December 07, 2011
The CFL released a full list of impending free agents Wednesday, two full months ahead of the free agency period opening on February 16. This is significant progress from a process that used to be highly secretive and speculation-based, and it's a good move for the league to continue releasing the full list early (which they started last year); it builds excitement during the offseason and allows fans to start debating who their team should go after. Towards that end, here are 10 of the most intriguing potential free agents out there (with name, position and current team).
1. Andy Fantuz, wide receiver, Saskatchewan: Yes, Fantuz (seen above making a catch against Calgary's Milt Collins in 2010) didn't have the greatest 2011. His NFL venture wound up with him being waived by the Chicago Bears, and upon his return to Saskatchewan, he only caught 13 passes for 175 yards and didn't record a touchdown before suffering a season-ending injury. Still, he's likely to be the hottest property on the CFL free-agent market. Keep in mind that Fantuz led the entire CFL with 1,380 receiving yards in 2010. He also carries a Canadian passport, and every single CFL team can always use talented non-import receivers to help with the ratio demands. Fantuz is a highly-marketable star as well (see Fantuz Flakes), and that certainly adds to his value. He may wind up exploring NFL options again, as he was certainly disadvantaged by the lockout and the shortened training camps/lack of offseason organized team activities it presented, but if he decides to stay north of the border, there may well be a bidding war for his services.
2. Khalif Mitchell, defensive tackle, B.C.: Mitchell was one of the breakout stars of the Lions' run to the Grey Cup and was one of the most imposing presences in the big game itself. He may not hit free agency, as he's widely believed to have NFL teams interested in his services, but if that doesn't work out, expect several CFL cities to take a run at him.
3. Scott Flory, guard, Montreal: Flory has been one of the most consistently impressive linemen in the CFL, earning divisional all-star awards every year from 2002 to 2011 and league all-star status every year from 2002-10. He's turning 36 this coming year, but his play hasn't dropped off. He's also Canadian, which helps from a roster standpoint, but he's one of the best linemen in the game, not just one of the best non-imports. Flory has spent his entire career in Montreal, so he may never make it to the open market (and there has been some talk that he might retire, too), but if he does, it's hard not to imagine him receiving some great offers.
4. Byron Parker, cornerback, Toronto: A league all-star in 2011, Parker had an outstanding individual season despite the Argonauts' overall defensive struggles. He finished with a team-high five interceptions, tied for fourth-best in the league, and he also demonstrated an ability to fly to the ball and cover up for others' mistakes, making 50 tackles on the year. He's 31, so he has substantial experience but should still have several good years left. Cornerbacks have received big paydays in free agency before (see Dwight Anderson and Geoff Tisdale last season), so Parker could get some notable offers.
5. Aaron Hunt, defensive tackle, B.C.: Mitchell is the bigger name, but his frequent partner in the middle of the Lions' defensive line was also key to their success down the stretch and in the playoffs. Hunt recorded seven sacks on the year, one more than Mitchell, and also put up 29 tackles. Both were selected as league all-stars. Hunt is older, as he's already 31, and he isn't drawing much NFL interest, but he should still have several good years left and could be a key addition for any defensive line. Few tackles have Hunt's ability to shed blockers and get to the quarterback quickly.
6. Rob Murphy, left tackle, Toronto: Murphy may be turning 35 this coming year, and he did battle through injuries in 2011, but he's still a very highly-regarded lineman and one of the league's best at protecting the quarterback's blind side. There's a good chance the Argonauts lock him up before the deadline, but if not, there could likely be some significant offers from other cities.
7. Jason Pottinger, linebacker, Toronto: One of the key reasons why the Argonauts went from the league's best defence by points allowed in 2010 to its worst in 2011 was the absence of Pottinger, knocked out for the year with an ACL injury in Toronto's opening game against Calgary. The crew from The Extra Yard documentary caught coach/general manager Jim Barker's "Oh boy, we lost Pott" reaction, and it proved to be an apt one. There aren't many talented Canadians who can start at middle linebacker in this league and also play crucial roles on special teams. Pottinger's just 28, too, so he should have plenty of good years left providing he's fully recovered. If the Argonauts don't lock him up before the deadline, expect several bids for his services.
8. Paul McCallum, kicker, B.C.: Sure, it's unusual to view a kicker as a crucial free agent, but McCallum is no ordinary kicker. In addition to handling both kicking and punting and carrying a Canadian passport, he's coming off perhaps the greatest kicking season in CFL history; he's also the reigning special teams player of the year. He'll be turning 41 soon, but several CFL kickers have gone long past that (Lui Passaglia kicked until he was 46), so McCallum may well have several good years left. There's a solid chance he won't hit free agency and will instead sign an extension with the Lions, but if he does find his way to the open market, several teams would probably be interested.
9. Emmanuel Arceneaux, receiver, Minnesota Vikings: Yes, it's unconventional to include a player who isn't even in the CFL at the moment here, but there's reason to believe there's at least a solid chance Arceneaux could be back in the league in 2012. He hasn't recorded a single stat with the Vikings this year and is only on the practice squad at the moment despite all the injuries they've had. If NFL teams still have interest in him for 2012, he'll obviously stay south of the border given the payday that could come (and he signed for three years with the Vikings last offseason), but if he's cut this offseason, there might well be a CFL bidding war for him. Keep in mind that Arceneaux had 1114 receiving yards for B.C. in 2010; he can easily be a #1 or #2 receiver on most of the league's teams, and there are plenty that could use the help.
10. Buck Pierce, quarterback, Winnipeg: It may be very odd to see the quarterback of the Grey Cup runner-up this far down on a list of interesting prospective free agents, but what's even more remarkable is that Pierce may not wind up with a starting job at all. Montreal, B.C. and Edmonton all have dominant, established starters for next season, Saskatchewan appears to be sticking with Darian Durant and Calgary seems likely to go with Drew Tate, leaving just three teams. Of the remaining teams, Hamilton seems more likely to go with either one of incumbents Kevin Glenn or Quinton Porter or perhaps bring in Henry Burris from Calgary, and Toronto seems to be set on Steven Jyles for now.
That leaves just Winnipeg, and while the Bombers may well bring Pierce back, there are rumblings that they're more interested in developing pivots Alex Brink and Joey Elliott (both who are also free agents this offseason, curiously enough). Pierce has done well at times, but his stats last year weren't great (especially on the touchdowns to interceptions front, where he tossed 14 scores and 18 picks), and there are still questions about his fragility. Pierce could potentially wind up in any of the three cities where the starters aren't firmly set, but he also could wind up out of the CFL entirely.