February 16, 2011
The CFL's free agency window officially opened at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Wednesday morning, but the early moves were more notable for the players who elected to remain with their previous team than those who chose to take their show on the road. On Monday, it looked like the Stampeders and Argonauts could be the teams most damaged by free agency. That could still definitely come true for Calgary, but Toronto had perhaps the best performance of the early free agency hours without bringing in anyone from outside.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Argonauts brought back one of their critical potential free agents, defensive back Lin-J Shell (pictured above with teammate Kevin Huntley, trying to bring down Montreal running back Avon Cobourne in the CFL's East Final last November). Shell, a divisional all-star last season who finished tied for the team lead with four interceptions and added 63 tackles, should continue to be a solid player for the Boatmen for years to come. He was named their outstanding rookie of the year in 2009 and turned in just as strong of a performance in 2010. He's only 29 and has been in the CFL for just two seasons, so it's quite possible he could become even better as he adapts to the league. Moreover, his signing also prevents Toronto from having to try and pick up a defensive back in what's looking to be a very expensive free agency market at that position; they could still bring in a player like Dwight Anderson or Geoff Tisdale if they wanted, but now they aren't forced to overpay. Barring a trade or other complications, Shell will now be an Argonaut through the 2013 season.
Arguably an even more significant move for the Argonauts came immediately after the free agency window opened, when they announced that they'd reached an agreement to extend Huntley. Huntley, a defensive tackle, finished fourth in the league with a team-high nine sacks last season, and the three players above him were all defensive ends rather than interior linemen. He was also solid against the run, recording 41 defensive tackles (second on the team). Huntley was deservingly named a league all-star last season, and looked to be one of the most intriguing potential free agents out there. With him off the market, there could be more interest in players like the Argonauts' Adriano Belli and Eric Taylor and the Stampeders' Tearrius George.
The Stampeders hadn't officially lost any of their free agents as of 5 a.m. Eastern Wednesday morning, but things were looking much less positive for them. Left tackle Ben Archibald, the CFL's reigning offensive lineman of the year, has been drawing strong interest from a number of teams, but Sportsnet's Arash Madani reported that the B.C. Lions have apparently made signing him their top priority. Matt Sekeres of The Globe and Mail added that the Lions had made Archibald an offer and that they might have an edge, given that he spends his offseasons in Spokane, Washington, with his triplets. Archibald was a very deserving selection as the league's top offensive lineman last season; he did a great job of covering Henry Burris' blind side, paving the way for the quarterback's eventual selection as the league's most outstanding player, and was also a key force in the run game, clearing paths for the league's top rushing tandem in Joffrey Reynolds and Jon Cornish. The Lions had significant offensive line issues last year, and adding Archibald might go a long ways towards solving their problems.
The other critical free agent Calgary could lose would be Anderson, a league all-star at cornerback last season. With fellow league all-star cornerback Brandon Browner already departed for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, Anderson's departure might be a critical further blow to a secondary that was one of the team's biggest strengths last season. He also looks even more likely to leave than Archibald; there are plenty of teams out there looking for a strong presence in the secondary, and with Shell and Winnipeg's Jonathan Hefney (who signed an extension with the Bombers Tuesday) off the market, the options are limited. There seem to be plenty of teams interested in Anderson, but it looks like Montreal might have the upper hand at the moment. If the Alouettes are able to haul in Anderson, that could be the top jewel in the crown of a already-tremendous offseason for Jim Popp and company so far.
Actual free agent signings were few and far between by 5 a.m. Eastern Wednesday, but there were a couple of note. Eric Tillman's Edmonton Eskimos managed to bring in non-import offensive tackle Brian Ramsey and non-import defensive tackle Jermaine Reid from Hamilton. Those signings should definitely help Edmonton's Canadian depth at the very least. Neither player was all that prominent last year (Reid did appear in nine games and record three sacks), but they both have potential and could play important roles in of the Eskimos' rebuilding effort.
Meanwhile, in addition to bringing back Hefney, Winnipeg also added veteran non-import defensive lineman and former Bomber Shawne Mayne, who was with the Alouettes in 2010; he could be a nice addition on special teams and potentially give them some help at defensive end, where they'll have to fill Phillip Hunt's shoes. It also looks like guard Brendon LaBatte, a divisional all-star in 2010, is likely to return to the Bombers instead of trying his luck south of the border. That's certainly good news for Winnipeg, but they could see further losses in free agency, including running back Yvenson Bernard and centre Obby Khan.
There are going to be several key players and teams to keep an eye on over the next few days. Anderson is obviously one, but so is Hamilton's Tisdale; with Shell and Hefney off the market, he's probably the second-most interesting defensive back out there, and he might just wind up with whoever misses out on the Anderson sweepstakes. Similarly, teams that can't land Archibald might look at alternative options like Saskatchewan's Joel Bell. The Jarious Jackson-to-Toronto rumours are certainly interesting, and that one has the potential to benefit both sides; Jackson's clearly behind Travis Lulay in the B.C. pecking order, but could have a better shot against the likes of Cleo Lemon and Dalton Bell, and the Argonauts could use some help at quarterback. Another guy to watch is Cobourne, who Perry Lefko has heard might wind up in Hamilton. Cobourne is aging at 32, and didn't crack 1,000 rushing yards last season, but he's a very capable receiver out of the backfield and may still have plenty to offer whoever winds up with him. It should be a fascinating week; keep it locked here and on the Yahoo! CFL home page for all your free agency news. You can also follow me on Twitter for all the latest free agency updates.