February 14, 2011
When the CFL's full free agency lists were released in December, Montreal, Saskatchewan and Calgary looked likely to be the most vulnerable. In addition to having the three highest numbers of free agents (13, 12 and 11), those franchises also found considerable success last year (which often factors into how much money teams are willing to pay for free agents) and looked likely to lose some significant pieces. However, that's not quite how things have worked out. As I covered yesterday, Montreal's had an incredible off-season and may wind up only losing a couple of non-essential players (although Canadian Football Talk visitors seem to covet Avon Cobourne more than any other pending free agent; he had 41 per cent of the vote to Dwight Anderson's 19 per cent in their free agency poll when I looked at it, which surprised me).
Saskatchewan has also quietly done very well for themselves as well despite Andy Fantuz's departure. The Roughriders managed to bring back a couple of key players in Lance Frazier and Gene Makowsky, and pulled off what looks like a waiver-wire coup by claiming Canadian tackle Alex Gauthier after he was released by Hamilton. Of the remaining free agents (as of Sunday), Montreal has five and Saskatchewan has six, but few were key contributors last year. It looks like last season's Grey Cup contestants will be heading into the season in pretty good shape.
Calgary, on the other hand, may be in rougher shape. They've already lost league all-star defensive back Brandon Browner to the Seattle Seahawks and divisional all-star defensive tackle Tom Johnson to the New Orleans Saints, and they still have some important free agents unsigned. They did announce today that they'll bring back long-snapper (and entertaining Twitter personality) Randy Chevrier, and they're expected to officially announce the Romby Bryant deal later today; they've also re-upped receiver Ken-Yon Rambo and defensive lineman DeVone Claybrooks, and they just signed former Montreal returner Larry Taylor. Still, they have four significant free agents remaining; Anderson (pictured above knocking a pass away from Montreal's S.J. Green in an Oct. 1 game), tackle Ben Archibald, safety Wes Lysack and defensive lineman Tearrius George.
From a strict numbers standpoint, that doesn't sound too damaging. When you look at the players involved, it could hurt more, though. Both Archibald and Anderson were league all-stars last season, and Archibald was (deservingly) named the league's Most Outstanding Lineman. His play was a key reason for Henry Burris' success under centre last year (as well as the Stampeders' great results running the ball), and as Michael Lewis fans will note, replacing good left tackles isn't particularly easy. Anderson could be a critical loss as well, especially considering that Browner's already gone; their departures might just turn the Stamps' secondary from an asset to a liability. It's sounding more and more like Anderson is on his way out of town, and that could hurt Calgary next year.
George hasn't made as large of a contribution to the team recently, only recording four tackles last year, so the Stampeders' apparent decision to not offer him a contract isn't all that surprising. The move to not extend Wes Lysack is a little more curious. Lysack is an eight-year non-import veteran safety, and played reasonably well last season; veteran experience can be crucial in this league, and Lysack's only 32, so he should have plenty of good years left. Still, they have a promising young non-import replacement in Central Michigan grad Eric Fraser and more depth with non-import Taurean Allen, from Wilfrid Laurier University. If those players step up, Lysack's departure may not hurt too much; the potential losses of Anderson and Archibald seem more damaging.
Another team that could see substantial losses in free agency is Toronto. They've already signed five of their 10 eligible free agents, but have some crucial players left on that list, including league all-star defensive tackle Kevin Huntley and divisional all-star defensive back Lin-J Shell. Both of those guys appear set to draw substantial interest if they hit the open market. With the team perhaps less motivated to sign big-ticket free agents than they have been in the past, the free agency period could wind up being a disappointing one for fans of the Double Blue.
Elsewhere around the league, Winnipeg appears to have the most remaining free agents with eight; several of their pending free agents only played small roles last year, though. Keeping veteran non-import offensive lineman Ibrahim Khan could be crucial, as the team doesn't have a lot of Canadian depth at the moment. The Bombers are also apparently in talks with defensive back Jonathan Hefney, who didn't put up great stats last year, but has shown strong flashes of potential. It looks like Edmonton has already made most of their moves, bringing in receiver Chris Bauman and defensive backs Donovan Alexander and Joel Lipinski. Hamilton and B.C. both seem likely to be on the hunt for free agents, with B.C. particularly targeting defensive linemen and receivers and Hamilton perhaps in the market for Anderson or Shell. B.C.'s only potential losses are safety Tad Crawford (likely to leave) and quarterback Jarious Jackson (less likely), while Hamilton could lose all six of their potential free agents (with the most notable ones being defensive back Geoff Tisdale and receiver Adam Nicolson). It's going to be interesting to see where all the pieces land when the free agency window opens Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. Eastern.