Free agency can be a fickle thing.
On the one hand, free agency is a quick and hassle-free way to add talent to one’s roster. Veteran players don’t need to be taught the basics of the Canadian game, saving valuable time and energy during training camp. It also minimizes the chances of a players having unforeseeable character issues: it’s one thing to analyze a player’s speed, strength or football I.Q. on film; learning a player’s personality, dedication to film study, or ability to be a good teammate is quite another.
On the other hand, free agency is expensive. CFL veterans command big dollars and the addition of even a small handful of players can quickly cause strain on the salary cap. Signing big-name free agents can also substantially elevate the expectations fans and media have for marquee additions. If a free agent — particularly an expensive one — under-performs, club management must be prepared to face criticism for the addition of said player(s).
Let us look to Winnipeg and Saskatchewan — the two teams that added the most players this past February — to illustrate how to best navigate free agency.
After diving head-first into the free agent pool in previous years to mediocre results, Blue Bomber general manager Kyle Walters took a different approach in 2016. Instead of simply throwing money at the best players available, Walters looked to build his free agent class around players with whom his coaching staff was already familiar.
Weston Dressler, who played under Blue Bomber offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice for two seasons in Saskatchewan, signed a two-year deal with Winnipeg and recorded a 1,000-yard season despite missing almost five full games. Justin Medlock — arguably the Bombers’ best player this past season — worked with Blue Bomber head coach Mike O’Shea for a season in Toronto before signing a two-year pact with Winnipeg this past February.
Even Andrew Harris, despite having no history with the Blue Bomber organization or its coaching staff, had a preexisting connection to the city of Winnipeg by way of his birth. After signing a three-year pact with the Bombers, Harris went on to record 1,605 all-purpose yards with the Bombers in just fifteen games, a new yards-per-game career high for the seven-year veteran.
The Riders, meanwhile, didn’t have nearly as much success with their 2016 free agent class. John Chiles, signed fresh-off a one-year stint with the Chicago Bears, was released after recording just ten receptions in three games. Justin Capicciotti and Shawn Lemon, both big-money defensive ends, were traded during the season after failing to meet expectations. And running back Curtis Steele, plagued by injuries and a lackluster offensive line, carried the ball just 54 times all year.
The common thread with these dubious Saskatchewan signings? A lack of mutual familiarity. Capicciotti had no history with any member of the Riders’ organization, whether they be a member of the coaching staff or front office (or both). Chiles and Steele played in Toronto in 2013 when Chris Jones was on staff, though neither player was featured on Jones’ side of the ball. And Lemon, who played under Saskatchewan assistant vice president John Murphy for one year in Calgary, was clearly a poor fit for Chris Jones’ defensive scheme.
There are plenty of other examples from around the CFL this season that clearly demonstrate how key mutual familiarity is to determining in the success of a free agent signing.
Trevor Harris followed former Argonaut receivers coach Jamie Elizondo from Toronto to Ottawa where he posted the best quarterback rating (116.0) in the CFL this season. Duron Carter, personal issues aside, showed periods of dominance in his return to Montreal. John Chick, who spent time in Saskatchewan with head coach Kent Austin and general manager Eric Tillman, had arguably the best year of his career after reuniting with them in Steeltown. Keon Raymond, who was inexplicably released by the Argos in August, had been having a strong season after following Rich Stubler from Calgary to Toronto. And Otha Foster, who played under Chris Jones for two years in Edmonton, was named Saskatchewan’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
There are exceptions to the importance of player familiarity outlined above, of course. Shamawd Chambers and Kendial Lawrence followed Chris Jones to Saskatchewan and failed to impress this past season. Kenny Stafford had a disappointing season in his return to Montreal, while Keith Shologan’s reunion with former Roughrider defensive coordinator Richie Hall in Winnipeg was a disappointment.
There are also free agent signings that turn out well despite a complete lack of familiarity between the team and player ahead of the signing taking place. Jovon Johnson (Montreal), Chad Owens (Hamilton), Ed Gainey (Saskatchewan), and Mike Edem (B.C.) all found new homes in 2016 and excelled in brand new situations.
More often than not, however, player familiarity is a key factor in determining the success of free agent signings. Hopefully CFL general managers will take this to heart during free agency come Tuesday.