Lions have needs in free agency, but the heavy lifting is already done

The B.C. Lions thought an embarrassing 2019 season was the worst thing that could happen to them.

Then a global pandemic hit, their season was canceled, their owner died and GM Ed Hervey ‘resigned’ after their star quarterback filed a grievance against them.

Say what you want about the CFL in 2020, but it was never boring.

Lions’ lifer Neil McEvoy and yet-to-be-christened head coach Rick Campbell are now the men in charge, hoping to hold on to the title of off-season winners that they received for some headline-grabbing moves last year.

With 2021 free agency launching Tuesday, B.C. already done much of the required heavy lifting, re-signing a number of key pending free agents and re-negotiating the contracts of most of their veteran core to fit the new financial reality of the CFL.

Going through all the moves would take all day, but two key ones really stand out.

Most importantly, quarterback Mike Reilly is still the team’s leader, agreeing to a renegotiated contract in December and putting to bed the grievance he filed against the club during the canceled 2020 season.

Much was made about how much of the salary cap Reilly’s contract ate up in 2019. He’ll still command a whopping $525,000 for 2021 on the new deal, but you can’t win in the CFL without a quarterback and Reilly is one of the very best. With a better team around him, he’ll be well worth top dollar.

A crucial component of that will be the Lions’ re-signing his top target in Bryan Burnham. The all-star receiver fielded a competitive offer from Winnipeg during the legal tampering window, but ultimately took less money to stay in Vancouver.

Brandon Banks may have won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award in 2019, but Burnham is the best receiver in the CFL in my opinion. His eye-popping highlight reel has persisted through some dark days for the Lions’ franchise and losing him would have been devastating.

The Leos have also been successful enough in other areas that big moves won’t be necessary come February 9.

In the secondary, B.C. has assembled a shutdown group that should be the team’s greatest strength.

Added are former Redblack Anthony Cioffi and 2019 all-star Marcus Sayles, while 2020 addition Kenny Ladler was re-signed to play the strong-side linebacker role. That meant Aaron Grymes was shown the door by the club after failing to renegotiate, but TJ Lee and Garry Peters will be back, as will young Victor Gamboa.

On paper, it’s a powerhouse all-American secondary that doesn’t need any more major tweaks. The situation is further aided by the fact that recent re-acquisition Bo Lokombo and the re-signed Isaiah Guzylak-Messam can play safety in addition to linebacker if the ratio needs to be adjusted.

Along the offensive line, fans may still be worried after a rough 2019 but I don’t expect a big move here.

2020 signing Ryker Mathews has a renegotiated deal to play right tackle and Joel Figueroa has been extended on the blindside. Veteran guards Sukh Chungh and Hunter Steward have also taken significant pay cuts to stick around, including a $95,000 shave for the Indo-Canadian brawler.

2018 third overall pick Peter Godber needs a chance to start at center after battling injuries the last two seasons, making all five starting spots accounted for. Add in Canadian depth like Brett Boyko, David Knevel and Andrew Peirson, along with American Phillip Norman, and there isn’t much room for additions, which is just as well in a thin offensive line market.

Finally, the Lions have re-signed exactly who they needed to at running back — their Canadians and nobody else.

John White IV and Brandon Rutley are capable runners who can still produce, but paying American running backs is generally unwise, especially when they are over 30 and you are trying to cut costs.

The “running backs don’t matter” trend sounds mean, but its a simple reality that ball carriers are dependent on their surroundings and can be purchased for a dime a dozen at your local corner store. A rookie or two will provide the same value for less money than the established vets.

Better yet, why not try a Canadian in the backfield? Local kid Jamel Lyles looked promising in 2019 and the Lions still have veteran Wayne Moore and CJFL rushing champ Andrew Pocrnic under contract. Add in the absolute physical freak that is 2020 seventh-round pick Kayden Johnson and you have some intriguing options.

The Lions will play at least one Canadian, probably two, at linebacker and I don’t anticipate a big expenditure there despite some well-known names are available.

Bo Lokombo will be the starter on the weak-side and 2020 first overall pick Jordan Williams is talented enough to start in the middle if three years since his last snap of football hasn’t caught up to him. The re-signed pair of Isaiah Guzylak-Messam and Adam Konar both have productive stints as starters under their belt as well, with Adrian Clarke, Noah Robinson and some rookies providing nice depth.

