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 East 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: Abdul Kanneh, Emanuel Davis, Xavier Fulton
The signing of Kanneh and re-signing of Davis provides Hamilton with some much-needed depth on their back end. They fought through a lot of injuries last year in their secondary and really needed to add a solid starter. Kanneh is just that, solid. He can change the flow of a game with his physicality and force receivers to know where he is on the field. Davis is widely regarded as one of the top defensive back’s in the league. Fulton brings experience and some quality to the all important left tackle position.
Losses: Jeff Mathews, Drake Nevis, Chad Owens, Beau Landry, Anthony Woodson, Matt Coates
Nevis is the big loss for Hamilton and does present a hole in the middle of the Ticats defence. There may be a chance that new defensive coordinator Jeff Reinbold looks to turn the defence into a 3-4 base scheme like he ran in Montreal. That’s pure speculation at this point but something to look at moving forward. I’ve felt strongly about Jeff Mathews ability since I saw him at Atlanta’s training camp in 2014 and I think he’ll continue to grow and be a very good player in our league. The loss of three core Canadians amongst your depth can be crippling but Hamilton has done a very nice job over the years creating a lot of depth.
Keep an eye on: Nic Shortill
Shortill, the newly acquired linebacker, is a player to watch closely with the loss of a bit of Canadian depth. He is one of the best Canadians in the league not starting. If not for a lingering hamstring injury in his draft year he would have been a first round pick.
Key signings: Winston Venable, Jeff Mathews, Johnny Sears Jr., Matt Webster, Jeff Finley, Jeff Fuller, Peter Dyakowski
The addition of Venable will bring a quality individual to the dressing room and a leader on and off the field. On the field, he’ll provide a high level of physicality that the Argo’s may have been missing. Mathews will provide quality competition at the most important position. The addition of Sears (if healthy) provides the Argonauts with a legitimate starting defensive back, which they are in need of. He can also play strongside linebacker, which is difficult to find. Webster adds ratio versatility as he has the ability to play field corner.
Losses: AJ Jefferson, Kenny Shaw, Dionte Spencer, Alexandre Dupuis
This group of losses will be felt deeply. Jefferson, while he wasn’t healthy the whole 2016 season, is a legitimate difference maker at the back end. His athleticism and size are impressive and his ball skills provide something for opposing teams to plan for. The loss of Shaw means the Argos lose their biggest producer on second down and their go-to guy when they have to have a catch. Spencer is an up and comer and a significant one at that. Look for him to be a household name in 2017.
Keep an eye on: Front office
Spencer Zimmerman is a quality football man and is not over his head in his current role. That said, the situation he’s been placed in is wildly unfair to him, Tommy Condell, Curtis Rukavina and the staff, and provides for a lot of Jeopardy! type planning, getting the answers before the questions. The staff will do what they feel is best for the Argos, which may be right, but that doesn’t mean it won’t change with a new regime, and often times does.
Key signings: Greg Ellingson, Jerrell Gavins, Nolan MacMillan, AJ Jefferson, Kenny Shaw, Dionte Spencer, Kahlil Bass
There was a lot of movement in the nation’s capital and the name of the game was looking to replace players who wanted a large paycheque with quality players who will demand less. Mission accomplished. The Redblacks knocked it out of the park from a business and football perspective. They re-signed Ellingson who I view as a top three receiver in the CFL and is part of the soul of the team. They brought back Gavins who is a solid defensive contributor playing a tough position. MacMillan is the first ever Redblack to be drafted in 2013 as a NCAA junior out of Iowa and has come into his own as a top offensive guard in the CFL. The new guys are home runs on paper as well. Each player brought in will help alleviate the loss of players Ottawa let go to free agency. Jefferson for Kanneh, Shaw for Jackson, Spencer for Williams and Bass for Munoz. The talent may not be equal amongst those players but neither is the pay cheque and this is a business and that does matter. But that doesn’t mean Ottawa went cheap, these guys they are bringing in can flat out play and are as perfect as you can find in replacing the type of players they are losing. Look for Shaw and Spencer to have career years, especially Spencer who I think has CFL all-star potential. Look for Jefferson to be the ball hawk he was two seasons ago. And look for Bass to bring a higher level of physicality in the box.
