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Grading the Winners of 2017 CFL Free Agency

Published: Thursday, Nov 9th 2017, 12:11pm

By Alex Dormuth (@RealAlexD)

As soon as the first few days of Free Agency end and most of the big name players land with a new team, we always talk about who won free agency. The truth is, it’s not won on the first few days of the free agency period. Many depth moves are made after the first few days and quite often, those have a significant impact on a team.

We have to let the season play out and see who plays well, who doesn’t and who even plays at all. So, now that the regular season is behind us and we are in the playoff run, who won 2017 CFL Free Agency?

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Obviously keeping Willie Jefferson was arguably their biggest keep of the offseason, but getting Jeff Knox Jr. and Otha Foster III back from the NFL set up the LB unit for years to come. Both are all-star players that are proven in the CFL. The splashes they made were OL Derek Dennis (Calgary), WRs Duron Carter (Montreal), Bakari Grant (Calgary) and Chad Owens (Hamilton), QB Kevin Glenn (again…Montreal/Winnipeg) and RB Kienan LaFrance (Ottawa).

Dennis hasn’t lived up to his 2016 Most Outstanding Lineman year and LaFrance, while not a bust, wasn’t the ratio breaking RB we were hoping for. But guys like Carter, Grant, and late in the season, Owens, really solidified the WRs, making them arguably the most dangerous in the league. Glenn had a resurgent start to the season and was playing lights out until he hurt his hand in the Banjo Bowl. But other under the radar signings have put this team over and beyond expectations for the season.

Jovon Johnson (Montreal), Cameron Marshall (Winnipeg via NFL) and Trent Richardson (NFL) have all turned out to be key in the Riders success. Marc-Olivier Brouillette (Montreal), although retired the day before Training Camp, was convinced to come back and has provided solid depth in the secondary and special teams unit. Both Devon Bailey and Chris Getzlaf (Edmonton) provided depth for the team, with only Bailey getting game reps before getting hurt.

Glenn Love (Calgary) and Zach Minter (Calgary) didn’t really pan out as impact players as both spent the majority of the season on the injured list, but both provided depth to a team that was in bad need of LB and D-Line help coming into the season.

Of course players like Ryan White (Montreal), AJ Jefferson (Toronto) and Aaron Milton (Edmonton) are no longer on the team, so not every signing worked out. Overall, the team really improved in free agency and it’s hard to look at their FA class and not be excited about how it turned out.

BC Lions

The BC Lions did pretty much all their damage in Free Agency before the official signing period began. They were able to extend superstar LB Solomon Elimimian, WR, Bryan Burnham, RB Jeremiah Johnson, FB Rolly Lumbala and DB Ronnie Yell all before February 15th.

Wally Buono has always been known for bringing in his own players and developing them and that’s what BC did again in 2017. The only FA signings of note that BC made were WR Chris Williams (Ottawa), DB Matt Bucknor (Calgary) and LB Tony Burnett (Winnipeg).

The biggest free agent move for BC though, was losing LB Adam Bighill to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. Bighill and Elimimian formed Team 100 and were a scary force in the middle of the Lions D. Without Bighill, the Lions struggled all season long and was a big reason why the team didn’t make the playoffs. They missed that edge, that nasty that Bighill brought and they just looked lost for a good part of the year.

Calgary Stampeders

Much like BC, the Calgary Stampeders focused on keeping their own guys and didn’t really go out and sign anyone of note.

Keeping DE Charleston Hughes, DL Micah Johnson, WRs Kamar Jorden and Marquay McDaniel, OL Pierre Lavertu and Dan Federkeil, and keeping their kicking unit in tact with K Rene Paredes and P Rob Maver were all key in keeping their continuity on the team and having all that depth led them to their 13-4-1 record and yet another first place finish in the CFL West Division.

They did sign LB Beau Landry (Hamilton) and DL Bryan Hall (Toronto) and WR Rory Kohlert (Winnipeg), but those were more depth signings than anything else. Losing guys like Derek Dennis, Bakari Grant and Zach Minter were the most notable moves by the team, but as their record shows, they didn’t miss a beat without them.

Edmonton Eskimos

It’s easy to say in hindsight, but the Eskimos perhaps had the worst luck in Free Agency as they decided to go with a full International D-Line and let Eddie Steele walk (to Saskatchewan), and decided to make one of their LB spots Canadian and go with Cory Greenwood (Toronto). Unfortunately Greenwood suffered a season ending injury early on and that plan didn’t work out as they had wanted.

They did a great job keeping their D-Line strong though, by re-signing Marcus Howard and Philip Hunt (and then getting John Chick in a mid-season trade with Hamilton).

