ANALYSIS: The best of CFL free agency's first week

One week of CFL free agency is done and now the waiting begins. That’s the beauty of the off-season. Anything is possible and everything can be analyzed and hypothesized between now and the start of the regular season.

We have three long months to wait until we can see how Kenny Lawler looks back in the Bombers offence. Three months until the relatively green Chad Kelly (potentially) takes over as starting quarterback for the double blue.

Let’s go team by team and look at its biggest move, what I think is its best move, and something to consider as the season approaches.

BC Lions

Biggest move: Dominique Rhymes. If you wanted to argue Rhymes is the best receiver in the league, I wouldn’t fight very hard against you. He uses his six-foot-four, 215-pound frame to dominate defensive backs (just ask the Bombers). And the Lions don’t mess around with it. He had 86 targets 10 or more yards downfield, which was second-most in the CFL.

Best move: Rhymes. The Lions got him on a two-year deal for much less than what other top receivers are making.

But: How will they avoid giving up the most sacks in the league? Vernon Adams Jr. has the highest career sack rate and pressure rate against of any active QB. The Lions won’t have Joel Figueroa at left tackle (signed with Hamilton) and Chris Schleuger will be in tough to replace him.

Calgary Stampeders

Biggest: James Vaughters. Vaughters is back after four years away and three seasons in the NFL. He didn’t overwhelm with pressures or sacks in his two seasons in Calgary (2017-18), but the soon-to-be 30-year-old has the Stampeders excited.

Best: Malik Henry. Over 1,000 yards in 13 games (including a CFL single-game high 173 against the Elks) put Henry on the map. He had four touchdowns of 50 or more yards (tied for most) in the shortest-passing offence in the CFL. The Stampeders need his explosiveness, and thanks to re-signing Henry, they have it through 2025.

But: Why did Folarin Orimolade and Jameer Thurman get away? There’s a prevailing sentiment that the Stampeders know when to let guys go, but this doesn’t feel like that. Orimolade is 27 and led the CFL in QB pressures, and Thurman is only 28. Maybe Calgary didn’t believe that Orimolade and Vaughters could pair together. If so, fine. Watching Thurman go to the Ticats is one I can’t figure.

Edmonton Elks

Biggest: Geno Lewis. There are too many numbers and highlights to explain Lewis’s dominance in 2022. Let’s go with him having the most red-zone targets, receptions and touchdowns in the CFL last season.

Best: AC Leonard. Leonard feels like the perfect player for a Chris Jones defence. Jones loves three-man rushes more than I love a Slurpee on a polar vortex afternoon. The Elks rushed three 36 per cent of the time last season (only one other team was over 20 per cent). No need to substitute in linebacker with Leonard on the field. He’ll drop into coverage, and presumably can be among the league’s top pass rushers after dealing with injuries in 2022.

But: QB Taylor Cornelius completed 57 per cent of his passes last season. When adjusting for his throws, that was almost 10 points below expected. As well, he is statistically the least accurate passer in the CFL. If the Elks can’t figure out their quarterback position (they extended Cornelius through 2024), having three elite receivers won’t matter.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Biggest: Bo-Levi Mitchell. There are a bunch of candidates for second-best QB in the CFL. Ticats fans could talk themselves into it being Mitchell. They had to improve from Dane Evans and there were not a ton of options available to them. The Ticats need to embrace and enhance Mitchell’s aggressiveness downfield, and hope MOP Bo is still in there somewhere.

Best: Joel Figueroa. I could put Jameer Thurman here, but middle linebacker wasn’t a weak spot with Jovan Santos-Knox. By my count, the Ticats left tackles (Tyrone Riley, Travis Vornkahl and Colin Kelly) allowed more pressures than any left tackle group in the league. Figueroa was in contention on my Most Outstanding Lineman ballot last season.

But: They spent money bringing in James Butler at RB. There are two problems with the Ticats getting the premier free-agent running back: they have the lowest early-down run rate in the league (35 per cent run, 65 per cent pass), and they haven’t used a true lead back in years. No Ticats running back has taken more than half their carries since 2018.

Montreal Alouettes

Biggest: Cody Fajardo. It’s been a rough couple of seasons for the West Division Most Outstanding Player from 2019, but count me among the believers in Fajardo. His accuracy is good. His red zone passing is great (81 pass attempts the last two seasons, 21 touchdowns, zero interceptions). And when he’s healthy he is the best designed-run weapon among CFL QBs. Now let’s see what if all those sacks last season were him or the offence in Saskatchewan.

