The CFL Draft is in the books for another year. Rookie camps open this week. Main training camps open across the league this weekend. And we’re exactly two weeks from our first preseason game. The 2023 season is upon us.
As such, we’re continuing to get you set for the season ahead in this week’s MMQB. Two weeks ago, we focused on the five biggest free agent signings on the defensive side of the ball. We’re going a similar direction this week, only this time on offence. Whittling a list down to five was tough once again, as names like Steven Dunbar Jr., Cody Fajardo, Kyran Moore, and Jake Wieneke just missed making the list, among others.
And yes, we’ve amended the criteria slightly to not ONLY include free agents. You’ll see why as you read on.
5. Trevor Harris – Saskatchewan Roughriders, quarterback
The Riders didn’t waste much time in making their biggest splash of the winter. Saskatchewan signed Harris to a big money deal on Day 1 of free agency, putting their faith in the veteran to stabilize things at quarterback. Harris joins the Roughriders after parts of two seasons with Montreal where he got his career back on track after a frustrating finish to his time in Edmonton.
Last year saw Harris throw for 4,157 yards to finish third overall; it was his fourth season over 4,000 yards and first since 2019. I’m excited to see Harris come to Sask with a familiar face in Wieneke, too, and that’s a connection to watch right from the get-go. Furthermore, I’m a big fan of new offensive coordinator Kelly Jeffrey and I’m pumped to see him and Harris work together.
4. James Butler – Hamilton Tiger-Cats, running back
With all of Hamilton’s wheeling and dealing this winter, I don’t feel like their signing of Butler to a two-year deal is getting enough attention. We’re talking about one of the CFL’s top tailbacks and one of three guys to go over 1,000 rushing yards last season. After bursting onto the scene in the back half of 2021, Butler exploded last year with 1,060 yards and seven touchdowns, finishing second to Calgary’s Ka’Deem Carey in both categories.
Butler is an absolute train. He combines good speed and a great initial burst to go along with a ton of power in his five-foot-nine, 210-pound frame. Butler is also strong when used as a pass catcher out of the backfield and has totalled over 600 receiving yards the last two seasons. With the versatile Sean Thomas-Erlington also back with the Tiger-Cats, I really like how their run game is shaping up.
3. Kenny Lawler – Winnipeg Blue Bombers, receiver
Because of how difficult things were in Edmonton last season, Lawler’s solid campaign probably didn’t get the type of love it deserves. Despite only dressing in 12 games, Lawler racked up 894 receiving yards and five touchdowns in his first and only season with the Elks. Now Lawler returns to Winnipeg, which feels like the place he belongs.
Lawler’s CFL career started with two seasons with the Bombers, which included a pair of Grey Cup wins and a league-leading 1,014 receiving yards in 2021. After reportedly being close to acquiring Lawler at last year’s trade deadline, Winnipeg pounced when he became available again this winter. Lawler joins Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey and Drew Wolitarsky to give two-time reigning Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros a terrifying array of targets.
2. Bo Levi Mitchell – Hamilton Tiger-Cats, quarterback
Ensuring Mitchell made this list was why we made sure to expand it to off-season additions, and not just free agent signings. Mitchell was acquired by Hamilton in a November trade with Calgary and signed a three-year deal just over two months later. The Ticats identified Mitchell as their No. 1 off-season priority and did what it took to make it happen.
The next step becomes seeing what Mitchell has in store in Black and Yellow. We know the two-time Most Outstanding Player was usurped by Jake Maier last season, but I find it hard to bet against Bo when he’s got something to prove. As already discussed, Hamilton enters 2023 with a formidable run game and a group or receivers that includes Tim White, a hopefully fully healthy Bralon Addison, and free agent signing Duke Williams. Mitchell is in a good spot to succeed.
1. Eugene Lewis – Edmonton Elks, receiver
In terms of players that actually hit the market, Lewis was the No. 1 name on the board. And while Montreal’s uncertain future has now been resolved, things were a lot more turbulent when free agency opened in mid-February. As a result, Lewis decided to test his worth and it paid off with a huge two-year contract in Edmonton.
The most exciting part for the Elks is the fact Lewis has gotten better in all four of his full CFL seasons. As such, he’s coming off career highs in both receiving yards (1,303) and touchdowns (10) in 2022; both numbers also ranked him third overall. Edmonton wants to take a big step this season and having one of the league’s elite playmakers in the fold is going to be a huge help.