Value adds: Six under-the-radar free agent signings the B.C. Lions should consider

The B.C. Lions are heading into CFL free agency like a problem gambler who just hit the jackpot, with a pocketful of cash and no inhibitions.

After years of difficulty in the loaded West Division, the Lions believe their time is now thanks to the unexpected windfall of Michael Reilly’s retirement and new starter Nathan Rourke’s dirt cheap rookie contract. They’ve already made waves during the legal tampering window, extending a whopping $250,000 contract offer to CFL receiving yards leader Kenny Lawler, and there is expected to be plenty more big deals when free agency officially opens on February 8.

A roster can’t be built on big money contracts alone however and the Leos won’t win every bidding war. Like every team, they’ll have to supplement the star signings with some under-the-radar acquisitions, players that will provide big impacts at below market value.

With the opening of free agency just days away, here are six potential value adds that B.C. should be considering.

DE Shawn Lemon, Calgary Stampeders

Third time’s a charm, right? Bringing the soon-to-be 34-year-old Lemon back to B.C. might seem like a bad case of deja vu, but there may not be better options available for a pass rush-desperate team like the Leos.

With Ja’Gared Davis already mulling a nice pay day from the Argos, Lemon is likely the best American defensive end left available, but his age and reputation will severely limit his price tag. That shouldn’t worry a team that was so desperate for pressure last year that they brought back Alex Bazzie off the scrap heap.

No matter what you say about the rest of his game, Lemon gets sacks at a rate equivalent to the all-time greats. He notched eight more last season after being cut by the Elks, but teams never seem to learn. Nobody wants to be left holding the bag when his production finally falls off the cliff, but at the dollar figure he’ll command, it will be well worth the risk.

RB Maleek Irons, Hamilton Tiger-Cats*

There is buzz that the Lions are looking to start a Canadian at running back in 2022 and there will be some available on the open market. Brady Oliveira and Sean Thomas-Erlington present intriguing options — with even the return of Andrew Harris on the table — but the greatest value lies somewhere else.

When Rourke was at his best at the University of Ohio, he was performing with the help of a potent backfield tandem led by current Toronto Argonaut A.J. Ouellette. However, the power element of that team, Canadian Maleek Irons, began his career down the QEW in Hamilton after averaging 6.6 yards per carry as an NCAA senior.

Irons only has 73 carries for 321 yards in two CFL seasons, but he’s the type of north-south runner best suited to play with the Lions’ o-line. He also happens to be a local kid, raising the tantalizing possibility of an all-B.C. backfield with him and Jamel Lyles.

OL Alex Fontana, Ottawa Redblacks*

The Lions should be breaking the bank to upgrade their offensive line with one of the marquee names on the market, but even a big splash will do little to address their problematic lack of Canadian depth.

Currently on the roster, the Lions have David Knevel, Andrew Peirson, Matt Guevremont and Jesse Lawson, none of whom seem ready to step up and start on the interior. The CFL Draft will be key, but the addition of a 27-year-old former seventh overall pick Alex Fontana could go a long way.

Some may overlook the Kansas product after he made the decision to sit out last season, but the rumour is he wants back in. Betting on a player who has never started a game to fill the Lions’ vacancies at both guard and centre is dangerous, but Fontana would at minimum provide the blue chip depth piece the team is missing.

DT Michael Wakefield, Montreal Alouettes

As big as the Lions’ needs off the edge are, B.C. won’t get the upgraded pass rush it so desperately needs until they can get pressure from the interior. It is another area that they should be spending big on, but you can bet they won’t be alone in that regard.

If ‘Stove’ Richardson or Micah Johnson can’t be attracted to the West Coast, previous relationships could be leveraged to make sure the team doesn’t come up empty handed. Wakefield spent his first three CFL seasons under Rick Campbell’s staff in Ottawa and could be a reasonably priced stop gap.

The FIU product isn’t going to win a sack title or fundamentally change a defence, but he’s proven to be a consistent four-sack-a-year starter. That’s already a hell of a lot better than what B.C. has on the roster and it won’t require a major bidding war.

DB Kerfalla Exume, Montreal Alouettes*

B.C. is pretty set at Canadian defensive back thanks to the emergence of Hakeem Johnson and their strategy is still to go American heavy in the secondary, but offering Exume isn’t about defence.

The Lions desperately need upgrades on special teams. The rumoured repatriation of Sean Whyte should do that in the kicking game, high profile rookie De’Anthony Thomas could add it as a returner, but the team still requires better kick coverage. That is something Exume does better than almost anyone.

With 40 special teams tackles in 32 career games, Exume would give the Lions a demon on the teams the likes of which they haven’t had since Jason Arakgi. With top teamer from last season Adam Konar still unsigned, it may be worth offering Exume enough to lure him away from his hometown.

QB Michael O’Connor, Calgary Stampeders*

The Lions have been vocal about their desire to add a veteran quarterback as insurance behind the unproven Rourke, but there is a scenario in which their most obvious target, Trevor Harris, simply isn’t available. That would likely force one of Nick Arbuckle or Taylor Cornelius onto the market, but let’s engage in a scenario where a veteran QB isn’t the best roster decision.

With a Canadian starting quarterback set to count towards the ratio, the Lions are in a scenario where they can build their game day roster in an advantageous way around Rourke. That would be thrown into chaos mid-game if he went down with an American backup, and is the added experience of someone like David Watford really worth losing an American playmaker somewhere else?

With O’Connor, the Lions could make quarterback a true ratio position, allowing them to confidently start an American interior lineman or fifth receiver. Sure, it provides you no proven QB safety net, but in a year when the Lions’ clear strategy is to make a team so loaded with offensive weapons that their pivot can’t fail, maybe there is an argument for jumping in with no parachute.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.