Justin Hickman goes south, affecting CFL free agency in the process

One of the common paths from the CFL to the NFL is to lead the northern league in sacks: Cameron Wake did it in 2007 and 2008 before joining the Miami Dolphins, Phillip Hunt parlayed a league-best 16 sacks in 2010 into a job with the Philadelphia Eagles and Justin Hickman became the latest to follow that path Wednesday. Hickman, a Hamilton Tiger-Cats' defensive end who tied Odell Willis for the league lead with 13 sacks in 2011, has reportedly signed with the Indianapolis Colts, where he'll team up with fellow CFL import Jerrell Freeman. The implications of his departure seem likely to go well beyond just the Tiger-Cats, though, as Hickman was set to become a free agent on February 16; with him out of the picture, less teams will be able to plan on acquiring defensive line help in free agency, and the market for the remaining free agents at defensive end may rise.

Hickman will be a notable loss for the CFL. His 2011 campaign was his best, as he put up 49 tackles and 13 sacks, but he wasn't exactly a one-year wonder; he recorded seven sacks in each of 2009 and 2010. Moreover, he's only 26, so he should have plenty of good years ahead of him. It's hardly surprising that he'd want to test the NFL waters if a suitable offer came up, as the pay down south is substantially better, and CFL defensive ends from Wake to John Chick to Hunt have found reasonable success in four-down professional football. Still, Hickman certainly could have been a substantial asset for either the Tiger-Cats or another team this year, and his contributions north of the border will be missed.

It's how Hickman's departure could impact the rest of the market that may be the most notable, though. There are plenty of free agents out there, but not a lot of them are proven defensive ends. The biggest name may be Eskimos' import Greg Peach, but he only recorded three sacks last season and has demonstrated more potential than production thus far. Another option may be Anwar Stewart, who was released by Montreal Wednesday in an expected move. Stewart had seven sacks last season and has been a dominant pass-rusher, but he turns 36 on Thursday, so teams may question how much he has left in the tank. There's also Toronto's Alex Buzbee, but he only recorded three sacks last year as well.

Beyond those guys, though, the pickings get even slimmer. Most of the defensive linemen set to hit the market seem more suited at tackle than end, including B.C.'s Aaron Hunt, Montreal's Jermaine McElveen (who may be extended by the Alouettes now that Stewart has been released) and Hamilton's Matt Kirk. Saskatchewan has already brought back Brent Hawkins, so he's not hitting the market, and there just aren't many other options out there. Of course, free agency isn't the only way to address off-season needs, as teams can also draft Canadian players and recruit American talent. Still, Hickman's departure further reduces an already-narrow pool of free agents at defensive end, and teams looking for pass-rushing help may need to either pay up for players like Peach, Stewart or Buzbee or hope to address the situation through other avenues.