February 5, 2024

MMQB: 5 recent free agency surprises


Knock knock knock.

2024 Free Agency kicks off in just over a week and the CFL’s Free Agency Communication Window is now officially open. As is usually the case, get ready for a week full of rumours and speculation, but perhaps at an even larger scale than normal.

Why? Well, more so than usual, we’re got numerous elite, game breaking players still without contracts for the coming season. And these aren’t just good players; we’re talking about the league’s very best on both sides of the ball with no real indication of how things are going to play out.

Market Ready: The 2024 CFL Free Agent Tracker
» Costabile: 5 game-changing pending free agent defenders
» 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
More Free Agency news, notes and analysis


Dalton Schoen has a chance to set a new bar for receivers this winter, but it doesn’t sound like anything is imminent with him and the Blue Bombers. The same is true for Winnipeg’s Brady Oliveira and Toronto’s AJ Ouellette, who are looking to reset the tailback market.

As of Monday morning, eight of our CFL.ca top ten free agents don’t have contracts. It’s a list that also includes the likes of Canadian defensive end Mathieu Betts and Tim White, the league’s leading receiver last year.

The odds and history suggest most of these big names will opt to stay put with their current team. But it feels likely we’re going to get at least one big shocker of this top ten group, among many others in our top 30.

For some context, here are a few of the more recent free agent surprises.

2023 – Eugene Lewis, Edmonton Elks

As we got down to the wee hours of free agency last winter, I still felt Lewis was going to stay in Montreal. Yeah, the Als were going through an ownership search at the time and Lewis had been vocal about wanting to be paid what he deserved, and rightfully so. But on January 30 of last year, the following words appeared in this weekly column: the smart money remains on a return to Montreal.

Well, that bet didn’t pan out. Lewis signed a monster two-year contract with Edmonton that reportedly made him the league’s highest paid non-quarterback. After five seasons with the Als, Lewis decided to test the market and I know I wasn’t the only one who was surprised that’s the way things went.

2021 – Cameron Judge, Toronto Argonauts

I was taken aback when Judge signed with the Argos as opposed to remaining with Saskatchewan, the team that drafted him. After three seasons in green, including a breakout 2019, things got a little weird with the pandemic taking hold. But when it was time to get back to football, Judge decided to go east in a decision that raised eyebrows across the league.

More surprising was how things went during Judge’s one season in Toronto. The punishing outside linebacker appeared in just nine games with the Argos, recording 13 tackles in what never seemed to be a good match. Of course, it all worked out when he was traded to Calgary the following off-season.

2022 – Darnell Sankey, Saskatchewan Roughriders

A couple years before Sankey was making successful Grey Cup predictions with Montreal, he was a middle linebacker coming off a stellar debut CFL season with the Stampeders. Sankey’s 2021 campaign saw him lead the league with 97 defensive tackles and it felt like a return to Calgary was inevitable. But things went in another direction.

After acquiring Judge from Toronto, the Stamps opted to move Jameer Thurman to the middle and let Sankey walk to free agency. And that’s when Saskatchewan pounced. Sankey signed a one-year deal with the Riders and led the league in tackles again, this time with 120. And, well, we all know how 2023 went for Sankey, who’s back for year two with the Alouettes.

2022 – Andrew Harris, Toronto Argonauts

Andrew Harris signed with the Argonauts in 2022 and went on to help them capture the 109th Grey Cup (Andrew Lahodynskyj/CFL.ca)

Sometimes the business of football gets in the way of a storybook ending, which is exactly how Harris’s tenure with his hometown Bombers came to an end. After five stellar seasons, including back-to-back Grey Cup titles his last two years, Harris and Winnipeg couldn’t agree on a contract for the 2022 season. The emergence of fellow local product Oliveira was a big reason why. Alas, Harris wasn’t able to retire with the team he grew up cheering for.

It worked out decently well for him, though. With a strong desire to keep playing, Harris chose Toronto in free agency and the rest is history. Harris helped the Argos shock the Bombers in that year’s 109th Grey Cup before being part of a record tying 16-2 regular season the following year.

2023 – Jameer Thurman, Hamilton Tiger-Cats

As mentioned earlier, Thurman’s move to the MIKE slot was a big reason Calgary felt comfortable in letting Sankey walk away in free agency a couple years ago. That’s why it was a large shock to see Thurman sign on with the Ticats last winter. Of course, it became a little less stunning when reports suggested Hamilton made Thurman one of the league’s top five highest paid linebackers.

Thurman thrived in his first year with the Tiger-Cats. The 29-year-old appeared in 18 games and set career highs with 98 defensive tackles and five quarterback sacks. Thurman also recorded two interceptions and two forced fumbles in a season that put him on the map that much more.

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