Edmonton signed DB Johnny Adams (Hamilton), KR Kendial Lawrence (Hamilton), RB Travon Van (Ottawa) and DL Euclid Cummings (Winnipeg), but perhaps their biggest signing was getting WR Derel Walker back from the NFL after his tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mike Reilly now has a stacked receiving unit with Walker, Adarius Bowman and Brandon Zylstra at his disposal.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

The Ti-Cats spent their free agent time by looking at their receivers. Before the deadline, they re-signed Kevin Elliot, Andy Fantuz and Terrence Toliver. They also kept OL Xavier Fulton before releasing him outright.

The only splash they made once free agency got underway was getting DB Abdul Kanneh (Ottawa). Maybe staying still and not really adding any pieces was the reason they started 0-8 and fell way back of the pack and missed the playoffs. There should be a much bigger turnover in the Hammer in 2018.

Montreal Alouettes

No team made more moves this past offseason than the Montreal Alouettes and since they ended up losing their final 11 games, finishing at 3-15, they clearly didn’t make the right moves. Obviously, the biggest move was trading for former Riders QB Darian Durant. In 2016, Montreal finished tied for 2nd in the East, but missed the playoffs and they thought this move would take them over the top. They fooled me as I had them winning the East. Trading for, then extending the contract of Durant handcuffed the team of young talent like Vernon Adams (later traded to Saskatchewan) and didn’t allow the team to add any depth on the team.

Montreal decided to keep all their veteran players like WR Nik Lewis, LB Kyries Hebert , OL Luc Brodeur-Jourdain and DL Michael Klassen and Gabriel Knapton. They also went out and got DL Jabar Westerman (BC) and Don Oramasionwu (Edmonton), as well as WR Ernest Jackson (Ottawa).

On paper, it really looked like Montreal loaded up for a potential Grey Cup run, but ultimately there were consequences as none of these signings really panned out and GM/Head Coach Kavis Reed’s team struggled the entire year. The 2018 offseason will be one of major change for the Als and it will be interesting to see what happens in Montreal.

Ottawa REDBLACKS

Ottawa entered the 2017 season as the defending Grey Cup champions and that usually means other teams want your players. As mentioned, Ernest Jackson, Chris Williams and Abdul Kanneh were the big pickups by Montreal, BC and Hamilton respectively, but they did a great job of keeping key pieces like WR Greg Ellingson, DBs Jerrell Gavins and Antoine Pruneau, LB Taylor Reed, RB William Powell, and DL Moton Hopkins and Ettore Lattanzio.

To offset their losses of Jackson and Williams, they were able to get Kenny Shaw and Diontae Spencer (Toronto). The REDBLACKS also signed LB Khalil Bass (Winnipeg), but the priority was made on keeping as many returning players from the 2016 Championship team as possible.

Toronto Argonauts

What the Argos have done this season is nothing short of miraculous. Going into free agency they didn’t have a General Manager or a Head Coach after Jim Barker was fired on January 24. It wasn’t until February 27, 2 weeks after free agency started that Jim Popp and Marc Trestman were hired on.

Toronto’s biggest move of the offseason was trading a 6th round pick in 2017 and a conditional 8th round pick in 2018 to Montreal for receiver S.J. Green. That worked out well as Green had a resurgent year after an ACL tear, finishing the season as the 2nd leading receiver in the league with 1462 yards.

When it comes to new signings, the Argos got most of their free agents from in province. DBs Rico Murray and Johnny Sears came over from Hamilton and OL J’Michael Deane, DL Cleyon Laing and WR Khalil Paden from Ottawa. Toronto also got DL Alan-Michael Cash (Montreal), WR Jeff Fuller (Saskatchewan) and DB Matt Webster (Saskatchewan).

All those players, along with returning free agents OL Tyler Holmes, OL Chris Van Zeyl, RB Brandon Whitaker and DB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah made big contributions to the team and provided the depth that they were missing in their 5-13 2016 season.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Bombers didn’t do a heck of a lot in free agency. They signed QB Dan LeFevour (Toronto) and DL Drake Nevis (Hamilton). Otherwise, they kept their key free agents like QB Matt Nichols, WRs Darvin Adams and Clarence Denmark, OL Stanley Bryant and K Justin Medlock.

Continuity was the approach and the key to Winnipeg’s success in 2017 and it resulted in a 12-6 record and their first home playoff game since 2011.

Final Grades

Keep in mind this grade is for who each team signed from other teams, resulting in an impact on the team, not free agents kept, free agents lost to other teams, rookies or trades made.

Saskatchewan Roughriders – A

Toronto Argonauts – A-

Edmonton Eskimos – B

Ottawa REDBLACKS – B-

BC Lions – C

Calgary Stampeders – C

Montreal Alouettes – C

Hamilton Tiger-Cats – D

Winnipeg Blue Bombers – D

 

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