It’s a quarterback-driven league, but somebody has to go out there and drive those star passers into the dirt. A good pass rush is critical to playing winning defence in the CFL and that begins with getting the right players in place.
The CFL’s negotiating window is currently open. Pending free agents can speak with teams around the league during this period, though the window closes on Sunday, Feb. 12 ahead of the official start of free agency on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
3DownNation has taken the liberty of ranking each pending free agent by position in order to illustrate who the most sought-after players will be when the market officially opens.
Please note that “N” denotes National players (ie. Canadians) and “A” denotes American players.
1. Micah Johnson, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (A)
He will be 35 by the time next season gets underway but the six-foot-two, 278-pound defender is coming off a bounce-back year in Steeltown and he made 24 tackles and seven sacks. Though he’s no longer the league’s best interior defensive lineman, Johnson was named an East Division all-star and appears to have some gas left in the tank.
2. Casey Sayles, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (A)
One of the CFL’s most underrated players, Sayles has sneakily amassed 64 tackles, 11 sacks and two forced fumbles in two seasons with Winnipeg. Though nothing can be signed until Tuesday, he will reportedly head to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats next season — likely as the replacement for the number one player on this list.
3. Michael Wakefield, Montreal Alouettes (A)
In five CFL seasons, Wakefield has proven to be a valuable interior rusher who is best used as part of a rotation, notching seven sacks over the course of a two-year stint in Montreal. He is expected to rejoin the Ottawa Redblacks in free agency, returning to the organization where he began his pro career.
4. Davon Coleman, Ottawa Redblacks (A)
At 32 years old, Coleman is several years removed from the days when he seemed to knock out quarterbacks on a weekly basis. He remains a solid contributor, however, notching 16 defensive tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles last year.
5. Ted Laurent, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (N)
Laurent need only retire to start the clock on his eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement, but the 35-year-old still has some value thanks to his Canadian passport. The six-foot-one, 299-pound big man needs to be on a pitch count to be effective but made nine tackles, two sacks, and forced a fumble in 2022.
Editor’s note: Laurent re-signed with the Tiger-Cats shortly after this article was published.
6. Makana Henry, Edmonton Elks (N)
The 36-year-old Henry appears to have some tread left on the tires due to his late start as a pro, entering just the seventh season in the CFL. In 12 games last year, the Caledon, Ont. native notched a career-high 27 tackles and added a sack.
7. Ese Mrabure, Edmonton Elks (N)
After barely playing the previous two seasons, Mrabure dressed in all 18 games for the Elks in 2022, registering 18 tackles and a sack. The former first-round pick is entering his eighth CFL season and is still just 30 years old.
8. Tim Bonner, Edmonton Elks (A)
An undersized interior pass rusher best known for his stint on the Netflix docu-series Last Chance U, Bonner had seven sacks in 23 games with the B.C. Lions before Woody Baron’s return to the lineup made him expendable. He did not make an impact after joining the Elks mid-season but could be a valuable depth addition for the right team.
9. Fabion Foote, Toronto Argonauts (N)
Once a promising young Canadian with starting potential, injuries have limited Foote to just five games over the last two seasons in Toronto. Turning 29 in April, he may not get many more opportunities.
10. Vincent Desjardins, Montreal Alouettes (N)
There is always a role for depth Canadians, but Desjardins has just four tackles in three CFL seasons. The Laval product will likely need to wait until after the draft to see if there are any teams that still need to flesh out their ratio.
1. Folarin Orimolade, Calgary Stampeders (A)
Orimolade’s stat line of 37 tackles, six sacks, one interception, and one forced fumble doesn’t do justice to his impact last year and the fourth-year defender was finally healthy for long enough to show his potential as an elite edge rusher. That was first identified in him by his former defensive line coach Corey Mace, who he is expected to be reunited with on the Toronto Argonauts defence next year.
2. Shawn Lemon, Calgary Stampeders (A)
The veteran pass rusher was named the West Division’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player after making 29 tackles, 14 sacks, and five forced fumbles this past season — stats that deserve a raise according to his head coach and general manager. Lemon simply refuses to slow down at the age of 34, he has 70 sacks in the last seven seasons and 22 in the last two. That makes him an attractive option for teams looking to generate more pressure off the edge in 2023.
3. Julian Howsare, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (A)
The six-foot-three, 255-pound edge rusher set a new career-high with seven sacks in 2022 along with 30 defensive tackles, one special teams tackle, and two interceptions. He was named an East Division all-star for the first time in his career and now has 21 sacks through four seasons in Steeltown.
4. Ja’Gared Davis, Toronto Argonauts (A)
The three-time all-star wasn’t as dominant in 2022 as he’s been in the past, though he still made 36 tackles and seven sacks over 14 games. Any team looking to make it to the Grey Cup this season should consider signing Davis thought, as he has yet to fall short of appearing in the league’s title game through six seasons in the CFL.
5. Kwaku Boateng, Ottawa Redblacks (N)
Flying under the radar after he missed all of last season with a lower-body injury, Boateng is still a ratio-breaking defensive end and will be only 28 when next season starts. The six-foot-two, 257-pound defender has amassed 25 career sacks in his previous four seasons.
Editor’s note: Boateng is now expected to sign with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
6. Obum Gwacham, B.C. Lions (A)
An NFL veteran who didn’t arrive in the CFL until he was 30, Gwacham turns 32 next month but hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. He has mustered nine sacks in two seasons with the Lions but more importantly, has produced one of the best pressure rates in the league over that span.
7. Shane Ray, Toronto Argonauts (A)
After disappointing in 2021, the former NFL first-round pick had a breakout season last year by racking up 13 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles in 13 games before suffering a torn. About to turn 30, Ray will be hoping another serious injury doesn’t stop him from earning a pay raise more fitting of his previous pedigree.
8. Stefen Banks, Calgary Stampeders (A)
A rotational contributor off the edge in Cowtown, Banks has made 36 tackles and eight sacks in two CFL seasons. At only 25, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are expected to bring him in to lock down one of their starting edge spots.
9. Thomas Costigan, Montreal Alouettes (A)
Costigan had a limited impact in the final seven games of the season after being traded to Montreal but has shown flashes over the course of his first two CFL campaigns. In 29 games, he has 41 tackles, 10 sacks and two forced fumbles.
10. Charleston Hughes, Saskatchewan Roughriders (A)
With 136 career sacks, Hughes is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. While he isn’t an every-down player any longer and found himself routinely left off the Riders’ gameday roster last year, the 39-year-old still notched four sacks and forced three fumbles in 12 appearances.
Best of the rest: Valentin Gnahoua, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (G); Keion Adams, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (A); Tobi Antigha, Edmonton Elks (A); Jordan Reaves, Edmonton Elks (N)