In some ways it feels strange to say that the 2023 season is over. The OK Tire Labour Day Weekend, the playoff grind and the playoffs themselves all feel like they unfolded in fast-forward and suddenly we’re dealing with snow and wind chills, thinking about June, 2024 in every way possible.
Football-wise there’s obviously a lot in front of us before then. This post-Grey Cup, pre-holidays time of year is usually where we see coaching and front office moves and we’ve started to get a trickle of that this week. Players will soon start signing extensions with their teams to spare themselves of free agency, while others will start to weigh their options on where they might like to play next season and beyond.
As we move into December and with a winter of change in front of us, here are some key storylines to keep an eye on.
Do the Riders have a new head coach?
TSN’s Farhan Lalji reported on Wednesday night that the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be hiring Corey Mace as their new head coach. If it comes to fruition, Mace will bring a new look to the Riders, after Craig Dickenson spent the last four seasons as head coach, bringing his special teams background to the job.
Mace worked as the Toronto Argonauts’ defensive coordinator the past two years and helped the team to its Grey Cup win in 2022, then to a 16-2 record this past season. The Argos did their best to keep Mace in Double Blue, signing him to a contract extension earlier in the year, knowing that there was future-head-coach buzz around him.
Should Mace assume head coaching duties, the question of what his staff will look like will be top of list. Would he, or whoever is hired as head coach, want a lot of carryover from last year’s staff? Or would Mace want to tap into the contacts and relationships he’s built over his eight-year coaching career? When Ryan Dinwiddie was named head coach of the Argos in 2020, he brought some Calgary components over in his coaching staff, including Mace. Could we see something similar happen in Saskatchewan, if Mace is the new head coach?
Coaching and front office hires often create a ripple effect throughout the league. If Mace is the one to assume head coaching duties in Saskatchewan, it could force Dinwiddie to readjust his staff for the coming season as well.
We’ve touched on what stands to be a relatively light amount of starting QB movement in free agency this year. That doesn’t change the fact that a few teams have decisions to make at that spot. The Riders are one of them, with a broken leg derailing Trevor Harris‘ season just five games into 2023. Harris’ replacements — Jake Dolegala and Mason Fine — are pending free agents. The Riders recently extended Antonio Pipkin, who they’d traded for after Harris’ injury. Shea Patterson is the only other pivot the team has under contract for next season.
The Ottawa REDBLACKS will have some decisions to make at quarterback as well. Like Harris, Jeremiah Masoli was lost for the season with an Achilles injury in his 2023 debut. An ACL injury to Tyrie Adams only let him get three games in, which opened the door for rookie Dustin Crum to assume starting duties for the bulk of the season. Backup Nick Arbuckle is a pending free agent and while Crum showed promise and is under contract, general manager Shawn Burke will have some options this off-season as he evaluates how to end the team’s four-season playoff drought.
Dane Evans could be an option, with Burke knowing him well from their time in Hamilton. Matthew Shiltz, another quarterback to have suited up for the Ticats, is a pending free agent.
Winnipeg Blue Bomber pivot Dru Brown is ready to hit the market, but has yet to be a full-time starter in the CFL. He has shown well in his time with the Bombers and stated after the team’s disappointing Grey Cup loss this year that he would like to get that starting opportunity in 2024.
If Masoli is recovered and ready to play in 2024 — he recently told Postmedia that that’s his plan — the REDBLACKS could give the guy they’ve envisioned as their No. 1 for the last two years another shot. Having a veteran to help steer Crum as he starts his career could be helpful and a good long-term move for the REDBLACKS.
Evans could be an option in that scenario. Another veteran name to keep in mind, as Sportsnet’s Arash Madani reported and TSN’s Dave Naylor and Lalji discussed over Grey Cup week, is the possibility of McLeod Bethel-Thompson making a return to the CFL after a year playing in the USFL.
