How Edmonton can use free agency to overcome the potential losses of O’Donnell, Sewell

Here we go again.

The ‘Football Team’ enters February with another new coach but not yet a name. Fortunately, the roster gives some reason for optimism.

I haven’t seen Edmonton get a lot of credit for what they’ve accomplished prior to free agency week — although it’s building — and I’m here to tell you they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Some of the players who have put pen to paper in the last month or so include difference-makers like Kwaku Boateng, Derel Walker, and Greg Ellingson. Edmonton even added a year to Trevor Harris’ contract, keeping him in Green and Gold through 2022.

That’s a really nice group. Here’s an estimate of what the depth chart looks like, as of writing:

Please note that Edmonton has not yet signed its 2020 draft class, marked with #.

The elephants in the room

There are two names whose availability has caused some raised eyebrows.

Offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell and defensive tackle Almondo Sewell are two of the longest-serving and most successful members of the Edmonton organization’s last decade. Accordingly, they are two of the oldest and command the highest salaries.

O’Donnell turns 32 in March — he would’ve been the second highest-paid lineman in the league in 2020 — and perennial CFL all-star Sewell just turned 34.

Some people dismiss aging curves — Charleston Hughes has sparked much discussion recently — but it is completely true that the older a player is, the more likely they are to suffer a sudden drop in performance.

They could have years of high-level play left too, and that’s especially possible with star players and uniquely so in 2021 after a year off. Edmonton is making a couple of those bets with Derek Dennis and even Greg Ellingson.

But it’s reasonable for a team to proceed with caution and plan to pay for future production, not past production. That’s in addition to all nine teams needing to chop salary this year, making dollar efficiency of the utmost importance.

In other words, if you’re an Edmonton fan: don’t panic.

Take a deep breath and look at potential replacements. Going back to the Odell Willis for Jake Ceresna trade in 2018, general manager Brock Sunderland has often demonstrated pragmatism regarding ‘younger and cheaper.’ There’s risk in that you have to fill very large shoes, but when done right it’s a big help to long-term success of a team.

Edmonton’s defensive line is in such a terrific state that even without Sewell it will likely be among the league’s best. Under contract are Kwaku Boateng, Mike Moore, and Jake Ceresna, with the end spot opposite Boateng filled by Mathieu Betts or the freshly-signed Shawn Lemon. Moore is the second-oldest of that group at 27, which is quite something.

On the offensive line it’s a bit more up in the air, but national guard is the spot that’s most naturally filled every year in the draft. Edmonton selected Tomas Jack-Kurdyla at No. 4 overall in 2020 and, if they let O’Donnell go, they’ll have the 2021 draft as an opportunity to further stoke competition for an active roster spot with later 2020 picks Chris Gangarossa and Nicholas Summach. At the draft, Jack-Kurdyla was widely considered one of the most pro-ready prospects available.

It hurts to lose players like O’Donnell and Sewell. They’re the type you’ll probably cheer for even on a different team. It doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

What’s good on the depth chart

On to the positive stuff.

Ratio flexibility

I can identify eight potential national spots: safety (one), defensive end (likely one, maybe two), offensive line (three), and receiver (likely two). That leaves some wiggle room heading into both free agency and eventually training camp, already taken advantage of with Lemon.

Receiver

For a delightful day, Edmonton fans were able to imagine the trio of Derel Walker, Greg Ellingson, and Ricky Collins Jr. terrorizing defences at the same time. Unfortunately Collins Jr. was released ahead of a February 1 signing bonus.

Yet, if Walker and Ellingson are anything like their pre-2020 selves, they will be a top-tier duo. Both are arguably top-five receivers, and at least top-ten in the CFL.

Behind them, there are guys like Armanti Edwards, Rodney Smith, and Kevin Elliott lined up to compete for a third American spot. Tevaun Smith is a likely incumbent as a national, with Anthony Parker and Mike Jones among those slotted behind him and probably fighting for a second starting job.

Receiver is not a place Edmonton needs to make a free agency splash. With that said, if someone like Bryant Mitchell happens to be eyeing a return north, who knows?

Defensive Line

We touched on it above. A starting four of Boateng-Ceresna-Moore-Lemon/Betts is elite.

