February 9, 2023

Ferguson: The tangled web of CFL Free Agency

The Canadian Press

Early in the 19th century, Scottish author Sir Walter Scott put pen to paper producing the iconic phrase, ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.’ If you’re anything like me you’re probably only familiar with the first half of the statement. Never has it been more true than with CFL Free Agency in 2023.

I’ve covered a handful of these annual February festivals of musical chairs. Many years we play up the potential for large shakeups, only to fall flat. We’d go live on radio to bring you exclusive coverage of every tweet, tip, rumour and report as it came in but would sit there quietly mulling potential outcomes instead of news as teams reached out to players at the opening of free agency.

With the free agency negotiation window swinging wide open, the news is coming fast and free this week, like a linebacker untouched through the a-gap. The tangled web of cause and effect only becomes more intricate with each move. All of which is an eye-opening reading between the tea leaves of what it takes to build a Grey Cup contender.

I wish I was a big flow chart guy. They seem like a great way to break down information and potential outcomes into preconceived plans.

If ________ then _________.

Market Ready: The 2023 CFL Free Agent Tracker
» CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents
» Ferguson: What recent free agency extensions mean
Nye: Surveying a quickly changing QB landscape
» Costabile: A few thoughts a week from Free Agency

Quarterback extensions in Hamilton have made Dane Evans a moveable piece, with the Alouettes a possible destination for him (Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca)

It’s simple enough, right? When juggling salary caps, ratio implications, positional depth, player monetary demands, agent calls and much more, the formula starts to spawn out into its own tangled little monster of if and then scenarios.

Kids call them a fun game of mad libs. Adults call it a headache.

Regardless, it’s the reality of roster construction and often the team that best dances through these hoops is holding a big shiny trophy at the end of November. So how is it all interconnected? Without knowing the specifics from within each boardroom across the CFL, let’s imagine what the chain of causation could be on the multiple reports out currently.

We begin in November when Bo Levi Mitchell was traded from Calgary to Hamilton, giving the Ticats an early window to convince Bo he looks good in Black and Gold. That worked as he put his name to paper a few weeks ago, making Dane Evans a moveable piece for Orlondo Steinauer’s club. That notion was only reinforced when backup QB Matthew Shiltz extended this week.

With Evans available, Saskatchewan was thought to be in play until we saw news that Trevor Harris reportedly plans to sign with the Riders next week. That leaves Montreal as an open starting spot with Evans being the odds-on favourite. With his rights held by Hamilton, though, the Ticats can ask a steep price of the Als.

If Montreal isn’t willing to accept the cost of losing Harris just one year after trading away Vernon Adams Jr. to BC, then former Saskatchewan starter Cody Fajardo comes into play. The problem is Montreal’s new head coach Jason Maas just finished working with Fajardo before he was let go as offensive coordinator in Saskatchewan; a relationship that didn’t produce results matching expectations over two seasons.

Eugene Lewis is expected to test free agency next week, forcing teams to try to make salary room for an elite receiver (Peter McCabe/CFL.ca)

Harris reportedly heading to Saskatchewan means Montreal star receiver Eugene Lewis is less likely to stay in Montreal with QB uncertainty, forcing teams to shuffle their salary cap seeing if room for Lewis is possible this late in the financial juggling act.

Going to Saskatchewan with Harris appears to be receiver Jake Wieneke, which creates an opening for Greg Ellingson, who doesn’t appear to be staying with Winnipeg. His farewell is potentially signed by Kenny Lawler’s Instagram post saying goodbye to Edmonton as he seems set to return to the Blue and Gold of Manitoba.

All of this while Steven Dunbar reportedly leaves Hamilton for Edmonton and the Ticats’ Tim White aims to collect the respect earned last season from Hamilton or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the linebacker and running back landscape is shifting endlessly. Sean Thomas-Erlington has extended in Hamilton following the release of Don Jackson, but Wes Hills is rumoured to be of interest to Ottawa. If he leaves, the Ticats are reportedly interested in Lions’ RB James Butler, which could create an open door in BC to a newcomer or maybe a nostalgia tour for three-peat Grey Cup champion Andrew Harris?

Jovan Santos-Knox is reportedly headed to Ottawa which means Avery Williams‘ time in Red and Black could be coming to an abrupt end. However the Ticats appear ready to bring on Calgary star linebacker Jameer Thurman and potentially bring back Ja’Gared Davis after a year away in Toronto.

It’s not as though every action has an equal and opposite reaction, it’s messier than that. All of these transactions are connected and what unfolds in the high stakes game of CFL Free Agency over the coming week will shape your fandom and viewing experience all season long come kickoff in June.

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