Argos were focussed on Canadians in free agency

CFL free agency has offered few surprises for Jim Barker.

When over 120 players hit the open market Tuesday, the Toronto Argonauts GM’s priority was bolstering his Canadian content knowing it could cost him some American starters.

So while Barker made seven moves last week, including the signing of tackle Josh Bourke and defensive lineman Brian Bulcke _both Canadians _ the Argos lost nine free agents, the most notable being quarterback Trevor Harris (Ottawa), linebacker Greg Jones and running back Curtis Steele (Saskatchewan) and slotback Chad Owens (Hamilton).

Last year Toronto lost SirVincent Rogers, the CFL’s top lineman in 2015, to Ottawa as a free agent.

“My focus was all on Canadians,” Barker said. “I trust we have the best scouting staff in the league and I expect them to fill in those gaps.

“Canadians are a different story.”

Barker’s emphasis was also on Canadians prior to free agency, signing defensive lineman Ricky Foley, defensive back Jermaine Gabriel, linebackers Cory Greenwood and Thomas Miles and offensive lineman Wayne Smith to extensions.

Harris started 16 games last year, but Toronto still has veteran Ricky Ray, who played the club’s final three games before signing a two-year extension in December. Still, Harris’s departure creates questions given Ray, 36, needed most of last season to recover from off-season shoulder surgery.

Sophomore Logan Kilgore and journeyman Adrian McPherson are Toronto’s other quarterbacks. It’s a situation similar to 2012 when the Argos had unheralded rookies Harris and Zach Collaros _ now Hamilton’s starter _ behind Ray.

“Scott (Argos head coach Scott Milanovich) has a lot of confidence in Logan Kilgore,” Barker said. “The fact those two guys (Collaros and Harris) are going to be starting quarterbacks in our division is just the way it happened to play out.

“When you get Ricky Ray, that’s what he gives you the opportunity to do: Develop these guys.”

Hamilton has lost the most free agents (10), including receiver Terrell Sinkfield Jr. and defensive back Erik Harris to the NFL. Also gone is American Justin Medlock (Winnipeg), leaving the Ticats without a kicker or punter on their roster.

But Hamilton made a huge splash by re-signing Canadian defensive tackle Ted Laurent, one of the most coveted free agents, and adding Owens while re-signing defensive lineman Michael Atkinson, receiver Andy Fantuz and defensive back Courtney Stephen _ all Canadians _ and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.

“Players grow and develop and have a better opportunity elsewhere and we get that,” said Hamilton coach/GM Kent Austin, who also signed a contract extension this off-season. “But we kept a core (group) of starters here and feel like the depth we have and the pieces we’ve added, we’re in pretty good shape.”

The Grey Cup-champion Edmonton Eskimos have also been hit hard this off-season. Shortly after their championship win, head coach Chris Jones left to become the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ head coach/GM, taking a number of his assistant coaches with him.

Once free agency began, receiver Shamawd Chambers, the top Canadian in last year’s Grey Cup game, offensive lineman Andrew Jones, running back Kendial Lawrence and defensive back Otha Foster all followed their former coach to Saskatchewan.

Edmonton re-signed linebacker JC Sherritt and running back John White after achieving extensions for receiver Adarius Bowman, defensive lineman Almondo Sewell and kicker Sean Whyte.

“I don’t feel we lost anyone we didn’t expect to go,” Eskimos GM Ed Hervey said. “My objective wasn’t to go out there and spend the most money and make that kind of news.

“Quite naturally if you spend the most money you’re going to make the most noise but in reality sometimes the moves you don’t make are just as good.”

Signing Harris diminished some of the sting for the East Division-champion Redblacks, who lost Canadian defensive linemen Justin Capiccotti (Saskatchewan) and Keith Shologan (Winnipeg), defensive back Jovon Johnson (Montreal) and running back Jeremiah Johnson (B.C.) in free agency.

Predictably, last year’s two non-playoff squads were the most active.

Winnipeg (5-13) opened free agency signing seven players, the biggest being running back Andrew Harris (B.C.), a Manitoba native who’s also a ratio changer. General manager Kyle Walters, in the final year of his contract, also added Medlock _the most accurate kicker in CFL history _ Canadian centre Jeff Keeping (Toronto) and American receiver Ryan Smith (Saskatchewan).

The following day Saskatchewan (3-15) reached an agreement with Capiccotti while signing Greg Jones, densive backs Foster and Ed Gainey, running backs Lawrence and Steele while obtaining American offensive lineman Bruce Campbell from Toronto for a 2016 fourth-round draft pick.

Chris Jones opened free agency by re-signing Canadian defensive lineman Dylan Ainsworth, then adding Chambers, Andrew Jones and American receiver John Chiles, a former Argo.

– CP