: The 2023 CFL Free Agent Tracker
» CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents
» O’Leary: Mitchell gets comfortable in Hamilton


Where will Dane Evans play this year? 

With Mitchell signed, sealed and feted in Hamilton on Tuesday, the question eventually came to Steinauer: What about Dane Evans?

“Dane’s under contract with us,” Steinauer said. “We’ve had conversations since we’ve acquired the rights (to Mitchell). Right now he’s a Hamilton Tiger-Cat and the next steps will be determined in the near future.”

Evans is poised to be a very interesting piece of this off-season, even though he’s under contract through 2023. If the 29-year-old were to leave the Ticats it would be through a trade or an outright release. From a Ticats’ perspective, a trade makes the most sense.

With Mitchell off the market, teams (cough, cough, Saskatchewan) that are looking at quarterbacks could look to pending FAs Trevor Harris and McLeod Bethel-Thompson as experienced starters. Or they could give Steinauer a call about Evans.

I’d like to see the REDBLACKS make that call. Sure, Evans may not want to take the demotion and likely subsequent pay cut required for this, but we’ve seen that Jeremiah Masoli and Evans are an excellent 1-2 punch. In Ottawa, Evans could provide the experienced backup QB depth GM Shawn Burke is looking for.

“I’m optimistically delusional, and I’ll always bet on myself,” Evans posted to his Instagram story Tuesday evening.

Perhaps Ottawa is an unlikely stop for Evans at this point, but it’s one I see as a great fit.

What will the Argos look like?

The Grey Cup champions are inching closer to free agency with a lot of questions still in the air. Does McLeod Bethel-Thompson call it a career after leading his team to the top of the CFL mountain? If so, does backup Chad Kelly get the keys to the offence or do the Argos look for a more experienced starter?

Which way do vets Henoc Muamba and Andrew Harris lean when they think about their already heavily decorated football careers on the heels of a storybook ending to 2022? Brandon Banks, the third vet in that group, was released by the team but hasn’t officially announced anything about his intentions yet. In the scenario that MBT, Muamba and Harris all return, the Argos could go into full run it back mode. If they don’t, general manager Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons and his staff will have to roll out a much different looking group for its Grey Cup defence this year.

Vernon Adams Jr. heads into an excellent opportunity in BC this year after Nathan Rourke made his move to the NFL (Christian Bender/CFL.ca)

My candidate to have a big 2023? Vernon Adams Jr.

No doubt, there’s a void left behind in the wake of Nathan Rourke‘s lightning-in-a-bottle season with the Lions. As I wrote after the news of Rourke’s signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, though, the Lions avoided a ton of off-season turmoil when they traded for Vernon Adams Jr. when Rourke was injured last year. There’s no jumping into the QB fracas this winter for co-GMs Neil McEvoy and Rick Campbell. They don’t have to envision what their offence would look like under Dane Evans, Cody Fajardo or Trevor Harris. Their Plan B was Plan A-good all along and he can seamlessly step in and perform for the Lions.

At his best in Montreal, Adams was a galvanizing force of big plays, big comebacks and big wins. I think McEvoy, Campbell and the Lions provide the perfect setting for VA to get back to that and to lead this team into another good season.

Maybe we’re all sleeping on Cody Fajardo

Right now, Cody Fajardo reminds me of Agent Michael Scarn at his lowest point in Threat Level Midnight. No, Fajardo didn’t have an evil president conspire with his greatest enemy to make him America’s most wanted criminal. But Fajardo does roam the pending free agent landscape with a similar vibe, with what he once knew to be his surroundings stripped down around him.

He was sacked dozens of times in a disappointing season while fighting through a knee injury. He was benched the week of the Riders’ must-win game in Hamilton in Week 20. Through all of that, he lost the confidence of the fans that had so fervently backed him when he became the team’s starter in 2019.

Last year’s Roughriders gave up a league-worst 77 sacks through 18 games. Cut that number in half and how much more productive is the Riders’ offence? How many more plays does Fajardo make? How many more touchdowns are scored and how many more games are won? If Fajardo can get the protection that any quarterback needs, what’s his ceiling?

In that 2019 season, he led the league in passing yards. In both 2019 and 2021, the only thing that stopped the Riders were the eventual Grey Cup champion Blue Bombers. Fajardo was third in passing in the shortened 2021 season, with 2,970 yards, behind Bo Levi Mitchell and Michael Reilly. I feel like that version of Fajardo is the one that a team could sign next month. A fresh start could be just what Fajardo needs to get his confidence back on track (anything but The Scarn Dance).

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