2023 CFL free agent rankings: defensive backs

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym

Turnovers are the key to beating the modern passing game and nobody on the field generates more of those than the defensive secondary. Ball-hawking defensive backs are a crucial part of any winning CFL roster and there will be plenty available next week.

Pending free agents can speak with teams around the league during the CFL negotiating window, which closes at noon ET on Sunday, Feb. 12. Fee agency officially opens 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. Jumal Rolle, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (A)

The six-foot, 190-pound cover man has established himself as one of the CFL’s best cornerbacks and has been named an East Division all-star in each of the past two seasons. He made 35 tackles, two interceptions, and one touchdown this past season to bring his career interception total to 11 through four seasons with Hamilton.

2. Cariel Brooks, Free Agent (A)

A surprise cut by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday, Brooks is just a season removed from a five-interception campaign that saw him named a CFL all-star. Though he was held without a pick in 2022, the 32-year-old remains one of the league’s most effective boundary halfbacks.

Photo: Arthur Ward/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

3. Shaquille Richardson, Toronto Argonauts (A)

A versatile defender who can line up at multiple spots in the secondary, Richardson notched 31 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 2022. The former NFL fifth-round pick was an East Division all-star at halfback in 2021 and has plenty of juice left despite turning 31 next month.

4. Branden Dozier, Calgary Stampeders (A)

The five-foot-10, 204-pound defensive back has flown under the radar since being named an East Division all-star in 2018 with the Montreal Alouettes but has continued to perform at an elite level as both a safety and strongside linebacker for B.C. and Calgary. The 29-year-old was limited to just seven games a year ago due to injury but made a big impact, tallying 20 defensive tackles, seven more on special teams and adding a pick.

5. Ciante Evans, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (A)

The 30-year-old made 26 tackles and one interception over 12 starts at field-side cornerback this past season. The Nebraska product is a two-time East Division all-star who won a Grey Cup back in 2018 when he was a member of the Calgary Stampeders.

6. Abdul Kanneh, Ottawa Redblacks (A)

Ottawa’s goalline Grey Cup hero is still going strong entering his ninth CFL season, though he has managed to play 16 or more games just once since his last all-star selection in 2016. The 32-year-old dressed for 12 games a year ago, notching 37 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble at field halfback.

7. Sherrod Baltimore, Ottawa Redblacks (A)

A staple of the Ottawa secondary since 2017, Baltimore had a bounce-back season at field corner last season, recording 22 tackles in 13 starts. The 30-year-old is a solid player who rarely posts eye-popping stats, having picked off just two passes in 60 career games.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

8. Mike Jones, Montreal Alouettes (A)

More than just a fun name to shout, the defensive Mike Jones played all 18 games this past season at cornerback and settled in on the fieldside by the end of the year. The 27-year-old is routinely one of the league’s busiest defensive backs in terms of tackle volume, notching 47 in 2022 to go with an interception and forced fumble.

9. Godfrey Onyeka, Saskatchewan Roughriders (N)

With experience lining up at fieldside cornerback or SAM linebacker, Onyeka is a valuable Canadian depth piece. The soon-to-be 29-year-old posted 24 defensive tackles and seven special teams tackles while playing significant minutes for the Riders in 2021, but dressed for just two games last season due to a shoulder injury.

10. Elie Bouka, Calgary Stampeders (N)

Set to turn 31 in August, Bouka has struggled to live up to the hype he had as an NFL prospect coming out of the University of Calgary. Nevertheless, the Laval native had his best season as a pro in 2022, making several starts at safety while amassing 17 defensive tackles, seven special teams tackles and a pick-six.

11. Trumaine Washington, Free Agent (A)

Granted an early release by the Stampeders, Washington played 12 games for the Stampeders last season after being a training camp cut of the Ottawa Redblacks. He amassed 42 tackles, two interceptions and a defensive touchdown while playing boundary halfback and is still just one season removed from being the league’s interception leader.

Photo courtesy: Dominick Gravel/Alouettes de Montreal

12. Greg Reid, Montreal Alouettes (A)

Once an Arena Football League standout, Reid established himself as one of the CFL’s best halfbacks with an all-star season in 2019. The five-foot-nine, 190-pound ballhawk was almost as good in 2021 but missed all of last season with a knee injury and will turn 33 in September.

13. Kerfalla Exume, Montreal Alouettes (N)

The former Montreal Carabins is a special teams demon, racking up 46 tackles on kick coverage in 50 career games. After posting 25 tackles in 18 games as a rookie and 15 over 14 games in 2021, Exume managed just six tackles despite playing a full season a year ago. He’ll look for a resurgence after turning 29 this month.

14. Jeff Richards Jr., Free Agent (A)

After being released by Toronto before the season, Richards ended up playing seven games for the Edmonton Elks in 2022. He notched 17 defensive tackles and an interception but was cut following the season. The six-foot-two, 200-pound halfback possesses ideal size but is likely nearing the end at age 32, having spent his best years in the NFL.

15. Randall Evans, free agent (A)

A four-year veteran, Evans posted a career-high 70 defensive tackles, 12 special teams tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021, but was limited to just nine appearances last season for Ottawa. The former sixth-round NFL Draft pick chipped in with 36 defensive tackles and 5 special teams tackles at boundary half but is now on the backend of his career at age 31.

16. Javien Elliott, Calgary Stampeders (A)

The Stampeders were reportedly very high on the five-foot-10, 185-pound halfback but haven’t had much of a chance to see him in action. The 29-year-old played one game in 2021 and just four in 2022 due to injury, logging 12 career tackles. He notched two more in the West Semi-Final but must stay healthy if he has any hope of establishing his career.

Photo courtesy: Steven Chang/B.C. Lions

17. Hakeem Johnson, B.C. Lions (N)

Selected by B.C. in the fourth round of the 2019 CFL Draft, Johnson’s career total of 18 defensive tackles, nine special teams tackles and one interception in 38 games hardly stands out. However, the six-foot-one, 190-pound defender is one of just a handful of Canadians who have started games at cornerback over the past few seasons, making him a valuable depth addition for any team.

18. Mike Edem, Saskatchewan Roughriders (N)

Despite amassing 57 tackles, two sacks and an interception as the Riders’ starting safety in his ninth pro season, the two-time divisional all-star finally started to show his age. The veteran Canadian has 364 total tackles to his credit in 133 career games but turns 34 in July.

19. Treston Decoud, Free Agent (A)

A former fifth-round NFL Draft pick, Decoud found himself cut by the Toronto Argonauts in training camp and landed with his former coach Chris Jones. After starting 18 games at field halfback and registering 41 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble, he was cut following the season and remains on the open market.

20. Blace Brown, Saskatchewan Roughriders (A)

The nephew of former Heisman Trophy winner turned politician — yes, really — has provided quality depth in the Saskatchewan secondary for three seasons and will only be 27 next year. In 16 career games, Brown has 37 defensive tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

21. Nick Taylor, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (A)

With 44 tackles and three interceptions in 13 games last year, Taylor probably deserves to be higher on this list. However, the continued recovery from a torn Achilles suffered in September is likely to scare most teams away from a player who will celebrate his 35th birthday next month.

Best of the rest: Mike Dubuisson, Edmonton Elks (N); Duron Carter, Free Agent (A)

Editor’s note: Ciante Evans was added to this list after he was initially left off due to an oversight.