If it ain’t broke: Stampeders take tried and true approach in CFL free agency

Courtesy: Brett Holmes/CFL

A Calgary Stampeders’ career often mimics the early pages of the Bible.

They arrive in what seems like the CFL’s Garden of Eden. A virtual paradise where playoffs are nearly guaranteed and the fanbase is supportive without rising to the level of fanaticism.

Shortly after Genesis though comes Exodus, when the player tastes the fruit of temptation and leaves to once again search for the promised land.

Year after year, the Stampeders say goodbye to players who are headed to other teams and settle in to see what unpolished gems await them in training camp.

As a result, free agency in Calgary is often treated with a sense of malaise, as fans bid adieu to the players that have drawn the eyes of general managers across the league.

This year was a little different but not by much, as the Stampeders once again continued to look out for the overall strength of the roster, rather than having the shiniest gem on display.

The re-locators:

The running gag for the last few seasons has been the Calgary Stampeders playing against the Toronto Stampeders. Now, the Stamps will be faced with their own past when playing against a pair of Eastern Division teams, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats loaded up on Calgary players this offseason.

After trading for and then signing Bo Levi Mitchell to a three-year contract, the Ticats are hoping to see the two-time Most Outstanding Player regain the form he has been missing since undergoing multiple shoulder surgeries. Hamilton also added a pair of his former teammates in linebackers Jameer Thurman and Fraser Sopik.

Thurman has been one of the league’s most underrated players throughout his CFL career, playing alongside several Canadian middle linebackers through his time in Calgary, recording 73 tackles, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles after moving to the middle himself last year. Thurman has a nose for the football and, at just 28 years of age, has a lot of gas left in the tank.

Given how much Thurman made sure to highlight Mitchell and ensure he got his due in Calgary, it is no surprise that he went to join his good friend in a new city.

Sopik may not be known to many outside of Calgary, having made just 14 tackles last season, but he did collect two sacks and forced a fumble in limited playing time.

Sopik is an incredibly valuable Canadian who does not look out of place when he’s forced into action due to injuries. With Cameron Judge as a ratio breaker in Calgary, having a capable backup was essential and Sopik filled that role well.

The Ticats also signed away Javien Elliott, a defensive back that the Stamps were incredibly high on when he returned from injury last year. Elliott made eight tackles in the four games he played but was a large part of a resurgent pass defence that locked down receivers down the stretch and helped pave the way for another double-digit win season.

Toronto hadn’t forgotten their playbook at home, signing away defensive end Folarin Orimolade, who had his first injury-free season last year and generated 37 tackles, six sacks and an interception for a touchdown. The 27-year-old is considered a rising star and Toronto paid him as such, with a contract reported to make him the highest-paid defensive end in the league.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders also got in on the action, although they only picked away at the fringes of the Stampeders’ depth chart by signing receiver Shawn Bane Jr. and defensive lineman Stefan Banks.

Banks played a rotational spot on the Stamps’ defensive line, but made the most of his time, collecting 15 tackles and four sacks last season to go with a forced fumble in 13 games. Bane also saw spot duty for Calgary, filling in for injured receivers and catching 21 passes for 288 yards, with half of those yards coming after the catch.

Featured primarily as a returner, Bane averaged just under nine yards per punt return and just over 22 yards per kickoff return. He should get a good look for the Riders if anything were to happen to Mario Alford.

The only other player of note to head elsewhere was Richie Sindani, who signed in the USFL. The Canadian receiver is facing a two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and was unlikely to return to Calgary regardless.

The retentions  

The Stampeders often say that their biggest focus is to retain the players they have, rather than coveting players in other markets. True to form, they had already locked up several big names internally before free agency opened.

Dave Dickenson has consistently mentioned Derek Dennis in this conversation, as the long-time veteran anchored the league’s best offensive line last year. Dennis went down with an injury late in the season and it likely cost him the award for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Lineman.

The 34-year-old has claimed that this will be his final season, hoping to go out on his terms and play the best football of his career. Fans in Calgary can only hope he lives up to his own expectations.

A re-signing that went relatively under the radar was that of Zack Williams, who started all 18 games at left guard. Some suggested that if Calgary had put him forward instead of Dennis for top lineman, he may have taken home the award.

Receiver Reggie Begelton is the other big name on the offensive side of the ball to be re-upped in Calgary. Begelton had a down season by his standards last year, catching 85 passes for 957 yards and six touchdowns.

Following the switch from Mitchell to Jake Maier at quarterback, Begelton’s role seemed to change in the offence and he was targeted on much shorter routes than he had been used on previously. Both Stampeders’ president John Hufnagel and Dickenson have suggested that the receiver needs to be used differently to have more opportunities to impact the game the way he’s become accustomed to.

Moving to the defensive side of the ball, Judge got a new deal to remain with the team. He offered an elevated level of play last season, gathering a career-high 78 tackles, five sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two touchdowns. Being a Canadian also made Judge a higher priority for retention than other players — like Thurman — who played at a high level at the position.

In the defensive backfield, Jonathan Moxey, Brad Muhammad, Branden Dozier, and Nick Statz are all coming back. Injuries ravaged this position group last season but when they were healthy, opposing quarterbacks did not fare all that well. Add in Tre Roberson and Titus Wall and this is a very strong group.

The additions

The Stampeders had no names officially leaked during the league’s negotiation window, but that didn’t stop them from signing Julian Howsare away from the Tiger-Cats to replace the outgoing Orimolade.

Howsare is a little older than Orimolade but brings nearly identical stats from last season. Given the damage the Stampeders were able to do on the defensive line, bringing in a player with a similar skill set was essential to be able to continue to get after the quarterback.

The overhaul of the defensive line didn’t start there though, as the Stampeders added James Vaughters in late January. The 29-year-old played in Calgary previously before heading to the NFL following the 2018 Grey Cup.

Vaughters didn’t play last season after splitting time with the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears over the previous three seasons. The Stampeders are hoping a rested and motivated Vaughters can be a dominant force off the edge.

Micah Awe enters the linebacking picture with a great shot at becoming a starter after coming over from Montreal. The six-year veteran played in 13 games for the Alouettes after being released by the B.C. Lions after Week 1, making 47 tackles, one interception and a forced fumble.

With Judge and Wall on either side, Calgary will be looking for a run-stopper in the middle. Awe will compete with Silas Stewart, who was the backup to Thurman last season, for that position.

The team also added Canadian offensive tackle Jamal Campbell, who spent last season with the Roughriders. Though he’s a competent starter, the 29-year-old will likely serve as a depth piece behind Dennis and whoever wins the battle on the right side to replace NFL signee Julian Good-Jones — likely either Josh Coker or Hugh Thornton.

The final addition so far was 2020 draft pick Rysen John. The huge six-foot-seven receiver has spent time with the New York Giants and Chicago Bears as a tight end and will likely draw plenty of attention in the red zone.

In John, the Stampeders get a pass catcher who can get up and over defenders, while also creating space for other receivers to get open in the end zone.

Looking at everything the Stampeders have done, they will again rely on scouting to replace the depth that has landed in other markets. Calgary may not have been flashy in free agency, but the sustained success of the model would suggest that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ryan Ballantine is a lifelong Stamps fan and host of the Go Stamps Go Show Podcast. He has been covering the team since 2008.