The impact of free agency is often a mystery.
A year ago, the signings of Trevor Harris and Eugene Lewis were, rightfully so, hailed as big news for Saskatchewan and Edmonton, respectively. Injuries limited Lewis to a dozen games while Harris’ season was cruelly cut short after his knee injury in mid-July.
On the other side, Toronto doesn’t pull off a near historic season without the additions of Folarin Orimolade and Adarius Pickett causing terror all over the field. Yet somehow back in 2019, one of the top free agents, linebacker Micah Awe, just didn’t work out in Toronto but made the All-Star team this year as one of the top defenders for Calgary.
Bo Levi Mitchell was technically not a free agent as Hamilton acquired him in a trade, but it’s fair to say his official signing with the Tiger-Cats was a bigger story than the Alouettes and Cody Fajardo coming together on a two-year deal on the first day of free agency. The fact that Shawn Lemon was still a free agent until July 24 just hammers home the theme that free agency is a mystery. It does not guarantee success but it’s an important building block to winning the Grey Cup.
With that in mind, I have put together my top five under the radar free agents to be. Their signings won’t lead off the local news, but they are absolutely the sort of players you can win with.
Cariel Brooks | Defensive Back
Just two years removed from being named a CFL All-Star, the six-year veteran defensive back can still make any secondary better. Brooks was a big part of a Hamilton defence that went to the Grey Cup in 2019 and 2021. Yes, he is 32 years old but he can still do this: a pick-six against Toronto.
Walter Fletcher | Running Back
The Montreal Alouettes running back has consistently produced when given a chance. Rewind to the 2022 Eastern Semi-Final where Fletcher’s 77 yards on the ground and 102 total yards helped lead Montreal to a 28-17 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
We’ve seen his big play ability as evidenced by his 33-yard touchdown gallop in that win. Walter has proven he can serve as an excellent backup, now it is time to see if he can be a full-time starter. Walter is hitting prime age (26) for a running back and his five yards per carry average would suggest he should be a priority target for a team looking to upgrade at the position.
Dewayne Hendrix – Defensive Lineman
Despite his production, the Toronto Argonauts defensive lineman often gets overshadowed, which is a testament to the amount of talent on their defensive line. Hendrix is that classic “best kept secret” type of player who we all know will make several All-Star teams if he can stay healthy.
In 2023, Hendrix set a career-high in sacks with six and he single handedly took down the Alouettes with his last second field goal block preserving a 23-20 Toronto victory back in Week 15. Go back and watch the highlight, he just bullies through two linemen to get the block. He will be a terror again in 2024 no matter where he is.
Jevon Cottoy | Receiver
Think of Cottoy as the Dewayne Hendrix of wide receivers, I know it’s been said many times before. Cottoy had his best season recording career highs in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, but is rarely in the spotlight due to the sterling play of his fellow teammates Alexander Hollins and Keon Hatcher.
A massive target at six-foot-five and 250 pounds, Cottoy was a steady producer for the Lions but did not register a single 100-yard game. Put him on a team in need of receiver help and Cottoy suddenly becomes everyone’s favourite fantasy sleeper in 2024. As an added bonus, you’re getting a player who has not missed a game in the last three years.
Matthew Shiltz | Quarterback
No free agency piece is complete without one quarterback on it. Those are the rules. He fits the profile of this list as Shiltz also set personal highs in every passing category in 2023. The big question is who can he become in the CFL? What is he? A potential late blooming success story or, at the very least, the best back-up quarterback in the league not named Dane Evans.
He led the Tiger-Cats to wins over Ottawa and Edmonton early in the year than at the conclusion of the season he was leading the team into the playoffs with a 22-15 post-season clinching win over the Calgary Stampeders. His play was good enough for coach Orlondo Steinhauer to give him the start over Bo Levi Mitchell in the playoffs.