Even after signing Johnson, who was making around $250,000 last season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, BC general manager Ed Hervey said the Lions could still find salary space for someone with Walker’s talents.
“There’s always an opportunity to make room for an impact player,” Hervey said. “If those numbers can, the numbers work.
“Obviously Micah is a player that we coveted, we felt that we had to have here and we’re excited about him. I think in Derel’s case, they are looking at all options. As far as what his decisions are, we’ll have to wait and see.”
The Lions roared into free agency last year signing quarterback Mike Reilly, wide receiver Duron Carter, offensive lineman Sukh Chung and defensive back Aaron Grymes. Add in new head coach DeVone Claybrooks and BC looked formidable on paper but folded into a 5-13 record.
That cost Claybrooks his job and Carter was released.
Walker was paid in the neighbourhood of $275,000 last year with the Toronto Argonauts. The 28-year-old from Hillsboro, Tex., had 65 catches for 1,040 yards and six touchdowns and was named an East Division All-Star.
Arguably the best free agent remaining on the market, Walker has a connection with the Lions. He and Reilly were teammates in Edmonton. Walker came to the CFL when Hervey was GM in Edmonton.
“Derel is a player that I think everyone would want at this stage,” said Hervey. “The reality of it happening is basically what they choose to do.”
The Lions already have a talented receiving corps. Veteran Bryan Burnham had a career year last season. He had 100 catches and went over 1,000 yards for the fourth consecutive year and was a West Division All-Star.
Canadian receiver Lemar Durant had his best season with 57 catches for 810 yards and five touchdowns. He was on track to go over 1,000 yards before missing the final three games of the season with an injury. Also on the roster are Canadian receivers Shaquille Johnson (39 catches for 597 yards) and Jevon Cottoy (38-386).
Derel Walker continues to weigh his free agency options (Geoff Robins/CFL.ca)
Hervey said Walker makes any team better.
“Derel Walker is a superstar in this league, let’s not lose sight of that. His impact would be tremendous for any football team,” he said.
Going after Johnson was a priority for the Lions. The BC defence was ranked in the bottom of the league in most statistics last year, including seventh with 28 sacks and tied for last with 32 forced turnovers.
In 96 games with Calgary and Saskatchewan, the six-foot-two, 278-pound Johnson has 184 defensive tackles, 45 sacks and six forced fumbles.
“Micah addressed an area that we had concerns about heading into the off-season that we needed to upgrade,” said Hervey. “We felt that it was extremely important for us to strengthen up the trenches, especially along the defensive line. We want to get younger; we want to become more dynamic and we felt that Micah was an impact player that we needed.”
BC also hopes to solve another problem with the signing of offensive tackle Ryker Matthews, an East Division All-Star with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last year.
The Lions’ offensive line had the consistency of jelly for the first half the season. Things improved after offensive line coach Bryan Chiu was fired and replaced by former Lion Kelly Bates, but BC still allowed a league-high 58 sacks.
After last year’s big splash in free agency, the Lions were a little more restrained this time around. Besides Johnson and Mathews, BC signed running back/returner Chris Rainey, defensive linemen Ryan Brown and Cameron Walker.
Rick Campbell, the former Ottawa head coach hired to replace Claybrooks, said there could be more moves.
Rick Campbell will get to work with a beefed up offensive and defensive line this season in BC (Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca)
“I think Ed did a great job so far of getting a bunch of good guys that can help us,” he said. “But if there’s anyone else that can help us, we’re certainly not going to turn them down.”
There will be some shuffling along the offensive line as both Matthews and Joel Figuero play left tackle.
“They both can play both spots,” said Campbell. “I think that’s for us to figure out.
“We want to keep our quarterback protected and be able to run the ball.”
Rainey played four years with the Lions before signing with Toronto last year. Hervey believes the 31-year-old brings needed experience to the Lions’ return game.
“We know what he’s capable of,” said Hervey. “I know some say he’s a little older but there’s still a lot left in the tank.
“He’s familiar with this city, familiar with this team and we’re familiar with him. An experienced returner can go a long ways, especially when you’re in training camp and the early part of season. He has that type of ability. Then we’ll see what happens.”
Campbell got a taste of what Rainey could do last year.
“He was a pain in the butt to cover punts against,” he said. “I just like his approach and his demeanour and the way he plays.”