Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Missing Pieces

It was beginning to seem as though the 2015 CFL free agent class was going to be the best crop in a long time.

Just like last year, where numerous blockbuster trades kicked off the offseason, teams were seemingly clearing up cap space and upgrading at positions that were occupied by upcoming free agents in the run-up to this year's start of free agency. With just under two weeks to go, CFL fans and teams were licking their chops after looking at how many star players remained unsigned… which lead to the final few days of January being real disappointing (depending on which team you cheer for, of course).

The dominoes began to fall on January 28 when the Alouettes locked up franchise slotback S.J. Green for three more years. It snowballed from there as Weston Dressler (Saskatchewan), Odell Willis (Edmonton), Luke Tasker (Hamilton) and Tyler Holmes (Toronto) all re-signed with their 2014 clubs. Those signings thinned out the top tier of the free agent class. The NFL didn’t help matters either, as they snagged Canadian offensive tackle Ben Heenan from the list, as well as Ian Wild, Delvin Breaux and Duron Carter, all of whom were expected to head down south when the 2014 season ended.

There is no denying that this year’s crop of free agents is no longer as exciting as last year’s group. Other than Calgary’s Brett Jones, who is expected to find employment down south, there aren't many big-name players who will be testing the market on February 10. Last year, players such as Shea Emry, Pat Watkins, Zach Collaros, Henry Burris, Nick Moore, Jamall Johnson and Drew Willy were all available to the highest bidder. This year, the group is nowhere near as bountiful.

While free agency alone is seldom used to build a Grey Cup champion, it can be used to plug in the final pieces of the puzzle for a team’s Grey Cup run. As we all know, Ottawa isn’t going to turn into East Division champions in one offseason, but those solid ‘tweener’ teams like Edmonton, Montreal or Saskatchewan certainly can. Even a team like Winnipeg, who I would expect to open their large wallet and steal plenty of free agents, can turn into contenders if they decide to take a risk and spend right to the salary cap.

Highlighting this year’s free agent list would be the bevy of receivers that could be available. That list contains BC’s Ernest Jackson, Winnipeg’s Aaron Kelly, Calgary’s Brad Sinopoli, Toronto’s duo of Jason Barnes and Spencer Watt, and Hamilton’s trio of Sam Giguère, Bakari Grant and Greg Ellingson. There are no No. 1 receivers now that Dressler, Green and Tasker have all re-signed, but plenty of second and third receivers in Jackson, Barnes and Grant, who are all good fits for Edmonton, Winnipeg, BC or Ottawa. Jackson, who was named October’s offensive player of the month, is the most talented out of the group while Barnes, 30, is still one of the league’s best red zone targets despite having an injury-riddled year in 2014. While Grant, Ellingson and Kelly are all talented receivers, they may not be as valuable to an offence as Giguère, Watt or Sinopoli because of their passport and team’s now dedicating a starting receiver position to a Canadian. Winnipeg and Ottawa are both in need for top national targets to balance out their ratio, which makes Giguère and Sinopoli two interesting targets as I don’t think either of them has reached their full potential. I’m certainly expecting the majority of these pass-catchers to collect some good coin with a thinner pool of receivers available this off-season.

Defensively, there are plenty of starters to go around. Alouette cornerback Geoff Tisdale is coming off two solid seasons as the shutdown corner in Montreal with 13 interceptions in his last two campaigns and will certainly get interest from a number of teams in need of a No. 1 corner. Saskatchewan’s Tristan Jackson is also a solid corner who would excel opposite of guy like Tisdale on a team like BC or Edmonton. The Blue Bombers will likely look to upgrade their linebacker core this February after losing Ian Wild to the NFL, and both Saskatchewan’s Brian Peters and Edmonton’s Rennie Curran are slated to be available. Peters, 26, led the Riders with 78 tackles and played under Winnipeg’s newly hired defensive coordinator Richie Hall in Saskatchewan. Curran, meanwhile, complimented the often injured J.C. Sherritt at middle linebacker and would be a big upgrade over Ejiro Kuale, whom Winnipeg released earlier this week.

After seeing the Tiger-Cats, Roughriders and Alouettes struggle through certain stretches of the year, the 2014 season proved the importance of depth at quarterback. The Lions have decided to part ways with Kevin Glenn and look for a younger and more promising signal-caller like Hamilton’s Dan LeFevour. LeFevour looked promising in 2014, making four starts while completing 68 per cent of his passes for 1,276 yards and 314 yards rushing, including a Week 5 victory over Ottawa which saw LeFevour win offensive player of the week. What LeFevour doesn’t have in arm strength, he makes up for with his ability to scramble outside the pocket and rush for first downs. Those skills are why I see BC signing LeFevour with Travis Lulay’s ongoing shoulder issues continuing to hang over the franchise.

Lulay’s old “backup”, Kevin Glenn, remains the league’s best insurance policy and would prevent another wasted season in Saskatchewan caused by not having a reliable backup if starter Darian Durant goes down. Second-string quarterbacks aren’t usually credited when a team wins a Grey Cup, but a solid backup that can step in for a handful of games may prevent a team from regressing during the 18-game regular season and maintain confidence heading into the post-season, a trait the Riders lacked last November.

The Stampeders will most likely be supplying everyone with lineman this February. There is still a chance 2014 Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Brett Jones stays in the CFL this offseason. With an expected cap hit of well over $200k, the team that signs Jones will pay a hefty price, but one worth paying since he is a national and has dominated despite only being in the league for two years. Jones’ left tackle, Stanley Bryant, a 2013 and 2014 All-Star is an instant starter wherever he signs, while Edwin Harrison is a solid option at right tackle for Winnipeg or Hamilton. With Ben Heenan (NFL) and Tyler Holmes (Toronto) off the market, the demand for starting lineman has certainly increased despite limited options available.

It’s hard to predict which teams will open their wallet when free agency rolls around, and which teams will lay low and build through the draft and smaller international signings. It is safe to say that free agency this year is a bit of a letdown, but still carries a good amount of complimentary talent to round out the positional needs of contending teams. Unfortunately for R-Nation, the RedBlacks won’t be turned into the contenders Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Montreal and Hamilton are in one offseason but, after all, Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither were the Calgary Stampeders.

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