February 17, 2023

O’Leary: Who made the biggest FA splash?

Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

There’s a lot that can go into making a splash that outperforms all the rest.

Last fall, the Ohio Bobcats — a Div. 1 NCAA school that’s recently handed the CFL the likes of Nathan Rourke, A.J. Ouellette and Maleek Ironshosted an open cannonball contest to promote an upcoming meet for their dive and swim teams.

This was a purely amateur event. There were no renowned board benders on campus for this thing, just eager, committed students, fuelled by the giddiness that taking part in communal foolishness brings. Sedric Granger, a student-journalist that emceed the event, gave some solid insight into how to come out on top in this environment.

“It’s cool to have a cannonball,” he told his school paper, The Post. “But if you have a way of like doing a flip while doing it, or maybe a spin, just add a little razzle dazzle, that can be something that can separate you from the rest of the competition.”

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Ja’Gared Davis heads back to Hamilton, as the organization eyes playing in the Grey Cup at Tim Hortons Field in Nov. (Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca)

Those of us judging which team might have made the biggest splash in the CFL Free Agency pool this week may not be that different. We can be suckers for a flip, a spin, a little razzle dazzle. Who isn’t oohed and aahed by the instant wave created by a perfectly executed cannonball?

Last year, it was Ottawa REDBLACKS’ GM Shawn Burke pulling his knees to his chest and holding his breath as the free agency market opened. Freshly hired into the GM role at the time, Burke’s roster overhaul was necessary and were it not for Jeremiah Masoli‘s injury early in the 2022 season, stood a great chance of being successful.

This year it’s Burke’s former employer, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, that have chased that franchise-altering wave of change.

Unhappy with their 8-10 finish and first-round playoff exit and no doubt thinking about their role in hosting the 110th Grey Cup in November, the Ticats have gone all-in. They’ve added a league-leading 12 new players to their roster as of Friday afternoon. That doesn’t include perhaps their most significant change going into the 2023 season. Ticats president of football operations and head coach Orlondo Steinauer traded for, then signed quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to an extension just over two weeks before the free agent market opened up.

Mitchell’s Instagram stories this week have been an endless celebration of his new teammates. There are some Calgary connections with Javien Elliott, Ja’Gared Davis, Jameer Thurman and Fraser Sopik. He’ll have Joel Figueroa protecting him on the offensive line and on Friday morning, Mitchell was shouting out the re-signed Simoni Lawrence and the opportunity to finally play on the same team as him.

Joel Figueroa will make the cross-country move to Hamilton to protect Bo Levi Mitchell this year (The Canadian Press)

The Ticats are built to be competitive this season. Some teams will try to deflect the pressure that comes with hosting a Grey Cup. Mitchell will lead this new-look Black and Gold team into an embracing of that pressure and taking on the team’s Grey Cup drought that stretches back to 1999. Whether it’s biggest splash or biggest collective series of splashes, the Ticats lead the way this winter.

Of course, winning in February doesn’t guarantee wins from June through November.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers — fresh off having their quest to three-peat as Grey Cup champs dashed three months ago — have been quiet in free agency, with just two transactions to their name since the market opened on Valentine’s Day.

Granted, one of them was bringing star receiver Kenny Lawler back into the fold. The second move was made as this was being written. Rasheed Bailey‘s re-signing ensures the strength and depth of the Bombers’ receiving corps. There was a time (in my opinion, at least) not too far back that you could have questioned the Bombers’ receiver depth. With Lawler, Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski and now Bailey in the mix, those days are gone.

That brings us back to that cannonball story from Rourke’s alma mater.

In the end, it wasn’t a wild flip or a cartwheel off the board that won the contest at Ohio. Hannah Nolte, a first-year nursing student took the contest. Her approach?

“Condense myself into a little ball,” she said, “and just let gravity do all the work.”

We’ll see who really makes the biggest splashes in the CFL this summer and into the fall.

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