The market has shifted for every position thanks to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but perhaps none moreso than at linebacker.
Once viewed as the beating heart of a defence, with stars a virtual lock for contracts nearing the $200,000 mark, teams are now focused on high valued pass rushers and shutdown defensive backs instead of linebackers with naturally inflated stats.
That means that this class of free agent linebackers has a higher concentration of marquee names than other position groups, most in or not far removed from their prime. With limited money and spots available, there will be plenty of intrigue in the middle come February 9.
1) Larry Dean, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
A big fish in both the 2019 and 2020 free agent classes, Dean sought riches with Edmonton before returning to Hamilton ahead of the 2020 season for a massive discount. The 2020 season cancellation meant that happy reunion never came to fruition and Dean is now back on the market.
The 32-year old has four productive CFL seasons under his belt, amassing 365 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions in 72 career games.
The East Division finalist for Most Outstanding Defensive Player and a divisional All-Star the past three years, Dean has yet to miss a game due to injury and remains highly effective despite his age.
2) Deon Lacey, Free Agent
We’ll forgive you if you forgot about Deon Lacey.
The 2014 West Division All-Star was supposed to make his CFL return in 2020 after three years in the NFL, but the pandemic caused him to opt out and return to the Buffalo Bills. Lacey dressed in five games this season, recording one tackle, before being released on January 1.
Prior to the NFL, Lacey spent three years in Edmonton where he racked up 114 defensive tackles, an incredible 68 special teams tackles, seven sacks and three interceptions. His only year as a starter was 2016, but at 30 years old he’s surprisingly young compared to others on this list.
3) Solomon Elimimian, Saskatchewan Roughriders
Elimimian will one day waltz into the Hall of Fame, but he isn’t the commodity he once was in free agency.
The 34-year old’s trophy case includes a Most Outstanding Rookie award, two Most Outstanding Defensive Player awards, and the only Most Outstanding Player trophy ever given to a defensive player, but teams are woe to pay top dollar in the current market for an aging player at any position, let alone middle linebacker.
Still, the current CFLPA president was a West Division All-Star in his only season in Riderville, recording 88 tackles and four sacks in 15 games after then-B.C. GM Ed Hervey told him his time was up. Doubt Elimimian at your own risk.
4) Justin Tuggle, Edmonton Football Team
A six-foot-three, 247-pound converted NFL defensive end, Tuggle has made an impact since switching to the middle of the defence.
A 2020 signing by Edmonton, the 31-year old has 174 tackles and seven sacks in three seasons split between Toronto and Hamilton.
Tuggle is unlikely to be any team’s first choice at linebacker, but he is a competent starter with plenty of upside.
5) Kevin Brown II, Ottawa Redblacks
Kevin Brown II was never ‘the guy’ during his three years in Ottawa but he’s always been a solid contributor.
At 27 with 112 defensive tackles and 37 special teams tackles in 42 career games, Brown could prove valuable insurance for whoever signs him.
6) Kevin Haynes, B.C. Lions
Their wasn’t a lot of promise on the 2019 B.C. Lions, but Kevin Haynes flashed potential in 11 games with the club.
The 26-year-old Central Washington product had 35 defensive tackles, 16 special teams tackles and three sacks on the west coast, making him a worthwhile prospect in the right situation.
1) Cameron Judge, Saskatchewan Roughriders
It’s no secret who the biggest prize remaining in free agency is and Rider Nation will have plenty of sleepless nights to come, as the 2017 second overall pick plans to delay his CFL decision as he tries to drum up NFL interest.
The 26-year-old is a ratio-breaker who ascended to prominence in 2019, making 72 total tackles, five sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles on his way to being named the West Division finalist for Most Outstanding Canadian.
The son of a Stargate actor, Judge’s athleticism and physicality are positively otherworldly. Where his gavel lands in 2021 could be the biggest non-COVID story left this off-season.
2) Henoc Muamba, Montreal Alouettes
Muamba beat Judge out for Most Outstanding Canadian in 2019, but at 31 years old the former first overall pick will be viewed a slightly less valuable than his up-and-coming competitor.
The Alouettes want Muamba back in the fold but granted him the opportunity to begin discussions with other teams before the legal tampering window had even opened.
Muamba might not like what he hears, as the Congolese linebacker has sometimes priced himself out of the market and is now without the services of long-time agent Jonathon Hardaway, who passed away in January.
Muamba’s talent is undeniable, however. In 108 games with the Alouettes, Riders and Bombers, the three-time East Division All-Star has racked up 543 total tackles, 12 sacks, five interceptions and 14 forced fumbles.
3) Chris Ackie, Toronto Argonauts
Versatility is the name of the game for Ackie, as the former All-Canadian halfback has become a starting-calibre weak-side linebacker since being selected fourth overall in 2015.
More often than not, Ackie has provided a valuable rotational option, but his best season came in 2018 when he recorded 88 defensive tackles, a sack and two picks in 16 games between the Alouettes and Redblacks.
Any team looking to include a Canadian linebacker in their ratio will be seriously considering the 29-year-old.
4) Jordan Herdman-Reed, B.C. Lions
Jordan Herdman-Reed is an interesting case study. A 26-year-old with starting middle linebacker experience, Herdman-Reed has 95 defensive tackles, 45 special teams tackles and three sacks in three seasons with the Lions but is viewed lukewarmly across the league.
The reason? A lack of foot speed that saw him plummet to 60th overall in the 2017 CFL Draft despite a highly-coveted Senior Bowl invite coming out of Division II SFU.
The Winnipeg native still has value though and can get you through a game at linebacker if called upon.
5) Justin Herdman-Reed, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Jordan’s identical twin brother, Justin, was actually drafted six spots higher but has many of the same limitations and upside.
After recording 19 special teams tackles in 2018, Herdman-Reed became a defensive contributor for the first time in 2019, recording 37 defensive tackles and two sacks in 11 games for the Argos.
6) Thomas Miles, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Entering his seventh CFL season, Thomas Miles is still special teams contributor able to pinch hit on defence if needed.
The Manitoba product has 71 defensive tackles and 50 special teams tackles in his career, while having the added benefit of being a capable emergency long snapper.
7) Alexandre Chevrier, Saskatchewan Roughriders
A physical special teamer, Chevrier could be a valuable depth add for a team light on Canadian talent.
Since going 55th in the 2017 CFL Draft, the Sherbrooke product has 28 special teams tackles in 34 career games.
8) Riley Jones, Calgary Stampeders
An undrafted player out of UBC, Jones could be your linebacker or your long snapper and would perform either way.
In 49 games with the Stamps, Jones has 29 special teams tackles and 14 more on defensive, recording double digit special teams take downs in two of his three seasons.
9) Kevin Francis, B.C. Lions
A Chris Jones pet project that started at safety for Saskatchewan as a rookie, Francis received a shockingly hefty contract from the Lions last year.
In four seasons, the supplemental draft pick has 37 special teams tackles, including eight in seven games for Ottawa in 2019.
10) Paul Kozachuk, Toronto Argonauts
A versatile linebacker with the ability to play defensive back, Kozachuk has 17 special teams tackles in two season since being drafted out of the University of Toronto.
Click the link below for our previous positional installment and come back tomorrow for our defensive back rankings.
2021 CFL free agent rankings: quarterbacks
2021 CFL free agent rankings: running backs & fullbacks
2021 CFL free agent rankings: receivers
2021 CFL free agent rankings: offensive linemen
2021 CFL free agent rankings: defensive linemen