We're not yet a full week into the CFL's free agency period, but although there are still plenty of free agents out there, most of the big names have already been taken off the board. With that in mind, it's worth evaluating how each team has done so far. We'll use a score out of 10 here (with 10 being optimal), and we'll consider moves that happened before the official deadline, too (such as Lin-J Shell being cut by the Toronto Argonauts and signing with the B.C. Lions.) Thus, these are grades of each team's offseason thus far; keep in mind that this is only looking at what they've done in the offseason, not where they started from. With that out of the way, let's get to the grades.
B.C. Lions: 9/10: It's been a tremendous offseason so far for the Grey Cup champions and general manager Wally Buono. They somehow avoided losing stars Khalif Mitchell and Jovan Olafioye to the NFL, they put together perhaps the league's most dangerous secondary with new deals for Dante Marsh and Ryan Phillips and the acquisitions of all-stars Shell and Byron Parker, and they nabbed a solid Canadian special-teams player/fullback/potential running back in Stu Foord. The Lions did have some losses, including Canadian offensive lineman Andrew Jones (who went to Toronto) and star import defensive tackle Aaron Hunt (who looks to be off to Montreal), so it isn't entirely a perfect offseason. It's probably as good as could be expected for a Grey Cup champion, though, as winning a title often leads to increases in your players' market values, and it's the most impressive offseason effort of any CFL team so far. An offseason championship often doesn't mean anything once the season starts (see Montreal last year), but the Lions should be in very good shape.
Montreal Alouettes: 8/10: The Alouettes haven't made a lot of high-profile moves, but they've been quietly efficient. They locked up several key players, including defensive back Etienne Boulay and special-teams ace Marc-Olivier Brouillette, before free agency, and they made some nice additions with Edmonton linebacker Rod Davis (a divisional all-star in 2011) and presumably Hunt (a league all-star last year). They did suffer a few losses, including non-import defensive back Paul Woldu (to Saskatchewan), and they may suffer more, including defensive back Mark Estelle and defensive tackle Jermaine McElveen, but it's been a pretty strong offseason for them so far, and it shows why GM Jim Popp keeps drawing attention from other leagues.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats: 7/10: The Tiger-Cats grabbed arguably free agency's biggest prize in Andy Fantuz, and that looks like a great move for them. They also made a nice addition with free-agent Canadian linebacker Kevin Eiben (from Toronto), although it isn't easy to see where he'll fit in with Hamilton's already-strong linebacking corps. Import defensive end Greg Peach (from Edmonton) and Canadian offensive lineman Tim O'Neill (from Calgary) could help too.
The Tiger-Cats have suffered some major losses so far, though, particularly defensive end Justin Hickman (who tied for the league lead with 13 sacks in 2011 and departed for the NFL), Canadian offensive lineman Simeon Rottier (released, went to Edmonton) and import running back Avon Cobourne (released). They may suffer more as well, including import offensive tackle Jason Jimenez, Canadian defensive lineman Matt Kirk and import punter/kicker Justin Medlock. I'm also still not completely sold on their trade for Calgary quarterback Henry Burris; while Burris had a better 2011 season by the numbers than Kevin Glenn, the man he was traded for, he's also 36, and he lost his starting job in Calgary last season.
Toronto Argonauts: 7/10: If we'd done this before free agency, Toronto would be much higher on this list. I loved the Argonauts' bold trade for Ricky Ray, especially considering how little they gave up (quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a draft pick), and their offence looks to be dramatically better this coming season with Montreal offensive guru Scott Milanovich as the head coach and Ray running the show. However, the Argonauts' free agency moves have been less than inspiring.
Although they have managed to bring back a few important players, such as key Canadian middle linebacker Jason Pottinger, underrated non-import running back Andre Durie, import cornerback Jordan Younger and import safety Willie Pile, the Argos have suffered huge losses. Parker was one of the faces of the franchise and leaves a massive hole in their secondary, a hole that only gets bigger when you consider their bizarre decision to cut another all-star in Shell. They did add Canadian offensive lineman Marc Parenteau, but they could lose key import offensive linemen Rob Murphy and Taylor Robertson. The Argos' offseason as a whole is still pretty solid, but it looked much better a few weeks ago.
Saskatchewan Roughriders: 6/10: There's a lot to like about Saskatchewan's various signings, particularly Canadian offensive guard Brendon LaBatte (from Winnipeg). LaBatte was a critical part of the Bombers' strong ground game last season and also helped keep quarterback Buck Pierce upright and healthy. He was deservingly named a league all-star and is worthy of the big deal he signed. Canadian centre Dominic Picard (from Toronto) is also a nice signing, as is Woldu, and Saskatchewan did well to retain import receiver/returner Tristan Jackson and import defensive end Brent Hawkins. The Riders have suffered notable losses, though, including Fantuz (to Hamilton), Foord (to B.C.), Parenteau (to Toronto), import receiver Cary Koch (to Edmonton) and non-import lineman Gene Makowsky (to retirement).
Calgary Stampeders: 6/10: Calgary's offseason has been about the opposite of Saskatchewan's, but around equally as effective. The Stampeders had the fewest pending free agents of anyone, so they've barely lost anyone, but they haven't really added many people either. Their biggest moves were critical extensions for non-import running back Jon Cornish and quarterback Drew Tate, but neither was set to be a free agent this year. Other than that, they've traded for Kevin Glenn (set to be a backup quarterback), cut loose running back Joffrey Reynolds (who would have been a backup if he'd stuck around). They did manage to extend import defensive end Charleston Hughes, non-import linebacker/special teams star Marc Calixte and non-import kicker Rene Paredes, and they've signed intriguing Australian-born punter Scott Crough, but they've lost two potentially important players in O'Neill (to Hamilton) and punter Burke Dales (to Edmonton). Overall, not a bad offseason, but not one to write home about.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers: 5/10: Bombers' GM Joe Mack has been blasted by his own players for his lack of action during free agency, and they have a point. Mack lost LaBatte to Saskatchewan, and he'll be very difficult to replace; import receiver Greg Carr also spurned the Bombers at the last moment to sign with Edmonton, and talented 6'6'' receivers don't grow on trees. Non-import defensive tackle Don Oramasionwu also ditched Winnipeg for the Eskimos. The Bombers did do well to bring back several of their key players, including quarterbacks Buck Pierce, Alex Brink and Joey Elliott and offensive tackle Glenn January, but as of Monday, they hadn't signed a free agent from anywhere else. There are other ways to build a team, of course, and the defending East champions had an impressive roster to start with, but they haven't had the best offseason. However, as the next entry shows, they haven't had the worst either.
Edmonton Eskimos: 4/10: Edmonton is the inverse of Toronto, for obvious reasons. The Eskimos have actually had a pretty decent free agency period, bringing in guys like Rottier, Carr, Koch and Dales, but they made arguably the worst CFL trade in several years by shipping established, outstanding veteran quarterback Ricky Ray to the Argonauts for a bag of spare parts. That trade looks so lopsided that it's prompted respectable columnists like Cam Cole to suggest there's a conspiracy to help the Argonauts. My own philosophy is "never ascribe to conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence," but either way, it doesn't bode well for Edmonton. Of course, we were all mocking general manager Eric Tillman last season for turning over almost his entire roster, and that worked out pretty well; Tillman has a long track record of moves that looked ridiculous at the time but worked out well in the long run, such as trading reigning league Most Outstanding Player Kerry Joseph to Toronto after winning the 2007 Grey Cup, so he may yet have the last laugh. From this corner, though, things don't look good for the Eskimos right now.
- Toronto Argonauts