Edmonton Eskimos 2020 CFL free agency primer

In the few weeks since announcing the full Eskimos coaching staff, general manager Brock Sunderland has been a very busy man.

To end off January Edmonton re-signed returner Christion Jones, added three from last year’s draft class and four Americans, re-upped centre David Beard, guard Jacob Ruby, safety Jordan Hoover, and defensive lineman Mike Moore, and even gave a two-year extension to quarterback Trevor Harris. The Esks also released defensive back Anthony Orange and receiver Natey Adjei right before their roster bonus deadline.

And I skipped over some lower-profile moves.

One of my takeaways from that flurry is that it was largely an action version of Sunderland’s post-season comments about the team underperforming the last two years. As we’ll see in a moment, there isn’t an overload of starting spots left open for change, as the GM has chosen to prioritize bringing back many of the biggest contributors from last season. What remains is his apparent focus on youthful contributors.

Here’s a sample depth chart containing all of the Eskimos currently under contract, as of writing:

I’ve left gaps where some notable 2019 players are unsigned. Not too many, but they include: defensive backs Josh Johnson, Money Hunter, and Arjen Colquhoun; linebackers Larry Dean and Don Unamba; receiver DaVaris Daniels; fullback Calvin McCarty; and running back C.J. Gable.

The two things that most stick out are:

1) The entire offensive and defensive lines remain intact from 2019, with the exception of Nick Usher going to the NFL and some depth pieces.

2) They need defensive backs, and maybe linebackers.

Aside from that last sizeable point, things are pretty well set up.

Who’s still here?

As mentioned, the O- and D-lines are staying together. Both units were statistical league leaders in 2019, so that makes perfect sense from Edmonton’s perspective. A healthy SirVincent Rogers stepping in at left tackle makes things pretty clear on the offensive side, but the interesting bit is how they’ll line up on defence.

The team has said before that Mike Moore is capable of shifting out to defensive end, and he might have to with all the guys they have. While they may not want to mess with a working formula – Moore had a stellar 2019 season in the middle – keep an eye out for a Boateng-Sewell-Ceresna-Moore starting four, with Ceresna (eight sacks in 2018) back full time from an NFL attempt. That would leave, for example, young and old Canadians Mathieu Betts and Stefan Charles as high-calibre rotational players.

Aside from the big men, Trevor Harris and his top two targets Greg Ellingson and Ricky Collins Jr. will look to build on their strong individual seasons. Shaq Cooper will try to make the most of an opportunity to claim the starting running back job full-time, depending on who is brought in as competition. On defence, Jordan Hoover, Forrest Hightower, and Godfrey Onyeka are the likeliest candidates to be day one starters, as well as the latest re-signing of Jovan Santos-Knox.

As for the two latest releases, Orange is almost 32 and had injury issues last year, so while the timing sucks letting him go is objectively not a bad salary cap decision. Adjei’s release comes as a much bigger shock, and I’m left to suppose the team expects Anthony Parker to step up alongside Tevaun Smith. Shai Ross, Hunter Karl, Danny Vandervoort, and Harry McMaster provide depth at Canadian receiver. Ross and Karl are especially promising as young national receivers go. Otherwise, they may go with four internationals.

To-do

I’ve spoken at length about the Esks’ troubles in the secondary and how they didn’t stem so much from a lack of talent but from a bizarre inability to stay healthy, or even having the same guys injured. Anthony Orange, Josh Johnson, Money Hunter (or Jordan Hoover), Forrest Hightower, and Arjen Colquhoun (or Godfrey Onyeka) would have been a five-man unit that could rival anybody’s. Three of that group are signed for 2020, and the late release of Orange makes it the most interesting group heading into free agency with an overhaul seemingly imminent.

Number two is, of course, linebackers. We’ll see the extent to which the Esks brass expects Vontae Diggs to seize a full-time starting role in 2020. He was a rookie starter for most of 2019 in place of an injured Santos-Knox and did very well with the opportunity, and if he doesn’t start he’ll be as good of a backup as you could ask for. They will need to sign at least one more player regardless.

Edmonton also likely needs to find an established receiver to fill the boundary receiver spot, unless DaVaris Daniels re-signs last minute, as well as a backup quarterback. Logan Kilgore has heart, but an upgrade is necessary.

Targets

– Running back Cameron Marshall is number one on my list. I view him as the perfect ‘power’ complement to Cooper’s shiftiness. Marshall has shown well in the surprisingly limited playing time he’s gotten in the last few years, and at 28 years old certainly has more to give.

– James Franklin is the most obvious fit to roll behind Harris. With McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Matt Nichols going to Toronto, Franklin is probably the best of the rest. Plus, he’s very familiar with Edmonton and would slide right in financially.

– If Sunderland can find the money for Derel Walker to play boundary wide out, the Esks receiving core instantly turns from very good to super-elite. Darvin Adams and DeVier Posey would also be solid fits, and I would not be opposed to bringing back Daniels.

The guy I really wanted to see in green and gold, though he may not have been the best positional fit, was R.J. Harris. I think he’s very underrated and I deeply want to see him reunited with Trevor Harris, but I’ll have to wait at least another year as he just re-signed in Ottawa.

Whether the Esks want to use one Canadian receiver or two in 2020 could be the big determiner of how they handle things here. Also, Kevin Elliott, Kenny Shaw, and Josh Stangby are lined up for a nearly identical depth competition to last year and could be dark horses to start if the money gets spent elsewhere on the roster.

– Of the big linebacking trio, Santos-Knox was the one I would have focused on re-signing and sure enough he’ll be back for another year. Dean and Unamba have been tremendous players and leaders, but Santos-Knox is the only one on the right side of 30, and Brian Walker showed well in an injured Unamba’s place to start last season. The funny thing about having three big-name free agent linebackers is that suddenly the money frees up to sign three big-name free agent linebackers, if you want. I wouldn’t mind at least one two-year contract this time around, though.

My guess is they’ll make one or two external ‘under the radar’ signings to compete with Diggs and/or Brian Walker, but we can’t forget that last year’s Dean/Unamba/Santos-Knox haul came out of nowhere and blew everyone away.

– Lastly, defensive back targets. Of the 2019 Esks, Josh Johnson was the clear anchor of the unit, but having reestablished himself in the league he’ll definitely be looking for a raise either in Edmonton or elsewhere. Money Hunter was objectively about a league-average performer, and I wouldn’t have strong feelings about him staying or going. Tyquwan Glass is more of a depth guy than a full time starter but like Hunter has years ahead of him to improve. And Arjen Colquhoun is a very good player who’s been tremendously unlucky in Edmonton, especially with injuries but also at times seeming under-appreciated for his talents. I’d like him to come back, but with the Esks high on fellow Canadian Godfrey Onyeka I wouldn’t be surprised to see Colquhoun seek a fresh start.

Otherwise, I liked Jumal Rolle, but he’s staying in Hamilton. Ciante Evans and Ed Gainey are two of the biggest names and will cost accordingly. But three of the most plausible candidates to fill Edmonton’s boundary side are Jonathon Mincy from Toronto, Jonathan Rose from Ottawa, and Garry Peters from B.C.

Mincy played under Noel Thorpe in Montreal while Rose was in Ottawa with both Sunderland and then Thorpe, and Peters spent time in Edmonton before his last two seasons with the Lions. All are good players and none of them should break the bank. My first choice would be Mincy to play corner and re-sign Josh Johnson to play halfback, followed by Peters at either spot, then Rose.

It’s the most interesting time of the CFL year, and the news never stops rolling in so stay tuned.




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