CFL free agency has been a frantic endeavour for a number of years now, but the implementation of the new legal tampering window kicked it up to another level this off-season.
Almost every team in the league made significant additions over the course of the first two days. A week removed from the action, I’m taking a look back at all the signings made by the B.C. Lions and grading each one.
Below is a list of all the players headed to the West Coast in 2020 and my analysis of what their addition means for the team.
Kevin Francis, DB/LB, National (C+)
A decent depth signing, Francis is a versatile veteran Canadian who can be expected to contribute on special teams. His production has decreased as his career has progressed, but Francis is still capable of recording a dozen special teams tackles in a good year. He provides a cheap, bottom of roster option that might well be training camp fodder. Equally likely is he provides a more cost-effective alternative to a veteran special teamer, allowing cuts for cap space to be made seamlessly.
Cameron Walker, DE, National (C+)
As with Francis, ditto for Walker. A veteran journeyman National who’s primary role has always been special teams, Walker is affordable, serviceable and by no means guaranteed a roster spot. As one of only two Canadian defensive linemen currently on the roster, Walker’s chances will be largely influenced by how the new staff wants to deploy its Canadians. In Ottawa, Campbell often ran a national heavy rotation. The Lions aren’t currently built to do that, and if the position isn’t addressed in the draft Walker provides a solid depth replacement.
Chris Rainey, RB/KR, American (B)
The return of the Rain-Man has made a lot of fans very happy, but the jury is still out on this move. The Lions were in desperate need of an explosive returner and Rainey fits the bill, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 in a position rarely known for longevity (Stefan Logan excluded). Rainey still has a bit of gas left in the tank but that doesn’t address the issues that saw the long time Lion leave in the first place. Coaches found Rainey to be unwilling to play within a system and, while he still had the ability to house one, he isn’t always a safe bet to maximize field position. Ultimately, this reunion is a short-term fix at the position. Here’s hoping that it works out for both parties and Jordan Maksymic can add some value by incorporating Rainey in the offence.
Ryan Brown, DT, American (B)
The reality was that Ed Hervey had to add an entire defensive line in free agency to ensure a repeat of last year’s toothless pass rush didn’t take the field in 2020. Brown is probably the least notable of these additions but he’s an excellent run stuffing option in the interior with some pass rushing upside. There is no guarantee Brown becomes the guy beside the Lions’ crown jewel free agent (more on him later.) I could see a scenario where he gives way to a rookie if a promising prospect emerges, but Hervey was wise to acquire a known commodity for the rotation and not bet the house on amateur scouting for another year.
Chris Casher, DE, American (B+)
An up-and-coming edge rusher, Casher broke out with seven sacks for an injury plague Stampeders’ line last season. According to those who commit their time to tracking such things, Casher was also impressively close to the league leaders when it came to generating pressure. Some have questioned how Casher will fit in a more regimented scheme under Campbell, but he provides at minimum a promising rotational option that can be let loose on passing downs.
Derek Jones, DB, National (A-)
Based on the departure of Brandon Dozier and the current make up of roster, it looks like the Lions will be going back to a National at safety in 2020. While Guzylak-Messam seems to be the natural fit to roll back into that spot, the addition of the veteran Jones from Winnipeg gives the team options. Jones has always been seen as a reliable and underrated Canadian who never got the opportunity to start but allowed coaches to sleep easy with him as a solid number two. He can push the Lions youth for the deep spot, provide a steady hand of guidance and rip it up on the teams. This is undoubtedly one of the best under the radar moves in free agency by any team.
J.R. Tavai, DE, American (A-)
Rejoining his coaches from Ottawa, Tavai is another young pass rusher that is just beginning to hit their stride. With impressive size for a CFL defensive end and great quickness, Tavai is also versatile enough to drop into coverage occasionally, much like his second-round pick brother does at linebacker for the Detroit Lions. Familiarity means Tavai will be trusted by the new staff and he has all the makings of a defensive coordinators’ favourite toy. If all else fails, he’s a great add to the rotation on the edge.
Ryker Mathews, OT, American (A)
Right tackle was a need for the Lions and Mathews is a stalwart who can play both sides. The former Tiger-Cat was overshadowed by Most Outstanding Lineman teammate Chris Van Zeyl, but in many ways it was Mathews’ return from the NFL that cemented Hamilton’s offensive dominance. The Lions dismal trench play was already expected to improve in a second year under Kelly Bates, but the Mathews addition means they have no serious question marks remaining. Expect a few early growing pains as the new line gains chemistry and then a drastically better group next year.
Micah Johnson, DT, American (A+)
Was the top grade even a question? Hervey was able to completely revamp his defensive line and then add one of the undisputed best pass rushers in the league to cap the day. Many fans soured on Johnson when his sack total plummeted last season but they ignored how productive the interior menace remained. Despite facing double teams on a reported 80 percent of snaps, Johnson was still one of the top pressure generators in the league and continued to collapse pockets into the quarterback’s lap with remarkable consistency. The defensive tackle was also signed for a reported 200,000 dollars, 50 thousand cheaper than what Saskatchewan paid for him last season. That is an absolute steal for the Lions, especially given that Johnson has shown he can have a Willie Jefferson-type impact in the right situation.
A word on Walker…
It is no secret that the top free agent in the league, American receiver Derel Walker, is still on the market. I delayed this article specifically hoping the explosive talent would sign but he remains without a home. Lest he sign while I’m on a week-long Mexican vacation, I’ll address the possibility here.
According to all reports, the Lions are still extremely interested in reuniting Walker with Mike Reilly, though Winnipeg has entered the fray as a strong suitor as well and the XFL appears to be a menacing competitor. Bringing in a player of Walker’s calibre would be an A+ worthy move and provide the Lions with a partner for Bryan Burnham in an explosive air attack. In short, it would be everything the Leos were lacking last season, an imposing deep threat that has to be universally respected.
Equally true is the fact that adding another significant salary will mean cutting costs elsewhere. The only reason the Lions are even negotiating with Walker is because the newly raised minimum salary has created such a cap crunch for the entire league that the highest paid receiver may be forced to play for up to 80 thousand dollars less than last season.
Salary cap cuts are nothing new, and Walker is well worth the cost, but the reality is a notable name will likely be without a job at some point this off-season should the receiver sign. This is nothing new to pro football of course and the move likely wouldn’t come immediately, thanks to an off-season roster expansion that allows teams to carry 100 contract through the end of rookie camp.