Why you shouldn’t expect much from Calgary in free agency

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

I don’t need to tell anyone that 2020 was a strange year.

A global pandemic shut down everything. A huge percentage of the workforce became pajama-clad employees who Zoomed into meetings and may never return to traditional office settings.

The CFL didn’t play a season and the Grey Cup was cancelled for the first time since a rules dispute with the Rugby Union in 1919.

An early harbinger that 2020 was going to be an odd year came last February when John Hufnagel spent a substantial amount of money on day one of CFL free agency.

Calgary’s general manager had long been quoted saying things like “There are no bargains on day one,” and “If you want to be the highest paid player at your position, I wish you luck wherever you end up, because it won’t be in Calgary.”

Those were maxims he stood by. There is usually so little activity on day one that I once had the team’s communications staff on my podcast on the first day of free agency. We booked the interview a few weeks in advance, knowing that they wouldn’t be busy that day.

The introduction of the “legal tampering” window, however, led to Huf bringing in no less than six players from other teams, as he had a week to negotiate and found his bargains on day one.

Don’t expect the same this year.

While the Stampeders will be kicking the tires on a few players and doing due diligence on the available veterans across the league, this week Hufnagel said that the team was “pretty satisfied with [their] roster right now.”

Huf went on to mention that the entire league is in an interesting situation, as they will have twice as many draft picks coming into camp looking for roster spots which leads to a glut of replacement talent for any player that retires or finds a new home.

Below are the top free agents that Hufnagel may consider, including some on his current roster that will be hitting free agency.

Ronnie Pfeffer

The first name on the list goes to the only glaring hole on the Stampeders roster where they have no one with experience. The Stampeders signed Pfeffer last season with an eye towards replacing Rob Maver, who retired following the 2019 season.

While there aren’t a lot of teams out there looking for a punter, which limits Pfeffer’s possible destinations, Hufnagel confirmed that the punter has been offered a deal but has yet to accept.

If Pfeffer doesn’t return, the Stampeders may settle on 2020 draft pick Keiran Burnham, a three time AUS conference all-star who averaged 42.8 yards per punt during his senior season. Given the Stampeders propensity to punt in plus territory, his directional kicking may matter more than his leg’s overall power.

Ciante Evans

While Hufnagel has said that the return of DaShaun Amos should complete his DB group, they are on the hunt for a boundary corner. Adding former Stampeder Ciante Evans would allow the team greater flexibilty.

His price tag is likely too high, but if he finds himself without a lot of suitors, a return to Calgary might be in the offing. One needs to look no further than Derek Dennis to see a player that wasn’t in Calgary’s price range before leaving and eventually returned to play at his former level.

Ricky Collins Jr.

The Stampeders have seen a rotating door at receiver during Bo Levi Mitchell’s career as the go-to-guy has changed almost every season due to injuries. Nik Lewis, Marquay McDaniel, DaVaris Daniels, Eric Rogers, Kamar Jorden, Reggie Begelton and more have been the featured receiver in the Stamps offense over the years.

Now that Kamar Jorden has fully rehabbed his injury and will be returning, Collins could be the guy on the other side of the field to vacuum up the other targets.

The competition for Eric Rogers’ recently vacated spot currently features former NFL receiver Ryan Grant already on the roster and second season Stampeder Aaron Peck who was re-signed in December and is familiar with the system, but Collins comes in with a proven pedigree and over 1,000 yards collected last season.

Opposite Jorden and in combination with Hergy Mayala, Collins could help the Stampeders keep up in the league wide arms race at the position.

Offensive Line

Calgary’s first thought will be look to the offensive line where the long underappreciated Shane Bergman is riding his first All-Star nod into the sunset, Derek Dennis has left for Edmonton and last year’s free agent crown jewel Sean McEwen has yet to pull on the sweater for game action.

“We have a couple guys from last year’s roster that can hopefully fit that bill, Zach Williams, Justin Lawrence, Jaylen Guthrie and we’ll have to see. We also drafted Jonathan Zamora who’s main position is a center but he has played some guard.” Hufnagel says, knowing that another draft class will also likely fill out the ranks of National talent for the interior.

The spot that intrigues me the most is the “sixth man” as the Stamps philosophy has long been to dress just six offensive lineman and rely on the extra man to be able to play anywhere. However, that mentality might change this season with Ucambre Williams headed to tackle from centre.

Williams is able to play anywhere and the Stamps do have the National depth to have three Americans on the offensive line when needed, so look for whoever loses the starting job between Nila Kasitati and Leon Johnson to be the extra man on gameday, taking over for Williams at tackle if he needs to move inside for an injury.

Also intriguing is the possibility of drafting Logan Bandy, who was last seen playing tackle for the Calgary Dinos, picking up a Vanier Cup ring in his last game. Bandy is ranked a little lower on the scouting list than the eighth and eleventh over all selection the Stampeders hold in the draft, but the Stamps brass will be well versed in what the young man can offer along the line.

Defensive Line 

Right now, the Stampeders have 18 defensive linemen under contract, with 12 listed as DE and 6 at DT, and they are hoping at least one of them will turn into someone who can get after the quarterback with regularity.

Derek Wiggan will return as the starter and after that it is anyone’s guess who will be in the other spots.

Folarin Orimolade was supposed to be opposite the departed Cordarro Law in 2019 before losing the season to injury, but has returned healthy and ready to fulfill that promise.

Connor McGough and first round pick Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund could make a good rotational pairing at end as well, giving the Stampeders more ratio flexibility options elsewhere on the roster.

The Stamps will have to find an answer here sooner rather than later, as it was Chris Streveler and Andrew Harris who ran wild over Calgary during the 2019 West Semi-Final, ending their bid to win a home Grey Cup.

There is optimism in the camp that the guys already on the roster can follow in the footsteps of their predecessors. Coach Corey Mace, and DeVone Claybrooks before him, has a solid reputation of creating enough havoc to allow players to excel into an NFL shot.

All in all, expect the Stampeders staff to be quiet in the coming days as they adjust to the new salary cap paradigm and maintain a firm belief in the pipeline that has continued to flow talented players into other markets for the last decade after getting their feet wet in Calgary.

Given what happened when that wasn’t the case, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Go Stamps Go Show Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.