2023 CFL free agent rankings: linebackers

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

At the heart of every great defence lies a talented linebacking corps; one which sets the tone physically, put their teammates in positions to succeed, and possesses the athleticism to cover in space.

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), “A” denotes American players, and “G” denotes Global players.

Middle and Weakside Linebackers

1. Jameer Thurman, Calgary Stampeders (A)

The 27-year-old has seemingly flown under the radar for his entire career but remains one of the league’s most consistent defenders. He made 74 tackles in 2022 along with three interceptions and two forced fumbles, helping lead a defence that finished third in offensive points allowed and fourth in net offence allowed. Thurman is expected to sign with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats when free agency opens.

2. Darnell Sankey, Saskatchewan Roughriders (A)

The six-foot-one, 245-pound defender was a bright spot in Riderville this past season, making 122 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and one interception. Sankey is a high-motor defender who is arguably the league’s best in-box tackler, having led the league in tackles the past two seasons with two different teams.

3. Jovan Santos-Knox, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (A)

The five-year veteran started 17 games at middle linebacker this past season and made a career-high 105 defensive tackles along with one sack and one interception to be named an East Division all-star. The 28-year-old has managed to stay mostly healthy for the past two seasons after struggling with injuries with Edmonton in 2019 and is now expected to take his talents to the Ottawa Redblacks.

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

4. Simoni Lawrence, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (A)

The ten-year veteran dressed for only nine games this past season due to injuries and didn’t resemble the dominant player he once was as he failed to record a sack, interception or forced fumble. The five-time all-star probably has some gas left in the tank, though, at 34, some teams might be put off by his age.

5. Avery Williams, Ottawa Redblacks (A)

Rarely included in the elite linebacker conversation, Williams has still managed to put up 293 tackles in four seasons with the Redblacks. The 28-year-old set or matched career highs in every defensive category last season, making 92 tackles, two sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles.

Editor’s note: Williams was granted an early release by the Redblacks shortly after this article was published.

6. Henoc Muamba, Toronto Argonauts (N)

A ratio-breaker in the middle, Muamba is fresh off of becoming the second player in history to be named the Grey Cup’s Most Valuable Canadian and Most Valuable Player. However, the soon-to-be 34-year-old was considered to be having a down year overall — recording 75 tackles, three sacks and two picks in 2022 — and his future in Toronto is in doubt following their trade for Jordan Williams.

7. Fraser Sopik, Calgary Stampeders (N)

Entering his fourth CFL season, Sopik has established himself as a quality Canadian role player who can contribute on special teams and rotate in for certain defensive packages. With 31 defensive tackles, 30 more on special teams, four sacks and three forced fumbles in 44 career games, he’ll be looking to take more defensive snaps after turning 26 in April.

8. Micah Awe, Montreal Alouettes (A)

A proven starter over five CFL seasons with B.C., Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, Awe notched 47 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble in 13 starts with the Als last year. At 29 years old, he won’t be viewed as a premier pick-up but could prove to be a vital depth signing in the event of injury.

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/B.C. Lions

9. Kevin Francis, B.C. Lions (N)

A six-year veteran, Francis isn’t going to give you starting minutes on defence but that isn’t why you pay him. The six-foot-six, 236-pounder had the best season of his career on special teams in 2022, racking up a league-leading 22 tackles in the game’s third phase.

10. Justin Herdman-Reed, Saskatchewan Roughriders (N)

After posting 37 defensive tackles as a spot starter with Toronto in 2019, Herdman-Reed hasn’t seen the field on defence over two seasons in Saskatchewan. The 28-year-old posted a bounce-back season on special teams in 2022, however, notching 10 tackles in 14 games.

11. Deon Lacey, Edmonton Elks (A)

Lacey’s return to the CFL after four years in the NFL hasn’t lived up to the expectations and 2022 was a step in the wrong direction, managing just 20 defensive tackles and six special teams tackles in nine outings. The 32-year-old was a healthy scratch for half of Edmonton’s games and his starting days could be in the past.

12. Jesse Briggs, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (N)

Over the course of his eight-year career, Briggs has shown himself to be a valuable special teams contributor with the ability to start on defence if needed. However, he is coming off the worst season of his career — having mustered just three defensive tackles and four special teams tackles in 12 games — and turns 33 in April.

13. Jordan Herdman-Reed, Saskatchewan Roughriders (N)

The other Herdman-Reed twin, Jordan saw considerable time as a starting middle linebacker with the B.C. Lions in 2018 and 2019, but has posted just six special teams tackles in 17 games over the last two years. Four of those came after he joined the Riders midway through last season, playing in eight games.

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

14. Les Maruo, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (G)

A Global player from Japan, Maruo has carved out a role for himself over the past two seasons by making 14 defensive tackles, 13 special teams tackles and a sack in 24 games. He’ll celebrate his 27th birthday on the opening of free agency and could have value for a team looking to upgrade their one designated Global roster spot.

15. Shaheed Salmon, Ottawa Redblacks (A)

Salmon had his best season as a pro in 2022, making 23 defensive tackles, 15 special teams tackles, an interception and four forced fumbles. The 26-year-old is an impactful tackler who can fill out the back end of a roster, though his window to become a starter is beginning to close.

16. Curtis Newton, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (N)

In six CFL seasons, Newton has 36 special teams tackles. However, the Jake Gaudaur Award nominee is turning 29 in July and is coming off a torn ACL that limited him to seven games a year ago — the type of injury that tends to scare teams away.

17. Gary Johnson Jr., Saskatchewan Roughriders (A)

In three seasons with the Riders, the 27-year-old has never played more than six games. He had 10 special teams tackles in 2021 but managed just four a year ago and is unlikely to have teams clamouring for his services.

18. Kieshawn Bierria, Montreal Alouettes (A)

After racking up 50 tackles, two sacks and a pick as a rookie with the Elks in 2021, Bierria was cut by Edmonton and Saskatchewan in the span of a year. He played five games split between the Riders and Als last season, registering four total tackles and leaving his professional future in doubt.

19. Nigel Harris, Saskatchewan Roughriders (A)

Harris has played just nine games in two seasons with the Riders, notching five total tackles. At 28 years old, he may struggle to find another contract.

Strongside Linebackers

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

1. Adarius Pickett, Montreal Alouettes (A)

The 26-year-old is arguably the best young strong-side linebacker in the CFL, coming off a year in which he made 80 total tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and one interception. Pickett brings physicality and athleticism to a defensive role that requires both.

2. Kameron Kelly, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (A)

The 26-year-old has started 32 consecutive games for the Ticats at strong-side linebacker since his rookie season in 2021, recording 87 tackles, six interceptions, and three sacks. He’s young, athletic, and seems to have a knack for making big plays at key moments.

3. Chris Edwards, Toronto Argonauts (A)

The five-year veteran started 13 games this past season, recording 36 defensive tackles, one special teams tackle, two interceptions, and one forced fumble. He also made a big impact during Toronto’s run to the 109th Grey Cup, making four tackles and two sacks to help his team upset the Blue Bombers.

4. Mercy Maston, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (A)

Maston looked like the next great SAM when he joined the Bombers for their first Grey Cup run in 2019 but he hasn’t been able to catch a break since. The 30-year-old has torn his Achilles in back-to-back training camps and will be viewed as a very risky investment by teams.