February 2, 2024

Costabile: 5 game-changing pending free agent defenders

Daniel Crump/CFL.ca

The calendar has flipped to February and that means 2024 CFL Free Agency is right around the corner.

There’s a plethora of talented players holding expiring contracts that could hit the open market on February 13.

We’ve talked about running backs Brady Oliveira and AJ Ouellette, quarterbacks Jake Dolegala and Matthew Shiltz, and receivers Tim White and Dalton Schoen, but how about the defenders?

Defence wins championships and general managers across the league are surely thinking about that when they build out their free agency boards as we inch closer to the big day.

» Nye: Where will Brady Oliveira land?
» Steinberg: 4 potential landing spots for Mathieu Betts
» Five pending free agent running backs that could tip the scales
 CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents
» 2024 Free Agency: Who could hit the open market?
» More 2024 Free Agency news, notes, and analysis

Here are five pending free agents on the defensive side of the ball that would add to any team looking to upgrade their defence, if they do indeed decide to test the waters.


I haven’t heard much chatter about Demerio Houston so far this off-season and I’m not sure why. He’s the third-highest ranked DB on CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents at No. 20 (behind Adarius Pickett at 8 and Brandin Dandridge at 19) for a reason.

The third year Bomber a great season in 2023, finishing atop the CFL with seven interceptions, one of which was returned to the house for a touchdown, in just 15 games. With three fumble returns also to his name, Houston led the league in defensive takeaways (10). Oh, and don’t forget his 50 tackles, good for third on his team behind Adam Bighill (74) and Evan Holm (64).

I don’t think anyone was surprised to see the 27-year-old earn his first-ever West Division and CFL All-Star selections after the year he had in the ‘Peg. If he does decide to see what else is out there, any team would be thrilled to have the ballhawk cornerback in their secondary.

(EXTENDED IN BC 02/06/24)

Will Ben Hladik stay in BC or will he decide to see what else is out there? (Steven Chang/BCLions.com)

Ben Hladik had a fantastic 2023 campaign in BC, his first full year as a starter, racking up a team-leading 100 tackles to go along with five sacks, an interception, and two tackles for loss. He was injured in last year’s Western Semi-Final but that shouldn’t deter teams from signing the middle linebacker if he becomes available.

Not only is Hladik able to play in the box to stop the run and drop into pass coverage where necessary, he’s also Canadian, which is an added bonus for any team looking for a ratio-breaker patrolling the middle of their defence.


Looking for a defender who can do a little bit of everything? Look no further than Adarius Pickett.

Pickett was a stud on the Argonauts defence last season and more than earned his nomination for the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player. He played the run, played the pass, and bolted off the edge to blitz quarterbacks, tallying a total of 144 defensive plays. He even got in on special teams, leading the Argos in special teams tackles (19). I told you he did it all.

If the strongside linebacker doesn’t stay in The Six, he’ll know what GMs want when that hotline bling (Drake reference was a must, I’m sorry).


Oakman celebrates with teammate Folarin Orimolade during the 2023 Eastern Final (Christian Bender/CFL.ca)

Shawn Oakman may not have led any statistical categories in 2023, but that doesn’t take away from the impact that the big man has on a game. Then defensive coordinator Corey Mace had an overflow of talent at the defensive line position and the 31-year-old was a key part of the team’s league-leading 68 sacks on the year, whether he was the one getting to the quarterback or not.

Oakman disrupted quarterbacks all season long and tallied 27 tackles, six sacks, and a forced fumble in 15 games. He saved his best game for last, coming up with a trio of quarterback takedowns and four tackles in the Argos loss to the Alouettes in the Eastern Final.

If he doesn’t sign an extension to say in double blue, the only team he’s known since joining the CFL in 2021, any team should be interested in his services.


This list would not be complete without Mathieu Betts.

Betts had a historical 2023 season, breaking the record for the most sacks by a Canadian (18). He went on to win the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player at last year’s CFL Awards, capping his best-ever season in the CFL. Not only did he hit a career-high in sacks, but he did so in tackles (42) and forced fumbles (four).

According to PFF, the 28-year-old accumulated 103 total pressures (a combination of sacks, hits and hurries), 26 more than than anyone else in the league, and led the CFL in pass rush wins, winning 19.7% of his snaps.

Like Hladik, what sets Betts apart is his passport. Yes, his quick release off the line is impressive and he can swim through offensive linemen like they’re butter, but the fact that he is Canadian adds extra value.

Will he stay in BC or decide to take his talents elsewhere? At this point, Betts will have his pick of what uniform he’ll wear in 2024, with plenty of suitors likely to come knocking if he doesn’t put pen to paper with the Leos before February 13.

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