February 16, 2023

Sneaky Work: Nye’s under the radar signings


In CFL free agency, I love the guys who are signed and make a small ripple on free agent day and then make a huge splash in-season.

I’ve been writing the Sneaky Good Free Agent Signings for a few years and of course with everything, there are swings and misses but also the home runs.

Last year, Lorenzo Mauldin IV and Tyrice Beverette landed in this column. With a bigger role given to them they each took full advantage, as Mauldin walked away with the Most Outstanding Defensive Player award and Beverette turned into a breakout performer for the Alouettes.

So here is a look at a player for each team that I think could live up to those sneaky good signings from last year.

Market Open: The 2023 CFL Free Agent Tracker
» CFL.ca’s top 30 free agents
» A team-by-team look at Free Agency
 An impactful free agent signing for every team
» O’Leary: Fajardo embraces new opportunity with Als

A diligent special teamer through his career, Kevin Francis will bring a boost to the Elks (Christian Bender/CFL.ca)

EDMONTON ELKS: Linebacker Kevin Francis

Can a player appear on this list twice in a career?

Absolutely they can! Especially when they are a special teams specialist.

Kevin Francis re-joins Chris Jones in Edmonton after collecting 22 special teams tackles last year for the Lions.

Jones brought Francis into the league in Saskatchewan and Francis was tasked with being a key special teams contributor and he answered the call. Though injuries set him back, Francis was back to health and had his best year yet last season.

Edmonton will enjoy Francis’ commitment to making plays by being among the first downfield on punt and kick coverage.

BC LIONS: Offensive lineman Chris Schleuger

The Lions lost a few offensive lineman in free agency with star left tackle Joel Figueroa heading to Hamilton and starting centre Peter Godber to Saskatchewan.

The Lions brought in Michael Couture from the Bombers to fill the middle. Couture has been a Grey Cup champion before heading ‘home’ to the Lions.

The other signing won’t be labelled as a big one but Chris Schleuger is looking for a new chance in a new home. I think of a similar story to Figueroa, who didn’t exactly lock it down early in his CFL career but became an All-Star as the years progressed when he got a bigger look in Edmonton and then BC.

Schleuger will look to take advantage of his opportunity on the west coast and the Lions are hoping to find a diamond in the rough to re-solidify their offensive line.

CALGARY STAMPEDERS: Linebacker Silas Stewart

Note, the Calgary Stampeders have only signed one free agent, in defensive end Julian Howsare and you can’t put him down as a sneaky signing. So I’m going to have to cheat and go with a sneaky re-signing/extension for the Stampeders.

Silas Stewart will win that award. With Jameer Thurman off to Hamilton, Stewart will fit nicely in the middle of the defence if called upon.

When you have 35 defensive tackles and 20 special teams tackles, it shows that you were putting in maximum effort whenever you stepped on the field, as Stewart was a rotational player on the Stamps’ defence.

I’m definitely looking for Stewart to be another Stampeder ‘find’ that they just roll in a young player who will become a potential All-Star.

Stefen Banks will look to grow on the Riders’ defensive line this season (The Canadian Press)

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS: TIE! D-lineman Stefen Banks and receiver Shawn Bane Jr.

If you’re looking for a steal of a signing, sometimes getting a young guy from the Stampeders’ system is the way to go.

Stefen Banks and Shawn Bane Jr. are those types of players. Two guys looking to become CFL mainstays in the lineup.

Banks wasn’t able to establish himself as a regular for the Stampeders’ defensive line, but in a rotational role showed flashes as a pass rusher.

Bane is a big play threat with his speed and already has a career long play of 80-yards in the receiving game. Wherever the Riders end up putting Bane on the field, he will challenge defences deep as well as taking short passes for some big gains.

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS: Defensive back Desmond Lawrence

Kenny Lawler is unable to be eligible for this column, so I have to do what I did with the Stampeders and go with a sneaky good extension.

I fall on Desmond Lawrence. Another former Tiger-Cat who was picked up late in the season by the Bombers and last year’s big sneaky signings both were former Tiger-Cats who got a bigger role elsewhere.

Lawrence could find a role if Nicholas Taylor and Mercy Maston remain unsigned in Winnipeg. Lawrence is the perfect example of the type of player Winnipeg needs to shine with contracts at or near the league minimum in order to re-sign some of their superstars.

TORONTO ARGONAUTS: Offensive lineman Darius Ciraco

The Toronto Argonauts got picked over a bit along the offensive line with Justin Lawrence going to Montreal and Philip Blake heading back to Saskatchewan.

Darius Ciraco wasn’t a big splash on Day 1 but finding a young, experienced National who can anchor an offensive line is a huge signing for any team.

The former sixth round pick was able to get a more regular role in Ottawa last year and will be called upon again to stabilize the offensive line with some big departures this off-season.

Ciraco has just turned 27 and is the perfect age to take his game to an All-Star level with the experience he’s built up already in the CFL. Or at least, the Argos will be hoping so.

Casey Sayles will look to play the role that Micah Johnson did at defensive tackle for a reloaded Ticats team (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

HAMILTON TIGER-CATS: TIE! D-tackle Casey Sayles and defensive back Javien Elliott

Did the Tiger-Cats sign anyone you can actually put as a sneaky signing?

Jameer Thurman, Duke Williams, Joel Figueroa, James Butler and Ja’Gared Davis are All-Star-level players who are being brought in to turn the Tiger-Cats back into a dominant force in the East. But there are a few guys brought in who will fly under the radar because of the big names Hamilton has signed, including quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who was inked on Jan. 24.

Casey Sayles and Javien Elliott won’t come in with the name recognition as the others but they will have a big impact on the success. Sayles is turning into a great defensive tackle, who has 11 sacks in two seasons. Sayles will fill the hole left by Micah Johnson.

Elliott has a bunch of pro experience but has yet to see the field much in the CFL. He’s full of talent and I have my eye on him to be the type of defensive back we don’t hear much about because teams fear throwing to his area of the field.

OTTAWA REDBLACKS: Linebacker Gary Johnson Jr.

There are many in Saskatchewan who have sat near me in the press box at Rider games who will know my excitement over Gary Johnson Jr.

He has delivered some of the biggest hits we’ve seen in the last few years. Because of injury and lack of injury to starting linebackers when he has been healthy, we’ve only seen him on special teams for the most part.

The man had 10 special teams tackles in six games in 2021. He can get after the ball and if he can win a spot to replace Avery Williams in Ottawa, I think he’ll be in the 70-plus tackle range.

MONTREAL ALOUETTES: Long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa

I really liked the work the Alouettes were able to do under trying circumstances off the field. They were able to fill some holes, though there is more work to do.

However if we’re going to sneaky good signings, nothing is more sneaky than getting a long snapper after yours retires.

Pierre-Luc Caron has retired so it’s best to find someone who can get that ball back on field goals and punts ASAP.

Enter Louis-Philippe Bourassa.

Bourassa previously played for Danny Maciocia at the University of Montreal so the general manager knows they are getting as reliable a long snapper as you can find in free agency.

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