February 14, 2023

O’Leary: Enjoying the ride of Day 1 of Free Agency


Having hunkered down in front of a laptop at the start of free agency a few times now, I’m still surprised at how things unfold every year.

The first 30 or so minutes of the open market often feel like you’re sitting in a roller coaster car at a complete standstill at the highest possible point. You know something’s about to happen and soon, but you don’t really know when it’s coming.

Then the transactions start to roll in and inevitably some of the stuff you were expecting goes in an entirely different direction. Some of the bigger stories that were reported over the past week through the league’s negotiation window — Kenny Lawler to the Bombers, Eugene Lewis to the Elks, Trevor Harris to Saskatchewan and Cody Fajardo to Montreal — came to fruition, a smooth landing of the plane in four different CFL markets.

Others are taking a little longer, flights delayed, or circling thousands of feet above the ground. You just hope that they don’t meet a worse fate, like arriving at a gate-less Pearson Airport with a wonky luggage belt. While we wait for more news to roll in, here’s what stood out to me on Day 1 of Free Agency.

Market Open: The 2023 CFL Free Agent Tracker
» CFL.ca’s top 30 free agents
» A team-by-team look at Free Agency
 Heading to Riderville: Harris signs with Saskatchewan
» East To West: Lewis touches down in Edmonton


Some of the finest hooves in the league

The Edmonton Elks had a clear target in free agency this year: get some talented receivers around their young quarterback.

Taylor Cornelius will have no shortage of options when the Elks open their season on June 11 in Saskatchewan. Lewis, who we mentioned up above, is a big signing for them and one of the very few players in the league that you can legitimately call a plug and play replacement for Lawler. Steven Dunbar Jr. was a 1,000-yard receiver last season and an East Division All-Star. Joining them will be Kyran Moore, who leaves Saskatchewan after four seasons looking to carve out a role in a talented receiving corps that already bolsters Dillon Mitchell and Manny Arceneaux, to name a couple.

Elks don’t have hands, but these ones should be able to pull in plenty of catches this year, as Chris Jones eyes getting the franchise back into the playoffs for the first time since 2019.

Keep an eye on the quiet ones

It’s been alluded to around here before that sometimes it’s the quiet teams that end up making the most noise in the long run. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats were an example of this in the weeks and months after the Grey Cup had been handed out. They broke that silence by announcing they’d come to terms with Bo Levi Mitchell.

We all saw lots of reporting over the last week about moves that the Ticats would be set to make when the market opened. Just because they haven’t been announced yet doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve gone astray. I’m not yet willing to remove the All-In Tiger-Cats crown I put on them heading into last weekend. Hosting the Grey Cup and coming off of a season that was below the standard for the Ticats org, I still think big things are set to happen for them.

Just before the market opened on Tuesday morning, I listened to Derek Taylor and Marshall Ferguson talk all things free agency on Twitter. DT mentioned how quiet the Stamps had been but yet wasn’t worried because, well, they’re the Stamps and they’re consistently great. Their venture in the free agency pool was a precise dive that would have impressed the toughest Olympic judge, picking up All-Star defensive lineman Julian Howsare. It’s one of those signings that once you see it you realize just how perfect a fit the do-a-little-of-everything Howsare will be in Calgary.

That brings us to Winnipeg, where the Bombers made a big move in getting Lawler to re-join them a year after he left in free agency to play for the Elks. Assuming Dalton Schoen is back, the Bombers now have two players that could lead the league in receiving (a dynamic Greg Ellingson offered before injury slowed him last year), with the freshly extended Nic Demski a part of that group, coming off of a career season. The team that’s dominated the league for the last few years just got better today. That’s a scary thought.

Speaking of domination

Folarin Orimolade brings big play ability and upside to a talented Toronto Argonauts’ defence (Stampeders.com)

If we’re going to mention the Bombers’ dominance, what better spot than here to mention the only team that’s been able to hand them a playoff loss in the last three years?

The Toronto Argonauts also got better today, adding Adarius Pickett, Tyler Costigan and Folarin Orimolade to their defence. All three were impact players in 2022 and all three still have room to grow as players, which is a scary thought when you add them an Argos’ defence that fed off of turnovers and disruption.

One day into the open market, we still don’t have word on McLeod Bethel-Thompson‘s plans. That leaves some uncertainty on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, the Argos look like they’ll return a championship-winning group that will be poised to take a step forward.

The QB “swap” in Montreal and Saskatchewan

It was in a sense a trade without either team’s GM having to have the conversation. Trevor Harris has landed in Saskatchewan and Cody Fajardo is now an Alouette.

In Saskatchewan, the change in direction at quarterback was something telegraphed months ago. Let’s stick with Riderville and what else happened there today. If you throw Harris into Fajardo’s spot of a year ago, I don’t think you see much of a different result. When your team surrenders 77 sacks, you don’t stand much of a chance of winning a lot of games.

To that end, Riders’ GM Jeremy O’Day went after some new hefty bodies to place in front of Harris. Philip Blake generated some buzz in Saskatchewan this afternoon when his signing was announced. A Rider in 2018 and 2019, Blake thrived through the last two seasons in Toronto, helping them to that upset win over the Bombers in the 109th Grey Cup.

Capable of playing multiple spots on the o-line, Blake’s arrival might have felt like the skies finally opening up after a drought of a summer in Saskatchewan.

Add in BC vet Peter Godber and it feels like the Riders were able to take some steps toward helping keep Harris upright this season.

The Als are rife with change. While Fajardo stands to get better protection this year than he did last, GM Danny Maciocia faces the tough task of replacing the productivity that Lewis brought to his team’s offence. We can come away from Day 1 of Free Agency with this thought: the Als have the guy they want at quarterback for this year, plus his backups, which is a crucial off-season box to check (one that not all teams manage to do in February). The coming days and weeks will be busy ones for the Als as they continue to load up and re-tool for 2023.

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