Once again, the CFL’s free agency communication window has not failed to dazzle.
It’s a blur. It’s a blizzard. It’s a blurry blizzard.
Here are a few thoughts on how things stand, ahead of February 13, the day when agreements can be finalized.
The usual caveat applies here. I mean, I purposely waited for Wednesday morning to write this so that things would’ve died down after Tuesday’s blizzardy blur. And then, more stuff happened while I was writing. So, if it ain’t in here, it likely happened after I submitted this to CFL.ca. A guy’s gotta hit “send” at some point, you know.
» Market Ready: The 2024 CFL Free Agent Tracker
» Report: Riders to sign AJ Ouellette
» Report: Jamal Peters to sign with Ticats
» Adarius Pickett signs one-year deal with REDBLACKS
» CFL.ca’s top 30 pending free agents
» More Free Agency news, notes and analysis
Things are quite different in Montreal this winter as compared to last. Quite, quite different.
Last year at this time, the Alouettes had no owner and were about to lose some big stars – like receiver Geno Lewis and quarterback Trevor Harris – in free agency. Things were bleak.
This time around, they are defending Grey Cup champs, focussing mostly on retention rather than plugging holes. Montreal’s key free agency work, it could be noted, was done mid-season in 2023 when the team signed defensive end Shawn Lemon and linebacker Darnell Sankey. Each played critical roles in the rise of the Als and each return for 2024 with contract extensions in hand.
A lot of key Alouettes have agreed to contract extensions, most notably, quarterback Cody Fajardo. Where Montreal was rife with uncertainty a year ago, there is calm, cool stability in place this time around.
Rumour has it that the Als are showing a keen interest in BC defensive end Matthieu Betts. If so, and if they are successful in landing the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player, this off-season will be just about completely, utterly, a diametric opposite of last.
I don’t think there’s been any place more ready for change, in the CFL, than Saskatchewan, where fans of the Roughriders, weighed down by consecutive non-playoff seasons have got to be feeling that they’re now riding on one of those big, puffy prairie clouds that can dot the big, blue sky out west.
In landing running back AJ Ouellette, the Riders get one of the biggest prizes this free agency season had to offer and they weren’t done there, reportedly getting an agreement with middle linebacker Jameer Thurman – also a pretty big prize – as well as defensive back Jalon Edwards-Cooper. Good haul, right?
What if I told you the Riders could also beef up their offensive line – a big, big need for the team – while simultaneously delivering a blow to their heated rival, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers? That’s just what they’ve done, should a reported deal with All-Star Jermarcus Hardrick play out as expected.
It’s a bumper crop for the Riders so far and they probably ain’t done harvesting yet.
Let’s not forget, too, that Saskatchewan got contract extensions done with some of their own, like receiver Shawn Bane Jr., kicker Brett Lauther, kick returner Mario Alford, SAM C.J. Reavis and defensive lineman Anthony Lanier to name a few.
New head Coach Corey Mace’s belly laugh must surely be echoing through the halls at Mosaic Stadium today.
So far, it’s the Ottawa REDBLACKS who have shaken things up the most this off-season. That’s a good thing because they were perhaps the team most in need of shaking. I noted that Regina was the place that was probably most ready for change in the CFL this off-season. Fans in Ottawa would perhaps answer that with a sarcastic “um, hello, over here.”
This week’s news that the team has agreed to a deal with SAM Adarius Pickett – the East nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player last year while with Toronto – is just the latest reason for a resurgence of optimism in the nation’s capital. The REDBLACKS had already dealt for and then signed quarterback Dru Brown this off-season, and also quickly agreed to terms with receiver Dominique Rhymes, soon after he was released by the BC Lions.
The REDBLACKS have also extended many of their own pending free agent stars, like defensive linemen Lorenzo Mauldin IV and Bryce Carter, defensive backs Brandin Dandridge and Ty Cranston, receivers Bralon Addison and Justin Hardy and running back Devonte Williams. The list goes on. Check the free agent tracker and note all the red ink on the right side of the Ottawa page, the word “extended” popping up again and again.
How much more can they do, in splashy fashion? Maybe not much but at this point that doesn’t matter.
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
The Bombers get stung with the reported departure of offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick, that’s true. But in retaining both running back Brady Oliveira – the team’s Most Outstanding Player last season – and receiver Dalton Schoen, general manager Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea have done a truly remarkable job in the retention game.
After all, we were told, over and over, that keeping both and maybe even one of them would be exceptionally difficult to do, yet here we are. The Bombers also kept essential players Willie Jefferson and Stanley Bryant in the blue and gold band, along with the likes of Deatrick Nichols, Drew Wolitarsky, Jake Thomas and Patrick Neufeld. All signed extensions this off-season.
