Scouting, not free agency, always key to CFL success

The CFL’s free agent period kicks off in exactly eight weeks and, while some pending free agents will inevitably sign new deals during this time frame, the free agent class of 2016 currently features an unprecedented level of talent.

A starting-caliber quarterback could possibly be available in Toronto’s Trevor Harris. An elite pass rusher could be had in Montreal’s John Bowman. Hamilton’s Ted Laurent, Toronto’s Cleyon Laing, and Ottawa Keith Shologan — the CFL’s three best Canadian defensive tackles — could be available, too. National talent isn’t limited only to the defensive tackle position, though — Montreal left tackle Josh Bourke, Ottawa defensive end Justin Capicciotti, Toronto linebacker Cory Greenwood, Calgary running back Jerome Messam, Saskatchewan wide receiver Rob Bagg, and B.C. running back Andrew Harris could all be up for grabs on February 9.

These names — along with many more on the list — could significantly boost the talent of any CFL roster. The problem is that it’s very rare that the highest impact free agent signings feature players bearing household names.

Left tackle SirVincent Rogers and slotback Brad Sinopoli signed free agent contracts with Ottawa this past winter. The RedBlacks paid less than $265,000 per year for the pair, a huge coup considering that Rogers and Sinopoli would go on to be named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman and Most Outstanding Canadian, respectively. These were both very successful free agent signings that went a long way to making Ottawa’s Grey Cup run a reality last month.

Toronto signed Shea Emry away from Montreal in February of 2014 to turn their middle linebacker position into a Canadian starting spot. Though it cost the Argos $200,000 per season to land the former East Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Emry rewarded the double blue with 72 tackles and a sack in eighteen starts. Toronto general manager Jim Barker was then able to flip Emry to Saskatchewan in January of 2015 in exchange for pass rusher Ricky Foley, who enjoyed a strong 2015 season. Despite the high price tag, Emry proved to be a worthwhile marquee signing for Toronto two off-seasons ago.

The year prior, Winnipeg-born defensive tackle Eddie Steele signed with Edmonton with fruitful results. The Eskimos didn’t have to pay out huge money to the former third round pick — Steele’s salary was rumored to be in the $90,000 to $100,000 range — who has since recorded 63 tackles, twelve sacks, and an interception in green and gold. Like the signings of Rogers, Sinopoli, and Emry, Steele’s signing represents a day-one free agent acquisition that proved worthwhile for the team that pulled the trigger.

Despite the success of these deals, what is often overlooked is the fact that most impact players are unknown when they sign their first CFL contracts. While fans and media were busy trumpeting the signings of Spencer Watt in Hamilton, Marc Dile in Winnipeg, and Brandon Boudreaux in Calgary last February, the league’s player personnel departments were pouring over game film to find new, impactful players.

Let’s use the reigning Grey Cup champions as a primary example of building through scouting. Nobody heralded Edmonton’s signings of cornerback John Ojo, receiver Derel Walker or running back Shakir Bell this past winter. All three signings were mere blips on the team’s transaction page, lost in the shuffle of dozens of other unfamiliar names. And yet two, Ojo and Walker, went on to be named CFL all-stars this past season. The third, Bell, finished fifth in league rushing despite appearing in just eleven games.

Edmonton wasn’t the only team that managed to uncover some gems in 2015. Toronto discovered three strong receivers in Vidal Hazelton, Kevin Elliott, and Tori Gurley. Offensive linemen Tommie Draheim, Jason Foster, and Greg Van Roten were unknown CFL entities just ten months ago — now they are respected starters. The same is true for defensive backs Johnny Adams, A.J. Jefferson, and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.

Consider this: in an off-season that featured the signings of young quarterbacks Jonathon Jennings, Brett Smith, and James Franklin, the one that generated the most buzz was Montreal’s decision to ink Dan LeFevour.

Yeah. That.

Uncovering rookie talent is the most sound, proven way to build a CFL roster with a high quantity of strong, young American talent. That isn’t to say there’s no value in adding players through day-one free agent deals — every team has to supplement their roster somehow — but good scouting — national and international — will always be the lifeblood of talented CFL rosters.

Let’s try to remember that when we try to award the 2016 Grey Cup on February 9.

John Hodge, Blue Bomber Talk

Twitter: @BlueBomberTalk

Email: [email protected]

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.