Who’s behind them? Hard to say. 2020 second-round pick Alain Pae is a good start on the depth that would be needed for two national spots. Other than that, it’s largely a group of young guys awaiting the opportunity to prove themselves.

What needs some help

Linebacker

Vontae Diggs had a great 2019 rookie season and is signed for 2021. For the spot beside him, Larry Dean left to go back to Hamilton last year and Justin Tuggle never played a snap. Jonathan Walton saw spot duty in 2019 but can’t be the only bet.

At strong-side linebacker, Brian Walker hasn’t become a household name but he did very well in 2019.

Diggs might slide into the middle spot, but either way he needs a partner. Fortunately, it looks like a deep linebacking class.

Running Back

Terry Williams is signed, which is good. Shaq Cooper is the name Edmonton fans are still waiting for. After starting to break out in 2019, he re-signed for 2020 but is still unsigned for 2021.

Cooper and Williams would be a very dynamic duo, and one that I’m sure Scott Milanovich would’ve had fun with. Edmonton could use a bigger body in the mix, too.

What’s uncertain

Offensive Line

Touched on above as well. Derek Dennis likely starts at one tackle spot. Colin Kelly, Tommie Draheim, and Randy Richards are all very experienced tackles, and as of February 4, SirVincent Rogers is back as well.

In between, David Beard is the sure thing at centre with Jacob Ruby to one side. The last spot — barring a late O’Donnell signing — likely gets filled either by 2019 draft pick Kyle Saxelid, one of the mentioned 2020 picks, or a new pick in 2021.

Possibly a better-known player gets added, but regardless there is lots of competition ahead.

Defensive Back

Jonathon Mincy and Forrest Hightower should be locked into boundary corner and field halfback, respectively. Jonathan Rose will probably take over field corner. Then there’s a likely battle among national players for the safety spot. That leaves boundary halfback, which was uncertain in 2020 as well.

I suspect the plan is the same as it looked last year: let a group of younger guys loose in camp and whoever earns the spot, gets it. They’re looking a bit thin behind the big names, so if dollars allow, Edmonton may still add a more proven commodity.

Kicker

Sean Whyte was re-signed for another year, though Edmonton drafted Dante Brown in 2020. Whyte is 35 but also one of the most accurate CFL kickers of all-time. I’m curious to see how it shakes out.

Also, punter Hugh O’Neill remains without a contract.

Quarterback

Not the starting spot — Trevor Harris is locked and loaded. But Edmonton needs to sign someone behind him.

Targets

My earliest free agency wish was foiled on January 2nd when Hamilton re-signed receiver Jaelon Acklin — my 2021 breakout candidate. Fortunately, Edmonton made up for it by signing Derel Walker to play boundary wideout instead.

Among Edmonton’s expiring contracts, some players good to have back would be: defensive back Godfrey Onyeka, linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, running back Brandon Burks, and quarterback Antonio Pipkin.

Santos-Knox was unable to really get going in 2019 but is exactly the type of player Edmonton needs. Avery Williams (Ottawa) was another linebacker option before re-signing with the Redblacks on Wednesday, but perhaps Kevin Brown (also from Ottawa) is an option instead.

I’m curious about Deon Lacey and if he might switch back to Green and Gold after most recently being under contract with Buffalo and Saskatchewan in 2020.

Meanwhile on the defensive line, Michael Wakefield (you guessed it — from Ottawa) might make sense as a high-level complement to the top guys, though that’s less likely having added Lemon.

Antonio Pipkin might be the best bet at backup quarterback. Last year it looked like he would face off with incumbent Logan Kilgore, who is also a free agent again. Pass… er, run it back.

Aaron Grymes isn’t technically a free agent, but with Marcus Sayles, Garry Peters, TJ Lee, Kenny Ladler, and Anthony Cioffi all with the Lions, Grymes is a possible cap cut. He would be a spectacular get for the boundary halfback spot, but he’s likely out of budget.

It seems like Edmonton will stay much more under the radar than in the last couple years. A lot of players added a year to their contracts, kind of suggesting ‘pretend 2020 never happened.’ I’m betting mostly on tidy business.

2021 CFL free agent rankings: offensive linemen

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