Finally, in Hamilton, the Tiger-Cats seemed to be facing some uncertainty at quarterback after the Montreal Alouettes eliminated them from the playoffs. Bo Levi Mitchell was unhappy with his playing time in that loss and Shiltz, as we said above, is a pending free agent. Mitchell is under contract for the next two years, but the way that things ended in Hamilton left an up-in-the-air feeling to the quarterback situation. Naylor and Lalji were confident that both Mitchell and Shiltz would be back in Black and Gold in 2024, but this will be something to follow until it’s sorted.
Can the Bombers keep the gang together?
Their last two seasons have ended in heartbreak, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been a truly dominant force in the CFL for the last four years. With short contracts being the norm in the CFL, keeping a successful team intact is a challenge for every team; it becomes doubly difficult when you’ve had the success that the Bombers have enjoyed and where players and their agents are seeking bigger contracts.
The Bombers got a major piece of the puzzle put together this week in extending GM Kyle Walters and his staff for two more seasons. Now, Walters, assistant GM/director of U.S. scouting Danny McManus and senior assistant GM/director of player personnel Ted Goveia can get back to that familiar routine of theirs, of keeping this talented group together.
This year’s list of pending free agents is a long and talented one. The Bombers’ offensive line could be up for grabs in free agency. Star tailback Brady Oliveira is a free agent and has NFL aspirations. Mainstays like defensive linemen Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat, defensive back Brandon Alexander, wide receiver Dalton Schoen and defensive back Winston Rose are among a pending FA list that runs 36 players deep. Walters and his team have pulled the group together before, so there’s reason to think they can get the bulk of the players back.
If they can’t, the Bombers could undergo some significant change in this off-season and head into the 2024 season with a very different looking roster.
Can the Lions get over the hump?
They’ve gone to the Western Final the last two years with two different starting quarterbacks and each time the result has been the same. Will 2024 be the year that the BC Lions break through and emerge out of the West Division?
In 2022, it was Nathan Rourke leading the Lions into IG Field, unsuccessfully trying to knock the Bombers off their perch. In 2023, Vernon Adams Jr. brought an improved team back to the same venue, fuelled by possibly the best showing of his career the week prior in the Western Semi-Final. Still, the Bombers and their decibel-pushing crowd pushed a very good team aside for another year.
For all of the explosive offence that Adams and his receivers put together in 2023, the Lions lacked punch in the run game, where their 1,391 yards on the ground ranked last in the league. That hurt them in the Western Final, where the Lions managed 31 rushing yards to the Bombers’ 121. Will Lions co-GMs Neil McEvoy and Rick Campbell address the running back spot in the open market this year? Do they have a player on their negotiation list that they’re trying to bring in?
The Lions have their share of free agency hurdles, primarily getting Mathieu Betts under contract after he led the league with 18 sacks this year. If they can have a good off-season, whether it’s bringing the key pieces back or rolling with the free agency punches to re-tool their roster, they could be in position to take that next step in 2024.
Will the Als be able to run it back?
From ninth in CFL.ca’s Way Too Early Power Rankings (perhaps you’ve heard this discussed recently) to victory in the 110th Grey Cup, the Montreal Alouettes completed one of the most remarkable championship journeys that a team can embark on.
While the champagne and cigar smell might still be lingering around them, the next natural question to ask of a team that won it all is if they can do it again. Als’ GM Danny Maciocia said during Grey Cup week that he was eagerly anticipating this off-season, after the tumultuous one he led the team through last year. With ownership in place and a culture established through head coach Jason Maas, there should be a want from free agents to be a part of the Alouettes in 2024.
The Als’ Grey Cup run showed just how unpredictable the season can be and all of the things that can go right — and wrong — for teams along the way. It’s impossible to predict if the Als can win again next year, but we know that they’ll enter free agency on a level playing field with the other eight teams in the league. That should in theory put them into a better place for the coming year. The downside to that? This time around, they may not get the free fuel in the tank that their last-place ranking gave them.