As well, Winnipeg gets back-up quarterback Chris Streveler back in the building and that seems a very good thing, not just for the wrinkles that the hard-running quarterback can provide for the Bombers’ offence but quite simply for the raw energy that his big personality brings back to Winnipeg.
Reports of the dismantling of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been, shall we say, a bit premature.
The Argos, who did their share of pilfering over the last few off-seasons, have been pilfered themselves, this time, with a bevy of big-name stars heading elsewhere, it seems.
Adarius Pickett, the all-star SAM, leads a list of talented defenders that Toronto has lost and might yet still lose. Defensive linemen Shawn Oakman and Dewayne Hendrix (this just in – reports say Hendrix has agreed to terms with the Ticats) are potential losses as well and shutdown corner Jamal Peters has apparently agreed to terms with Hamilton. With running back AJ Ouellette reportedly agreeing to a contract with Saskatchewan, and Javon Leake – the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player in 2023 – securing a deal in Edmonton, the Argos have taken some hefty blows here.
Change has come for the Argonauts, who leaned into it by design when they traded receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. to Edmonton for all-star defensive lineman Jake Ceresna and then released kicker Boris Bede. Then they signed free agent kicker Lirim Hajrullahu to replace him. Toronto also traded last year’s starting middle linebacker, Jordan Williams, to Hamilton, so there has been plenty of change in Toronto this off-season. One area where the Argos do not have to show some fancy free agency footwork is along the offensive line, where all five starters have been retained. They also kept the services of All-Star linebacker Wynton McManis, not an insignificant thing.
The Toronto Argonauts have often been the windshield in free agency, recently. This time they’re the bug.
In preparing for a season in which they’ll play host to the Grey Cup game, the Lions have already done some work in assuring they’ll be strong, personnel-wise, heading into 2024. New contracts for receivers Keon Hatcher, Jevon Cottoy and Alexander Hollins ensure that quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. will have impressive targets to throw to again in 2024. Who’ll back-up Adams as QB2 is a question after the retirement of Dane Evans, and it is expected that the Lions will land a quarterback with experience, in free agency.
With, apparently, a lot of interest in defensive end Matthieu Betts coming from around the league, there is the question of whether the Lions will be able to get the 2023 sack leader back in black and orange in 2024. Betts might be the biggest question mark for the Lions when it comes to free agency and defence but he has not been the only one. And the Lions did well to keep the services of two star linebackers in their midst, announcing contract extensions for Ben Hladik and Josh Woods.
If there were questions about the Lions’ running attack in 2024 (there were), those questions were answered when the team signed free agent and noted barger-inner William Stanback this week.
The Ticats had been relaitively quiet this off-season, restructuring quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell’s contract and getting a key name or two – like safety Stavros Katsantonis and offensive lineman Brandon Revenberg – to sign new deals.
This week, Hamilton made big, big noise with their reported agreement with Toronto corner Jamal Peters and then another agreement with Argo defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix. And with the deal to get middle linebacker Jordan Williams from Toronto, the ‘Cats seem to be leaning into that old adage: ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, have ‘em join you.’
Expect the Ticats to get pretty active now as the market has defined things a bit more clearly. And that receiver Tim White has not agreed to terms with another team – that we know of – is a good sign for Hamilton. They undoubtedly would like to see the game-breaker remain in black and gold.
There will be other suitors, though.
This has been a typically quiet time of year for the Stampeders, who’ve historically been one of the most relaxed teams around free agency.
After doing a good job of locking up a lot of their own players who could have become free agents – players like offensive linemen Sean McEwen, Bryce Bell and Joshua Coker, as well as defenders Branden Dozier, Julian Howsare, Mike Rose, Titus Wall and running backs Dedrick Mills and Peyton Logan – the Stampeders continued to play the part of the CFL’s steady hand.
However, the Stamps showed they could wow ya with a big-time signing and they did that, reportedly coming to terms with Winnipeg defensive back Demerio Houston, the CFL’s interceptions leader in 2023.
A big question remains for Calgary, though. Can they get their defensive wrecking ball, middle linebacker Micah Awe, to re-sign?
The Elks got into the piling on of the Toronto Argonauts when they reportedly came to terms with Javon Leake this week, Edmonton’s biggest noise, so far, during this free agency communication period. Signing the recently-released Boris Bede was a pretty sizeable get, as well, come to think of it.
Some of the Elks’ critical work was done earlier this off-season when the team signed veteran quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson and then traded all-star defensive lineman Jake Ceresna to Toronto for McBeth’s old pitch-and-catch mate, Kurleigh Gittens Jr.
Edmonton is probably not done yet and might be lurking in the weeds in order to get some defensive bargains, when the dust from the bigger contracts settles and the market cools down.