Dunk on ’em: CFL free agent takes

There are many shots taken during CFL free agency but for the players and teams it’s all about the finish at the rim.

Rumours run rampant during the days leading up to the market opening. It’s fun to see the new pairings and how each franchise approaches the signing period. The negotiating period — infamously known as the legal tampering window — provided a glimpse as to who might match-up when the real offers come out Tuesday at noon eastern time.

CFL free agency always provides surprises and there is already lots going on behind the scenes. Let’s go through the most intriguing informed speculation.

Ultra-productive Dylan Wynn is an underrated CFL all-star who is a pending free agent. Wynn produced a Micah Johnson-type season in 2019, leading all interior defensive linemen with 11 sacks. Last year, Johnson parlayed 14 sacks into being the highest-paid defensive player league-wide at $250,000.

The 26-year-old Wynn earned $91,000 while being a key disruptor on a Ticats defence that allowed a league-low 344 points and won a franchise single-season record 15 games. Wynn should be able to easily double his salary and then some on the new contract. Hamilton remains a possibility, however, the Argos, Redblacks, Riders and Lions are high on Wynn.

Even though Johnson had a lower sack total than expected in Saskatchewan, advanced analytics in the football operations department displayed clear data. Johnson was doubled teamed on over 80 percent of the snaps while on the field for the Riders. Despite all the attention from opposing offences, Johnson made 26 tackles and four sacks while allowing linebackers Derrick Moncrief, Solomon Elimimian and Cameron Judge to be free and make plays.

The 31-year-old has suitors. The B.C. Lions have serious interest in bring Johnson to the Left coast. In the East, Toronto has money free for an anchor on the d-line and Ottawa could pursue Johnson if he doesn’t wind up back in Saskatchewan.

Cleyon Laing attended the Toronto Raptors game Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena with Willie Jefferson as the Argos try to retain the 29-year-old who is coming off a career-high seven sacks. Multiple bidders including the Redblacks and Lions are likely to come calling for Laing and it’s going to take a hefty price tag for his signature — possibly north of $200,000.

J.R. Tavai could be the best value pass rushing commodity. The former Tennessee Titan announced his arrival in the CFL notching 49 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles for Ottawa. He earned the base minimum $55,000 a year ago and most teams should check in. Montreal covets Tavai, but the connection with former Redblacks’ head coach Rick Campbell and University of Southern California tie to Lions’ general manager Ed Hervey seems like an ideal match for the West coast kid.

Courtesy of 3DownNation’s J.C. Abbott, here are select sack numbers since 2014.

Willie Jefferson — 43
Odell Willis — 52
Shawn Lemon — 61
John Bowman — 63
Charleston Hughes — 76

Pass rushers are at a premium, especially with Jefferson and Ja’Gared Davis re-signing in Winnipeg and Hamilton, respectively. Lemon has 20 sacks in 32 games over the past two seasons. Hervey has traded for Lemon two years in a row and 18 of those QB takedowns came for the Lions. There is juice left in his legs and whoever doesn’t land Tavai chases Lemon.

Larry Dean was a target for the Redblacks prior to the 2018 East Division Most Outstanding Defensive Player signing in Edmonton last February. If Dean doesn’t come back East, the Riders, Eskimos and Lions are in the mix. Dean is an absolute stud and consummate pro who is well worth the investment.

25-year-old Patrick Levels is unanimously viewed by personnel men around the CFL as the best strong-side linebacker in the league. The East Division all-star burst onto the scene last season in Montreal with 86 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles.

Levels has outstanding measurables: 4.45 40-yard speed, 39-inch vertical and 20 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. He’s more than fast enough to run with receivers, plays with explosive ball skills and is strong against the run. It’s surprising the Alouettes are allowing the supremely athletic Levels to hit the open market, but the salary cap issues Kavis Reed created made it difficult to keep him.

After Levels earned $100,000 in 2019 he’s slated for a substantial raise. Don Unamba was the highest-paid SAM at $140,000 a year ago. Levels could easily command dollars above and beyond that total. The Ticats are fans of Levels and the Redblacks have a need at his spot, while the Bombers and Lions have checked in with the NFL-calibre talent.

Even though the aforementioned Unamba got nicked and missed six games for Edmonton, he still stuffed the stats sheet with 43 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. Unamba has been linked to Ottawa where incumbent strong-side linebacker Anthony Cioffi is a pending free agent. Hamilton, Winnipeg or B.C.

Offensively, Derel Walker is the top prize. The Argos have been working to try and re-sign the playmaking receiver who has three 1,000-yard seasons on his resume — Pinball Clemons loves his demeanour and abilities. B.C. quarterback Mike Reilly would welcome being reunited with Walker. However, there is an under the radar — stealth — feel for Walker’s other suitors. Perhaps Hamilton or Ottawa could come out of the dark to snag the dynamic pass catcher.

Check back for updated rack attacks.

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