Best: Jumal Rolle. Adding Rolle to Nafees Lyon gives the Alouettes, for me, the best cornerback duo in the league. With all the uncertainty around the club (the CFL announced it took over the team last week), being able to get the top defensive back on the market is a win.

But: The Alouettes are not loaded with offensive help for the QB. Greg Ellingson was dominant last season before injuries set in, and Tyson Philpot put up eight catches for 127 yards in the East final, but it gets thin after that. Their running back group rivals the best in the league. But if you can’t throw, you can’t win in the CFL.

Ottawa Redblacks

Biggest: Drew Desjarlais. After a year of trying his luck in the NFL, Desjarlais returned to sign the largest contract for an offensive lineman this season (reported $255,000 per year, per Justin Dunk of 3DownNation). Spending five per cent of your salary cap on an interior offensive lineman is something I want to investigate more because it feels like a lot. Nonetheless, GM Shawn Burke is taking the trenches seriously.

Best: Jovan Santos-Knox. Most importantly, the Redblacks added a big, disruptive middle linebacker. Secondarily, they take him from the rival Ticats. Barron Miles is now the defensive co-ordinator in Ottawa. The last two seasons he was in Montreal and his defence blitzed more than any team in the league. I’m curious to see if that means more pass rushes for Santos-Knox and if he can approach his career high of six sacks.

But: If Jeremiah Masoli gets hurt, none of the moves will matter much. The Redblacks looked like the best 0-3 team ever last season (three losses to Winnipeg and B.C. to start the season, all played tough). That was gone when a cheap shot took Masoli out for the season. His aggressiveness in the pass game — and the resulting variance — ensure that Redblacks games will not be boring.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Biggest: Trevor Harris. The talk of the 2022 season for the Riders was sacks. The Riders offence gave up 73 sacks on pass plays (four more were credited on designed runs). A titanic 12 per cent of their plays ended with the quarterback on the ground. Harris could change that dramatically. In 2019 Harris was sacked on less than two per cent of his dropbacks — the lowest in the last seven CFL seasons. This is another ‘if they use him right’ scenario for a free-agent quarterback. Let’s see what rookie offensive co-ordinator Kelly Jeffrey has in mind.

Best: Harris.

But: Apart from Kian Scaffer-Baker and the running backs, I have no idea what to expect from the rest of the offence. Will it be three or four Canadians on the offensive line? Will it be Kooper Richardson back at right tackle after six holding penalties and at least as many sacks allowed last season? Which Jake Wieneke is the real one — the one who had 20 TDs in his first two seasons, or the one who had eight games under 30 yards last season? Right now, it looks like the Riders will be led by their defence.

Toronto Argonauts

Biggest: Folarin Orimolade. By my count, Orimolade led the CFL with 52 QB pressures last season, 10 more than second place. His speed and power led to some highlight-reel pass rushes (though only eight sacks, playoffs included). I think he is a future Most Outstanding Defensive Player. And it would appear the Argos believe the same, making him the highest-paid defensive end in the league (per 3DownNation). A major plus is that Orimolade is only 27 years old, much younger than other top defensive ends.

Best: Orimolade.

But: Chad Kelly is the quarterback, it would appear. He’s had 51 pass attempts and 33 carries in his career. I won’t pretend I can tell you anything about his game or his potential (other than being 21-for-21 on QB sneaks!). It would be bold for the defending champs to go into the season with no veteran quarterback.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Biggest: Kenny Lawler. Not only is it big to get Lawler back after a year away, but the Bombers also got him for two years at a discount to what he could have gotten on the market. Playing with inaccurate passers in Edmonton, Lawler still put up 1,000 yards in 12 games (adding up his receiving yards and pass interference yards drawn). To add him to Dalton Schoen, Nic Demski, Rasheed Bailey, Drew Wolitarsky and Carlton Agudosi gives the Bombers the best receiving corps in the league.

Best: Nic Demski. Demski had career highs in targets, receptions and yards. And he had as many receiving TDs as his next three best seasons combined. Demski is unique in the CFL. He’s one of the shortest-targeted receivers in the league (fifth-shortest average depth of target), and he has 10 catches for 50-plus yards (seventh-most in the league). He runs the ball from slotback more than any other player, and he has more carries from a running back set than any receiver. Plus, he’s only 29 entering his eighth CFL season.

But: There was nothing they could do about the kicking game in free agency. Teams that have a Rene Paredes or Lewis Ward don’t let them get away these days, so there weren’t any options for the Bombers in free agency. GM Kyle Walters says they will have plenty of competition for Marc Liegghio in camp –Canadian, American and global.

© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

You May Also Like

Top Stories