The CFL's free agency period officially opened at noon Eastern Friday, and it's already off to an interesting start. One big move happened just minutes after the deadline, with Saskatchewan defensive end Odell Willis signing with Edmonton (so quickly that some raised the spectre of tampering), and another Roughriders' player left town shortly thereafter, as Canadian linebacker Shomari Williams (one of the five most notable free agents in this class) signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. These are significant moves for the players' new teams in particular, but they also leave Saskatchewan with some holes to fill.
The Williams signing is particularly notable, as Hamilton didn't seem like the likeliest of destinations for him. Keep in mind that the Tiger-Cats still have three import linebackers who have been among the league's top players in recent years in Markeith Knowlton, Rey Williams and Jamall Johnson, and they brought in another intriguing import (Simoni Lawrence) in a trade earlier this month. However, the team did try to go to a non-import linebacker for ratio reasons at certain points last season, sometimes starting Kevin Eiben. Eiben's still under contract and the team also could get 2012 draft pick Frederic Plesius (if he doesn't wind up in the NFL), which could provide them with an excellent amount of depth and allow them to designate one outside linebacking spot as a non-import position. (Williams would be the most likely starter, but that wouldn't be a guarantee; while he was the first overall draft pick in 2010 and shone at times in Saskatchewan, he didn't always consistently produce as a starting linebacker, and Eiben, Plesius or both could provide him with significant competition.)
Another less-likely alternative that's still worth keeping in mind is the possibility of Williams returning to his college position of defensive end. The Riders tried him there and it didn't really work out, but it takes time to adapt to the CFL game, and it's possible he's more ready to play on the line now than he was then. Still, what seems most likely here is the Tiger-Cats using Williams as a starting outside linebacker. If he's able to capably fill that role, this could be a significant signing for Hamilton. Some would question why they'd look to add to what already seemed like a position of strength, but top CFL GMs like Wally Buono and Jim Popp have long opted to go after top talent regardless of position. The Williams signing would seem to suggest that new Tiger-Cats' general manager/head coach Kent Austin follows the same philosophy.
Meanwhile, Willis is an intriguing addition for the Eskimos. It's been an up-and-down couple of seasons for him, as he tied for the league sack lead in 2011 with Winnipeg but was then shipped off to Saskatchewan for a couple of draft picks. He then was charged with DUI in the offseason, and he didn't have the greatest on-field season with the Riders, recording just six sacks and 23 tackles. That's still not bad production (it would have tied him for sack leader in Edmonton last year), but it's a significant step down from the 11 and 13 sacks he put up in 2010 and 2011 respectively. If Willis can return to his previous form, this could be a great addition for the Eskimos, but if he's in 2012 form, it's not as remarkable of a move. Signing him is an interesting gamble, and one that could well pay off.
Does this leave the Riders with huge gaps to fill? Not really. Losing a top draft pick's never ideal, but Williams didn't seem like the best fit with them this year; they have solid Canadian content in other positions, so they appeared to be leaning towards an all-import starting linebacking corps even before this move. Willis may actually be the bigger loss, as proven pass-rushers are an always-in-demand commodity in this league, but as mentioned above, his Saskatchewan tenure didn't really live up to its hype. These guys will be losses for the Riders; Williams' departure takes away a proven special-teamer at the very least and a linebacker with ratio-busting potential at best, while Willis' exit means they will have to revamp their pass rush a bit. However, these moves are probably more significant additions for the players' new teams than they are subtractions for Saskatchewan.
Other things of note so far: LB Solomon Elimimian looks to be staying in B.C., DB Korey Banks and SB Paris Jackson signed new deals with the Lions and DB Dwight Anderson seems to be on his way out of Montreal. Follow 55-Yard Line's Andrew Bucholtz on Twitter for further free agency coverage.
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