CFL Free Agency a matter of Dollars and Sense

February 15, 2018 - 8:00pm

If the CFL wanted to get back into the spotlight in the off-season then so far, so good.

CFL free agency hit on Feb. 13 and the result is a reflection of the impact the salary management system has had on how CFL teams operate. With one year contracts and the opening of the collective bargaining agreement next year, plus the probably expansion of the CFL to Atlantic Canada, the traditional model of a three year rebuild from pretender to contender has now been switched out for a year to year build based on a core group supplemented by judicious picks to help a team get over the top.

That means creating a culture where the players buy into taking less in exchange for a shot at winning or getting the exposure they want for a more lucractive NFL shot.  CFL teams are willing to let players go try out NFL possibilities and while teams will deny having a contract in the drawer in case the player returns and the NFL possibility doesn’t pan out, well, draw your own conclusions.

The challenges facing each of the CFL teams are unique and they handled them in their own fashion. In BC, the Lions have started the transition from the Wally Buono era with Ed Hervey taking over as GM. The Lions big problems start on their offensive line and the Lions responded with signing  Joel Figueroa, Jeremy Lewis andChris Greaves. The Lions added more ex-Eskimos Hervey would have been familiar with from his time as the Eskimo GM with inking  Euclid Cummings, Garry Peters, Corey Watson, Cauchy Muamba and Otha Foster.  The Lions lost  Alex Bazzie, Louchiez Purifoy and Chandler Fenner to other teams, but considering BC missed the playoffs last year for the first time since the invention of fire, that might not be a bad thing.

It seems to be a methodical approach by the Lions to address the obvious problem areas although when it comes to offensive line signings, it is not so much the people signed as the chemistry of the group and the coaching they receive. BC has shuffled the decks on their coaching staff and while the end of free agency is not yet nigh, the Lions might be thinking of adding a few pieces here and there that have shaken loose in the last day or so, like say Derek Dennis.

Edmonton was interesting because they had a whole whack of free agents, mostly because they had so many holes to fill because of injuries last year. Other than the obvious loss of former players to BC to rejoin Hervey, the Eskimos lost kicker Swayze Waters to Toronto and defensive back Andrew Lue to Ottawa while adding Alex Bazzie on defense. Add to this trading away Odell Willis and Edmonton seems to be trying to address the aging of their defensive line leaving John Chick in place as the resident greybeard.

Edmonton did a good job of re-upping their own vast array of free agents, in particular Adam Konar and in an interesting move brought back oft-injured running back John Henry White. Edmonton seems to think they have the tools in place and didn’t really need to look beyond their locker room to find pieces for their 2018 puzzle, although if some pieces remain out there on the market, the Eskimos may make another move or two.

In Calgary it seems the Stampeders have decided a change of culture was necessary after two consecutive Grey Cup defeats to two different teams. The Stamps seem to have decided that if the same basic team was unable to win a Grey Cup, then trading out pieces that didn’t seem able to play well with others in a team atmosphere would be best.

Calgary lost defensive backs Joe Burnett and Tommie Campbell to Montreal, following their former defensive back coach, and lost running back Jerome Messam to Saskatchewan, although the team had left open the door to a return before Messam found someone who wanted him. Calgary also traded away Charleston Hughes in an effort to get younger and presumably cheaper.

Calgary resigned Roy Finch, ace punt returner and apparent successor to Messam in the backfield, and brought in defensive backs  Adam Berger and Emanuel Davis and defensive linemanEse Mrabure from the Riders whom the Riders had once upon a time poached from BC.

In Winnipeg it was homecoming week as the Bombers welcomed back Manitobans Nic Demski and Kienan LaFrance from Riderville along with Chandler Fenner and Mitchell Baines. Demski was once a top draft pick, but ran into injuries now and then and with the Riders receiving corps, did not do enough to set himself apart. A change of scenery may be what is needed for Demski to do well.

 LaFrance is kind of the classic example of a player having one good game and then people extrapolate his potential from that game. Sometimes a good game is just a good game.  LaFrance is pencilled in as a backup to Andrew Harris, which is what you need with a Canadian starter, having a relatively experienced back up. LaFrance came out of training camp injured last year and did not really get himself established and with the Riders picking up Johnny Augustine as a free agent, that freed up LaFrance to go home and indulge his inner Andrew Harris.

The Bombers lost Jamaal Westerman to Montreal, where he joins his brother, but I’m not sure if this is a loss for the Bombers. Westerman had his own injury problems and in addition to those, he also had the knack of taking the stupidest penalty at times. For a Winnipeg team trying to get over the hump, losing Westerman may be a case of addition by subtraction. The biggest loss for the Bombers was defensive back TJ Heath whom the Bombers picked off from Toronto in a steal known as the Drew Willy trade. That one has to sting a bit.

