January 15, 2024

MMQB: An AJ payday?

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

The CFL’s president and general managers meetings in Nashville, TN gave us a lot to talk about. The annual get together serves as an important few days in the leadup to Free Agency and also gave us on the outside a lot to sink our teeth into.

Here are some of the most interesting talking points coming out of Nashville last week.

An AJ payday

Of the many free agents who remain unsigned, Toronto Argonauts tailback AJ Ouellette is one of the most interesting. After his 2022 season put him on the map and finished with a Grey Cup win, last year was an absolute explosion.

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Ouellette finished 2023 with 1,009 rushing yards, his first season hitting the millennium mark. And, had the Argos not been resting starters down the stretch, we likely would have seen Ouellette finish second only to Winnipeg’s Brady Oliveira on the league rushing table. As it was, he finished fourth with fewer games played than everyone he was chasing.

28-year-old Ouellette established himself as one of the CFL’s top running backs last year and buzz suggests he’s looking for a contract to match. Retaining Ouellette is one of the biggest items on the to-do list for Toronto general manager Pinball Clemons.

“If you ask me if I want AJ Ouellette back…oh, my goodness yes,” Pinball said last week.

“But in saying that, we’ll have to see in this period how many of our guys we can get back. Understanding that there’s not been a season that I’ve been around in 30 years that everybody has returned. It hasn’t happened (because) we know that there’s turnover.”

And while Pinball wasn’t tipping his hand on Ouellette’s status, it feels more likely than not he remains in double blue. Ouellette deserves a raise and Toronto should have the flexibility to make that happen with future Hall of Fame tailback Andrew Harris retiring and thus coming off the books in 2024.

Ranked number seven on CFL.ca’s top 30 free agents, extending Ouellette seems like a no-brainer for Pinball and the Argonauts.

Free agency’s most interesting team

For my money, the Calgary Stampeders are the team to watch in free agency next month. And that’s not usually something you’d expect from the Stamps. This year feels different, though.

Yes, Calgary extended their impressive playoff streak to 18 years in 2023, which is an accomplishment. Even still, a 6-12 regular season isn’t going to cut it for an organization conditioned to winning and being one of the league’s top teams. Prior to last year, Calgary had put together 14 consecutive seasons with a record above .500.

Head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson knows last year wasn’t good enough. And for the first time in a long time, it feels like the Stampeders could be one of the bigger players when signing season gets going on February 13. Dickenson hinted at a busier approach when chatting with CFL.ca last week.

“I think when you didn’t have your best year, I think you should be a little more active,” Dickenson said. “We’ll see how many of the guys that we’re targeting make it to free agency and we’ll see if we can find a deal.”

Last week saw Calgary and quarterback Jake Maier agree to a restructured contract for this season. The framework of the new deal is believed to give the Stamps more cap flexibility, which only adds to the intrigue surrounding Dickenson and 2024 Free Agency.

Huge shoes to fill

Shortly after last week’s MMQB published, news broke of Austin Mack’s signing with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. 26-year-old Mack had a stellar first season in the CFL with Montreal that saw him rack up 1,154 receiving yards en route to being named a league All-Star. Oh, and he also caught six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown in helping the Als capture the 110th Grey Cup.

Filling those shoes won’t be easy. Mack was an immediate revelation and was the nitro fuel for Montreal’s offence all season, especially while fellow receiver Kaion Julien-Grant was on the shelf for an extended stretch.

There’s no question Mack’s departure leaves a significant hole for the Alouettes on offence. But it’s a situation general manager Danny Maciocia isn’t unfamiliar with.

“When you take a look at where we were 12 months ago, we didn’t have too many receivers, we didn’t have a quarterback,” Maciocia told CFL.ca last week. “We rolled up our sleeves and we got after it.

“I think there’s two ways you’re going to (replace Mack). You’re going to look at free agency and you’re going to look at your scouting department. There’s probably a combination of both. We still have a good foundation in place right now with the players that are scheduled to come back. It’s just a question of maybe righting one or two pieces on offense, including receiver.

“And I’m confident in our scouts. And our plan that we have moving forward.”

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