CFL teams, league all must answer plenty of questions this off-season

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — As the Winnipeg Blue Bombers continue to celebrate ending their dubious Grey Cup drought, the CFL off-season has officially started for the league's eight other teams.

Both the CFL and its clubs have plenty of work to do before the start of the 2020 campaign.

The Bombers held their victory parade Tuesday in Winnipeg, less than 48 hours after their emphatic 33-12 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at McMahon Stadium. The championship was the franchise's first since 1990.

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But once the Grey Cup hangover subsides, Bombers GM Kyle Walters will have some roster decisions to make, most notably at quarterback. Walters added quarterback Zach Collaros from the Toronto Argonuats in October and the veteran led the franchise to its championship march, going 4-0 after assuming starting duties prior to Winnipeg's regular-season finale versus Calgary.

It was a fairy-tale ending for Collaros, who began the year as Saskatchewan's starter before suffering a concussion in the Riders' season-opening loss to Toronto. The Argos acquired Collaros on July 31 but he didn't play a down for them before being sent to Winnipeg.

Collaros is scheduled to become a free agent in February. So too is incumbent Matt Nichols, who guided Winnipeg to a 6-2 record before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in a 32-16 win over B.C. on Aug. 15.

The CFL also doesn't have the luxury of much down time as it's involved in the sales of the Montreal Alouettes and B.C. Lions.

The league purchased the Alouettes from American businessman Robert Wetenhall on May 31 and has operated it since while looking for a permanent owner. Last week, commissioner Randy Ambrosie said the CFL is talking to an unidentified group about buying the team.

League sources have said those negotiations have been with a partnership that includes Montreal brothers Peter and Jeffrey Lenkov — who are both based in California — and Claridge Investment Ltd., a Montreal private investment firm. The sources have been granted anonymity because the CFL has not revealed the names in the group it is negotiating with on the sale.

Ambrosie is also involved in the B.C. sale, which is being spearheaded by club president Rick LeLacheur. Hamilton businessman David Braley, 78, has owned the franchise since 1996.

There are no ownership concerns in Hamilton but the East Division champion does have some questions at quarterback. After replacing veteran Jeremiah Masoli (season-ending knee injury), sophomore Dane Evans stepped in and won 10 of 12 starts to lead Hamilton into the Grey Cup.

After passing for 386 yards and a TD in Hamilton's 36-16 East Division final win over Edmonton — Evans' first CFL playoff game — the former Tulsa star mirrored his team's struggles against Winnipeg. On Sunday, Evans was sacked six times, threw two interceptions and fumbled three times against a ferocious Bombers defence.

Masoli, the East Division's outstanding player in 2018, is scheduled to become a free agent in February. That presents a rather interesting situation for the Ticats as Evans is under contract through 2021.

There could be room financially for both in Hamilton if Masoli's price-tag is right, although Evans's presence would appear to give the club some leverage in contract talks. But should negotiations break down, Toronto and Ottawa could be potential landing spots while Winnipeg could also find itself in the quarterback market.

Ottawa and B.C. were last in the East and West Divisions, respectively, which would suggest both teams need upgrades throughout their rosters. But a more pressing need for each remains a new head coach.

Ottawa's Rick Campbell stepped down following a miserable 3-15 season while DeVone Claybrooks was fired shortly after the Lions' 5-13 campaign. At least Claybrooks' replacement will have a bona fide starting quarterback in veteran Mike Reilly, a two-time Grey Cup champion and the CFL's outstanding player in 2017. Reilly underwent season-ending wrist surgery last month.

Two more coaches could be on the hot seat — Edmonton's Jason Maas and Toronto's Corey Chamblin. The Eskimos, despite being active in free agency last year, were fourth in the West Division (8-10) but did reach the East Division final after a 37-29 road win over Montreal in the conference semifinal.

Toronto was 4-14 in its first year under Chamblin, with three of those wins coming against Ottawa. Chamblin still has two more seasons on his deal but the Argos did fire Marc Trestman with a year remaining on his contract following a 4-14 campaign after winning the '17 Grey Cup.

Regardless of who's the coach in Toronto, an upgrade under centre is one of many off-season priorities for new GM Mike (Pinball) Clemons. With veterans McLeod Bethel-Thompson, James Franklin and Dakota Prukop all free agents in February, first-year Canadian Michael O'Connor is the club's only quarterback under contract for next season.

Also eligible for free agency will be veteran receivers Derel Walker (65 catches, 1,040 yards, six TDs) and S.J. Green (85 catches, 1,039 yards, four TDs).

Montreal did resolve one of its most pressing needs Tuesday by signing head coach Khari Jones to a much-deserved contract extension. Jones took over the head job a week before the season and led the Als to a 10-8 record — their first season of double-digit wins since 2012 and first playoff berth in five years.

In addition to needing new ownership, the Alouettes also require a full-time GM. Joe Mack has handled the job on an interim basis since Kavis Reed was fired in July.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2019.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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