Justin Dunk’s dirty dozen things to know before free agency opens

CFL free agency always provides surprises and there are bound to be some “wow” moments when things get underway on Tuesday. But there’s already lots going on behind the scenes as teams and players position themselves to take advantage of a market flooded with quality talent.

Here is some of the most intriguing speculation.

1. Calgary has improved its Bo Levi Mitchell offer. While most people were sleeping in the east, the Stamps stepped up their bid for the two-time Grey Cup champ and CFL MOP. Does the number John Hufnagel has budgeted for Mitchell keep him in Calgary? Time will tell. Toronto is set to make a mega offer if indeed Mitchell gets to the open market and Saskatchewan could join the fray.

2. Trevor Harris wants to stay in Ottawa but it seems as though he’ll be free to choose his next destination. Edmonton general manager Brock Sunderland has multiple salary cap scenarios and given that one involved Reilly naming his price ($700,000), Sunderland clearly has the money set aside to ink a top tier quarterback such as Harris, who could cost in the $600,000 range. Saskatchewan also could be in the bidding for Harris, but the Eskimos have pre-existing relationships as head coach Jason Maas was the quarterbacks coach in Toronto for three seasons while Harris was an Argo and Sunderland was part of the Redblacks front office when he signed in Ottawa prior to the 2016 season.

3. Greg Ellingson could be headed west. The premier slotback available in the free agent class has four straight 1,000-yard seasons on his resume. His best year came with Harris throwing the ball: 96 catches for 1,459 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. Ellingson has the Ottawa connection to Sunderland and could go to Edmonton as a package with Harris. A familiar target for Harris would ease the transition and Ellingson’s first 1,000-yard season came in Maas’ offence.

4. The Saskatchewan Roughriders have been in talks with Zach Collaros about a return, but Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton could be potential spots. Teams might want Collaros to sign a heavily incentivized deal because of past injuries but Collaros showed flashes in 2018 despite having more interceptions than touchdowns passes. The Riders offensive line was leaky and a system where the ball comes out quickly – Calgary would be ideal – with better protection, Collaros could be productive.

5. Jon Jennings will get a fresh start. It’s well known Jennings won’t be back in B.C. and the Lions granted the 26-year-old permission to speak with Edmonton before free agency kicked off. Should the Eskimos get Harris, Saskatchewan and Ottawa might be fits for Jennings. Personnel men around the CFL still believe Jennings has intriguing potential and perhaps a fresh start brings out the best in the young quarterback.

6. Willie Jefferson should be in the NFL, but despite that assertion from CFL scouts, no teams south of the border have worked out or shown much interest about signing the disruptive defender. Jefferson openly campaigned for Jason Shivers as Riders defensive coordinator, which means the scheme could be similar to what Chris Jones ran in Saskatchewan. That improves the chances of the 27-year-old returning to Regina. B.C., Winnipeg and Toronto could also take runs at signing Jefferson. More than $200,000 is the starting point for Jefferson.

7. Micah Johnson turned down more than $200,000 to stay in Calgary and word is, depending on the offer, he would like to play in the East closer to home. That makes Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto options. Every team with the available cash will be in on the elite-level interior defensive lineman but don’t rule out a Stampeders return – there are a number of options on the table for Johnson.

8. Aaron Grymes quietly played at an all-star level in 2018 even though he didn’t receive the distinction. Many teams throughout the league would like to put Grymes in their starting lineup, but the Lions could have the inside track. Ed Hervey was the Edmonton Eskimos GM when Grymes signed his first CFL contract in 2013. Grymes has upper echelon cover skills and plays the run well as a physical defensive back.

9. Shawn Lemon has played in 93 career CFL games and registered 61 quarterback sacks with 19 forced fumbles: he’s the best pure pass rusher on the market. B.C., Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Hamilton and Montreal could be in the mix and don’t rule out a return to Toronto. But it’s going to take top dollar for a deal to be done.

10. B.C. wants to add more weapons for Mike Reilly and Canadian receiver Lemar Durant could be ticketed for the West coast. Just 26, Durant started 16 games for Calgary last season, registering 33 receptions for 395 yards and two touchdowns. Durant oozes athletic ability and seems primed to breakout soon, which could come in his hometown of Vancouver – if Calgary can’t re-sign him.

11. Larry Dean turned down a contract offer worth around $175,000 per season from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and is apparently seeking Adam Bighill-type money ($200,000-plus.) The 30-year-old is the reigning East Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player who had 105 tackles last year and is an excellent defensive playmaker who also brings leadership. But whether anybody step up with that kind of money is an open question.

12. Lirim Hajrullahu is the only experienced free agent kicker left on the board and while Hamilton remains in the mix there are three other teams that could potentially need a national who can handle all three jobs. After making $145,000 last season, Hajrullahu could be in for a pay bump given that the roster of available kickers has been thinned by the AAF and NFL departures.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.