I only see the Lions going American here if a player really seizes the job in camp and it would take a stellar, below market value deal on one of the big name free agents to make me change my mind, though a smaller name signing like Kevin Brown or Justin Tuggle might make sense.

I’m a fan of both 2019 contributors Kevin Haynes and Jordan Herdman-Reed, but the two can walk in free agency with little damage to the roster.

There are a few positions the Lions would do well to address in the coming days, however.

Defensive Line

I’m still not comfortable with the Lions’ defensive line and anyone who says otherwise is lying.

Chris Casher and J.R. Tavai have re-upped as the projected book-ends and while both were productive in other uniforms in 2019, the sample size was small. On the interior, the Leos boast nothing but rookies as 2019 free agent splash Micah Johnson, fellow signee Ryan Brown and Claudell Louis all have expiring contracts.

I’d like to see Johnson or Brown actually put on a Lions uniform for the right dollar amount, but both appear headed out the door. B.C.’s biggest acquisition a year ago may be headed to Winnipeg according to Justin Dunk, and there isn’t much available to replace him.

Among the free agents, Michael Wakefield seems like the most natural fit. The 27-year old had 50 tackles and seven sacks the last two seasons in Ottawa while working with B.C. boss Rick Campbell and defensive line coach Leroy Blugh.

At defensive end, the pickings are even slimmer. Former Lion Craig Roh might me the best possible depth addition. The 30-year old would have to come at the right price but he’s an unselfish player who has never had less than six sacks on a season.

Receiver

Even though Bryan Burnham is the best in the business, the Lions still need some pass catching assistance. The team re-signed former Redblacks receiver Dominique Rhymes to be his running mate, though some feel the receiver’s thousand yard production in 2019 was artificially inflated by the lack of talent in Ottawa.

On the Canadian side, Lemar Durant is currently being absurdly overpaid by the team, but he’ll be near the top of the homegrown receiver ranks by year’s end. Shaq Johnson was also re-signed, ensuring his continuing untapped potential will have me pulling my hair out for another year.

After that, the fifth spot is a big question mark. If they go American, recently-released Edmonton receiver Ricky Collins Jr. could be a fit. He was Burnham’s sidekick in 2018, with 611 yards and two touchdowns, but he broke out with a thousand yard season after leaving for the Alberta capital. His price tag may be too high, but the fit would be natural with former Edmonton offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic now in B.C.

The Lions could well run with three Canadians again in 2021 as well. The Lions still own the rights to promising 2019 starter Jevon Cottoy through 2022, meaning he’ll slide back into the line-up as soon as he exhausts his NFL try-out options.

If they go that route, some depth might be nice. They might find some in the draft, but a player like Winnipeg’s Daniel Petermann would be a solid addition that could start in the event of injury.

Quarterback

As goes Mike Reilly, so go the Lions, but what if the starter goes down?

Canadian second-round pick Nathan Rourke looks like the guy for now and while he’ll be a big addition to short yardage packages, I’m not ready to trust him at the helm yet. Otherwise, it’s former Redblack backup Will Arndt or rookie Gage Gubrud, who starred for CFL QB factory Eastern Washington before failing to win the job at Washington State.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my season riding on a former Fort McMurray Monarch (yes, really) with six career interceptions and just three touchdowns.

I doubt the Lions bring former UBC quarterback Michael O’Connor back to Vancouver or become a serious consideration for aspiring starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson, but another veteran would be nice.

Neither Logan Kilgore or Antonio Pipkin are much better than Arndt but they would at least bring some camp competition and experience. The real target might be Montell Cozart, who has only thrown one CFL pass but comes with two years of development in a Calgary organization that tends to produce QBs.

Special Teams

This may be only phase the Lions absolutely need to make a signing.

The Lions currently only have rookies at kicker and punter, but money and the limited number of players available make me think a big name is unlikely. Cross your fingers for Sergio Castillo to return from the NFL, but that decision will take awhile.

At returner, Chris Rainey might not be back, but the options on the market are limited to Lucky Whitehead and Kevin Fogg. Neither is a perfect solution, so this could be a key camp battle for rookies instead.

Finally, long snapper Tanner Doll remains unsigned and he will need to be replaced if he leaves. Veteran Chad Rempel and Pierre-Luc Caron of Calgary will likely be available, as will former UBC player Riley Jones who has snapping experience.

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