Fans are always curious after the hustle and bustle of free agency: who won? This is such a subjective gauge of performance that really is nothing more than an individuals opinion at this point of the year. The better judge of performance is seen in wins, playoff appearances and, for one team, a Grey Cup. Now free agency is one small part of this but is an important one as it can either benefit or hinder your chances of your success.
Below I’ve looked at each team’s performance from the West Division and given my subjective opinion on how they did based on key signings (either just before free agency or afterwards), losses (players signing with other CFL teams) and players to keep an eye on.
Key signings: Ronnie Yell, Mic’hael Brooks, Tony Burnett, Bryan Burnham, Dequin Evans, Chris Williams, Marco Iannuzzi, TJ Lee, Hunter Steward, Bryant Turner
In Yell and Brooks, general manager Wally Buono has solidified two major parts of his defence in a complete cover defensive back and upper echelon defensive tackle. The addition of Burnett flies a bit under the radar but shouldn’t, he will help fill a huge hole left by Adam Bighill. Bryan Burnham has turned into a premier CFL receiver and arguably has the best ability to come down with the ball in traffic in the league. His stock will continue to rise as he plays more and more and learns more about CFL defences. Evans can be a premier pass rusher in the league but some fluke injuries have slowed him down.
Losses: Jabar Westerman
This loss will force head coach Buono to look for help to replace a legitimate ratio starter which is much easier said than done. Luckily, this isn’t Buono’s first rodeo and Lions fans shouldn’t be worried as I’m certain the plan is in place for the ratio replacement already.
Keep an eye on: Chris Williams
This could turn out to be the steal of free agency. On a two-year deal, the Lions may have brought on the most explosive player in the league depending on how he recovers from his ACL injury.
Key signings: Micah Johnson, Marquay McDaniel, Dan Federkeil, National depth
John Hufnagel is never one to bust that bank in free agency and seems to focus on re-signing his own players and letting his scouting staff bring in fresh talent to be coached up by one of the top staff’s in the league – and it works. Johnson may be the best defensive tackle in the CFL, certainly in the conversation. McDaniel while voted the most underrated player last year is anything but that. He’s a legit threat as a No. 1 receiver and if he’s underrated those who voted so need to lift their head from the sand, the guy can flat out play. The signings of Anthony Woodson, Rory Kolhert and Beau Landry adds what every team needs, more quality Canadians. Keep an eye on Landry, he has a load of potential, yet to be fully realized.
Losses: Derek Dennis, Glenn Love, Adam Berger, Bakari Grant
Dennis is an all-star left tackle and if you followed me during the free agency on Twitter you’d know how strongly I feel about the need to have quality at that position. Filling that position isn’t as easy as it may seem. Love may have started on a half dozen teams elsewhere in the CFL in 2016, he is that good. His loss will be felt on special teams but also will test Calgary’s depth.
Keep an eye on: Offensive line changes
There is little doubt in my mind that Calgary will go into the season with all cylinders firing on offence. The interesting thing to look at will be how they are going to do that while losing the Most Outstanding Lineman in Dennis. Huf and crew have done such an amazing job making lesser known players into stars, so there is no reason to believe that won’t continue. Also look for Landry to make a big impact on special teams and add needed depth for his body type.
Key signings: Marcus Howard, Philip Hunt, Ashton Whiteside, Travon Van, Sean Whyte, Alexandre Dupuis
In Howard, Hunt and Whiteside the Eskimos may have solidified the best group of pass rushing defensive ends in the CFL on paper. They’ll be an exciting crew to keep an eye on and will force many quarterbacks to get rid of the ball before they’re ready. Whyte is Mr. Consistency and has shown it his whole career. As he takes on all three kicking roles, as he did in Montreal, it will be important for him to maintain that consistency through 18-plus games.
Losses: Don Oramasionwu, Aaron Milton
The loss of quality Canadian talent is tough to digest with any team. Ed Hervey will need to look to fill this roster loss but has some quality draft picks from 2016 to look to if he can get them signed.
Keep an eye on: Phillip Hunt
Back for the first full CFL season since his time in Winnipeg, expect Hunt to make an impact on opposing passers.
Key signings: Marc-Olivier Brouillette, Glenn Love, Kienan Lafrance, Chad Owens, Derek Dennis, Aaron Milton, Bakari Grant, Ryan White
Dennis is the key piece to these signings. The left tackle position while maybe at times unnoticed, as most fans will follow the ball, is extraordinarily important to have a smooth functioning of an offence. He’ll make quarterback Kevin Glenn better which will make the receivers better which makes the offence better. Lafrance at the reported salary he signed for will likely mean that the Riders are moving towards a Canadian backfield. Owens will provide additional veteran leadership to the offence. Look for Love to come out of camp in a starting role. He’s long and likes to hit people, two of Chris Jones’s requisites to running a strong defence. Brouillette will bring physicality and leadership to a young defence.
Losses: Matt Webster, Andrew Lue, Shamawd Chambers, Jeff Fuller
It’s never easy to lose Canadians that are drafted by your club. That said, Chris Jones didn’t draft Webster and maybe he’s looking at a different position to fill his Canadian depth.
Keep an eye on: Kienan Lafrance
I think LaFrance will do very well carrying the football with his new team but more importantly is how will his pass protection hold up over the course of the season.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Key Signings: Drake Nevis, Clarence Denmark, Tristan Okpalaugo, Sam Hurl, Jesse Briggs, Matt Coates
When Kyle Walters and company took over in Winnipeg they were in need of a rebuild and it looks like they have started to work from a position of strength. They have key players in place and may only need to provide some tweaks here and there. There is a ratio change happening with the release of Canadian defensive tackle Keith Shologan and signing of international Nevis, who I regard as a top three defensive tackle in the CFL. The signing of Denmark provides consistency through the offence and a comfort level for Matt Nichols who found great chemistry with him last season.
Losses: Khalil Bass, Tony Burnett
While Ian Wild will likely be moved into the box and will help in the transition of losing these two high-quality linebackers the loss of these two players is material. Along with their productivity, they brought a high level of physicality which will need to be replaced.
Keep an eye on: 2017 Canadian Draft
With four picks in the first 23 selections, including first and sixth overall, the likelihood is that Winnipeg will aid the loss of ratio-changer, Shologan, by drafting at least four players who look to be on their roster come June (provided they don’t use a pick on a player exploring NFL opportunities). A strong draft could bring them to where they haven’t been in many many years, near the top of the league in Canadian talent.
Time will tell how each team did. There will be more signings in the days to come and the CFL Draft is around the corner. Excitement runs rampant as we build up to mini-camps and training camp. The season will be here before fans know it and now they have new players they can learn about before they see them on the field in June.
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