Grading 2021 day-one CFL free agent signings

Photo: Nik Kowalski/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The start of CFL free agency is one of the most exciting days of the year for fans around the league. Marquee players change teams, a ton of money gets thrown around, and fans take to social media to offer their opinions on their favourite team’s moves.

While free agency is a legitimate tool for teams to improve, day-one free agent signings don’t always pan out. I graded all of the day-one signings from 2019 and the results were all over the place, running the gamut from F to A+.

The 2021 edition of the CFL’s free agent frenzy was no exception with some signings working out well and others failing spectacularly. Hindsight is 20/20, so here are the grades from last year’s opening day of free agency.

Photo courtesy: Jeff Vinnick/B.C. Lions

B.C. Lions

RB Shaq Cooper (A) — D

The former Elk was supposed to breathe life into a stagnant run game but ended up getting cut after only five games with the Lions. Cooper rushed 33 times for 142 yards and a touchdown and caught 11 passes for 69 yards before the club made James Butler their full-time starter.

REC Lucky Whitehead (A) — A+

The 29-year-old became a megastar on the west coast, making 36 catches for 665 yards and scoring five touchdowns before suffering a broken hand halfway through the season. Had he not gotten hurt, Whitehead would have been a serious candidate to win Most Outstanding Player.

Calgary Stampeders

QB Michael O’Connor (N) — D

The native of Orleans, Ont. did not attempt a single pass in 2021, dressing for only six games. O’Connor started the season as Calgary’s backup quarterback but was leapfrogged on the depth chart by rookie Jake Maier when Bo Levi Mitchell suffered a broken bone in his leg.

Edmonton Elks

RB James Wilder Jr. (A) — A

The 29-year-old surpassed all expectations in his first season back from retirement, rushing 142 times for 770 yards and two touchdowns and catching 28 passes for 226 yards and one score. Wilder Jr. was a bright spot in 2021 on an otherwise terrible team.

LB Kevin Brown II (A) — F

The 28-year-old was released after training camp with Edmonton starting rookies Nyles Morgan and Keishawn Bierria in the linebacking corps. Brown ended up signing with Winnipeg where he appeared in seven regular season games, making ten total tackles.

Photo courtesy: Darryl Dyck/CFL

Saskatchewan Roughriders

OL Evan Johnson (N) — B

The Regina native was solid for his hometown team, making fourteen starts at right guard plus the playoffs. Saskatchewan’s offensive line needs to improve and Johnson is a nice player for them to build around as they chase a Grey Cup at home in 2022.

LB Larry Dean (A) — N/A

The 33-year-old was one of six players who suffered a torn Achilles in 2021, ending his season before it even began. Deon Lacey replaced him at middle linebacker and played well, recording 57 total tackles, four sacks, and one forced fumble.

LB Jordan Herdman-Reed (N) — C-

The Simon Fraser product had a quiet season in 2021, making three total tackles in nine games. He was used exclusively in a depth/special teams role, which came as somewhat of a surprise after he became a semi-regular starter in his previous stint with the B.C. Lions.

LB Justin Herdman-Reed (N) — C+

The 27-year-old recorded ten total tackles in 13 games and made a late-season start at weak-side linebacker when the Riders elected to rest Micah Teitz. Herdman-Reed is currently a pending free agent, as is his identical twin brother.

DB Lorenzo Jerome (A) — F

The 26-year-old was released following training camp, though he didn’t come to Saskatchewan with a ton of accolades. He previously appeared in seven games with Calgary, making 17 total tackles and one interceptions.

DL Micah Johnson (A) — B

The 33-year-old departed for B.C. in 2020 before returning to Riderville via free agency for 2021. His stat line doesn’t jump off the page — 19 tackles and two sacks in 12 games — but he seemed to generate pressure more consistently than he did in 2019.

SAM Godfrey Onyeka (N) — B

The Wilfrid Laurier product started five games at strong-side linebacker and would likely have started more had he not suffered a back injury. He recorded 31 total tackles and brought physicality to a position that is traditionally reserved for American players.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

LS Mike Benson (N) — B

The Winnipeg native signed with his hometown team and played well in 2021, consistently delivering accurate snaps on punts and field goals in all 16 of his team’s games.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

DB Ciante Evans (A) — B+

The six-year veteran made 43 tackles and one interception in 13 starts at field-side halfback. Evans missed the East Semi-Final due to injury but made an impact in the East Final and Grey Cup, making 11 total tackles.

Toronto Argonauts

QB Antonio Pipkin (A) — C-

The fourth-year passer made one late-season start, completing 10-of-22 pass attempts for 111 yards and an interception. He also carried the ball 27 times across seven games, rushing for 131 yards and five touchdowns.

RB John White IV (A) — C+

The 31-year-old recorded 92 carries for 450 yards and a touchdown in nine games while also making 15 receptions for 105 yards. White was productive, though he was outshone at times by rookies D.J. Foster and A.J. Ouellette.

Ottawa Redblacks

DL Stefan Charles (N) — D

The Oshawa native was a rotational player in nine games this past season, making four tackles and one sack. He did not rotate along the defensive line as much as I anticipated he would considering he has seven years of NFL experience.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

Montreal Alouettes

LB Chris Ackie (N) — A

The former first-round pick had arguably the best year of his career in 2021, making 48 tackles, six sacks, and two interceptions. Ackie played at an all-star level for Montreal and was one of the best free agent additions from 2021.

SAM Patrick Levels (A) — B+

The Baylor product signed with Hamilton as a free agent for 2020 before returning to Montreal following the cancelled season. He picked up right where he left off in 2019, recording 42 tackles, three sacks, and an interception with the Als.

DL Almondo Sewell (A) — B

The future Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee proved he still has some gas left in the tank, making 19 tackles and five sacks while serving as a mentor to Montreal’s young defensive linemen.

DL Michael Wakefield (A) — B-

The 27-year-old was cut and re-signed just before the start of the season after accepting a pay cut. He performed well on his new deal, making 24 total tackles and four sacks in a rotational role alongside Sewell and Woody Baron.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.