For Hamilton, probably the biggest retention was defensive lineman Ted Laurent. Laurent takes up a lot of room on the inside and while he has had some injury problems, he does bust a ratio or two on the defensive line and gives Hamilton room to experiment elsewhere. The notable pick up for Hamilton was kicker Lirim Hajrullahu, who is coming off a Grey Cup win, but I still have visions of when he was with Winnipeg going wide and to the right so kicking in the Hamilton wind tunnel will be interesting.

Hamilton lost defensive back Dominique Ellis and Mitchell Barnett, but Eric Tillman has a way of finding players. Probably more importantly, the Cats seem to have most past Johnny Manziel who was never really interested in Hamilton, other than as an audition platform for the NFL. The Cats are better off with Jeremiah Masoli and now Vernon Adams Jr. Hamilton seems to be placing their faith in recruiting, which is understandable.

For Toronto, maintaining was nice, considering the fiasco with Victor Butler and james Wilder Jr., but even better was getting TJ Heath back although Swayze Waters I suppose does something for them. One interesting get was Greg Morris, who had started off with Edmonton before coming to Saskatchewan but while he did returns and spot duty, did tend to fumble on occasion. A lot of potential, and it might take a couple of years to see if he comes into his own. There’s a lot of question marks with Toronto, including whether or not defensive coordinator Cory Chamblin returns or not.

In Ottawa they added A.C Leonard, Louchiez Purifoy, Rico Murray, Cameron Walker, and Andrew Lue on defense, which might give an idea of what Noel Thorpe has in mind for the Ottawa defense.The big loss for Ottawa was Zach Evans on defensive line and that might mean Ottawa does does some readjustment on their ratios.

In Montreal, it was a free agency notable for the resigning of former Riders Tevaughn Campbell, Matt Vonk, Xavier Fulton, SJ Haidara and Drew Willy. Montreal did snatch up defensive backs Joe Burnett andTommie Campbell from Calgary;  Mitchell White from Toronto and Dominique Ellis from Hamilton along with Jamaal Westerman from Winnipeg. In terms of quantity, it brings to mind the first year Chris Jones brought in everyone but the kitchen sink to Riderville and now it is up to Mike Sherman to figure out what to do with all of this.

Which brings us to the Riders, who always make life interesting. The Riders set the table prior to free agency with the trade of Vernon Adams Jr. for Charleston Hughes. That gives the Riders a set of bookends but leaves the question of the interior of the defensive line to be answered.

If one answer is the return of Nick James, preferably in shape, then the other answer came with the righting of a historic wrong in the return of Zach Evans. Evans was an up and coming home grown defensive tackle who was set free by the Brendan Taman regieme in the Ottawa expansion draft.

Evans went on to further develop and win a Grey Cup in Ottawa, but his return helps to set up the Canadian ratio and more importantly, get a definite force on the interior of the defensive line.  The Riders reupped Dan Clark, who was the starting centre, although when he went out with an injury, the offensive line might have improved when Brendon LaBatte shifted over. Clark’s signing does give the Riders an offensive lineman who can start, but might be more valuable as a backup.

The Riders reupped Spencer Moore, who provides invaluable blocking and special teams play, and then signed Sam Hurl, who at first was thought to be a back up to Henoc Muamba, until Muamba was let go for salary cap reasons. It might be cheaper for the Riders to have the middle patrolled by an American middle linebacker with better range than Muamba.

The handling of the Muamba situation does raise some questions about why Jones would have paid Muamba a bonus just after January 1 only to cut him before paying another bonus on Feb. 15. His release, along with that of offensive lineman Derek Dennis, indicates not just salary cap reasons, but perhaps either the players did not perform to expectations or they were just in the wrong system.

The release of Dennis might have been mitigated by the signing of Winnipeg offensive tackle Travis Bond. The Riders appear to be working on Bruce Campbell who stepped in nicely last year, but earned himself a two game suspension for performance enhancing drugs so the Riders will have to jury rig something and hope that maybe Josiah St. John is ready to make his prime time appearance on the offensive line.

Bond is a big guy, 6’7” 360 pounds and where he fits in will be interesting. With the addition of Jerome Messam, and the current American running back stable of Trent Richardson, Cameron Marshall and Marcus Thigpen, the Riders may be looking to pound the ball a lot more than previously attempted, which means of course an offensive line capable of getting things started.

What has been fascinating has been the moves made. 20-30 years ago the criteria for keeping a player would have been performance, which it still does, but now there is the financial aspect and knowing when to let a player go ahead of a decline in performance.

This is an art Wally Buono used to have, and perhaps still does, but what this does is shake up what used to be to be the way where a player would get on the roster, impress, form a relationship with fans and have a good career.  That sells jerseys with numbers and names, especially in Saskatchewan, but now the smartest thing is get a jersey with a number,  but no name on it, unless you are being ironic.

There are still some things to shake out with free agency and I’m noting the one year contracts, indicative of the new way things are going in the CFL and reflecting the uncertainty with the new collective bargaining agreement and the real possibility of a strike next year. With the way the Riders have approached this past week, it appears the time to win a Grey Cup is now.

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