Losses: Ernest Jackson, Abdul Kanneh, Chris Williams, Kienan Lafrance
You can’t mitigate the loses that Ottawa suffered this last week despite the excitement about the players they are bringing in. The business makes executives and players alike make tough decisions and sometimes ones that hurt. Jackson was instrumental in their Grey Cup win and provided the best second down receiver in the game. Kanneh’s physicality will be missed and someone will need to step up in the secondary to provide those sparks. Williams, before his injury, was the most explosive player in the league and was refined as a receiver. That comfort level with a deep threat is hard to replace. Ottawa’s staff can find running backs at will so paying for a Canadian to become a starter doesn’t make sense. That said, it doesn’t make losing a player you drafted and developed any easier.
Keep an eye on: How the new guys fill in for the old
This is a big change in material players, now they just need to get on the field and play. What do the Redblacks really have? We won’t find out until June but by all accounts and in the humble opinion of someone with 12 years experience in the business they are extraordinarily happy with their work this week. However, I am sure they find it bittersweet as they did have to say goodbye to a core group of men who helped them bring a Grey Cup back to Ottawa.
Key signings: Boris Bede, Nic Boulay, Mike Klassen, Gabe Knapton, Kyries Hebert, Keith Shologan, Jabar Westerman, Don Oramasionwu, Ernest Jackson, Ryan Phillips
Montreal started by bringing back some quality players in their own rights. Bede had an off year in 2016 and he knows it, expect him to work hard and rebound in 2017. He was still the top kick-off producer in the CFL in 2016. Boulay exploded on special teams in 2016 and showed he is a top teamer in the CFL. Klassen has battled some injuries this past year but when healthy he is a legitimate Canadian defensive tackle. Knapton is quickly coming on as a top defensive end in the league and plays every down as if it were his last. Hebert returns after a productive season but more importantly, his physical play makes the opposition look where he is on the field.
With the new signings, the Alouettes look to make a change to the ratio. Looking to have an all-Canadian interior defensive line they have done a nice job finding quality players to fill those roles. Shologan provides a stout gap filler who can eat up blocks with the best of them. Westerman as a 3-technique who will give the Alouettes an interior pass rush that they are losing with Cash. Oramasionwu provides excellent depth on a line that rotates quite often. With Jackson, the Alouettes ensure they have a legitimate No. 1 receiver going into training camp with the question mark around SJ Green’s knee injury. With Jackson and Nic Lewis look for the Alouettes to be productive on second down, which is critically important in staying on the football field and controlling the clock.
Losses: Marc-Olivier Brouillette, Dequin Evans, Winston Venable, Alan-Michael Cash (yet to sign)
With the loss of Brouillette the free safety position will likely be filled by American Phillips. The loss of Brouillette will be meaningful. He’s a pro and knows how to come to work each day and has been a leader. Montreal is also losing off the field on this one as Brouillette has been extraordinarily prevalent in off-season programs as a francophone in the province of Quebec. The loss of Venable likely means Hebert moves to play more full-time weakside linebacker while the number of defensive tackles they have brought in likely means the Alouettes defence will be more based on a 4-3 scheme but that is speculation based on nothing more than the signings they’ve made. Evans played more late in the season and was very productive as a run stopper and providing strength on the edge. He’s also a skilled pass rusher. The loss of Cash will be meaningful, the defensive tackles coming in are good players but they aren’t Cash. Cash does it all at his position as a pass rusher, run stopper and plays outside the numbers better than any interior defensive lineman in the CFL.
Keep an eye on: Offensive line
There is still work to do here but the good news is Kavis Reed knows it. The Alouettes were able to secure the rights of some quality offensive line prospects in December’s neg list draft. There is still likely concern at the lack of CFL experience they have at offensive tackle, so this will be something to key on. If they find new blood to fill these roles they’ll make a push to be back as a playoff team.
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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