For the third time in six years, the B.C. Lions have added American defensive end Shawn Lemon to their pass rush arsenal. However, the 11-year CFL veteran may be taking on a slightly different role than he has in years past.
The 34-year-old is coming off a career year in which he was named the West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player, amassing 29 defensive tackles, 14 quarterback sacks, and five forced fumbles in 17 games with the Calgary Stampeders. Despite that impressive production, the aging pass rusher struggled to find a landing spot in free agency and ultimately signed with the Lions two weeks after hitting the open market.
“Shawn’s a specialist at getting after the quarterback and you never can put too much pressure on a quarterback from a defensive point of view,” head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell told 3DownNation. “If he can do that, keep that up — and all signs look like he’s in shape and feeling good and doing those things — then that’s a great addition.”
While age has left teams wary of signing Lemon the past few seasons, his CFL career has always been nomadic in nature. Though his prowess as a pass rusher has always been unquestioned, critics have often pointed to a strong personality, poor run defence and inconsistent down-to-down effort as the reasons why he has frequently overstayed his welcome.
The two-time all-star has mellowed with age and those on-field concerns could be much less of an issue during his latest stint with the Lions thanks to a change in the CFL rulebook.
Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, teams will be allowed to rotate two veteran Americans — defined as a player with three years of experience on his team or five years of experience in the league — onto the field in place of a Canadian starter for up to 49 percent of the snaps in a game in 2023. That means that there are more ways to get Lemon onto the field in the situations that best fit his skillset.
“It’s definitely a bonus. We definitely keep track of how many guys we have on each side of the ball that fit into that category,” Campbell acknowledged. “We’re really fortunate on defence that guys like Shawn Lemon and T.J. Lee and Marcus Sayles and Garry Peters, all those guys fall into that category. That’ll give us a little more flexibility as we go.”
While the veterans in the secondary are likely to fit directly into the ratio as the one veteran American allowed to count as part of the team’s eight designated Canadian starters, Lemon is uniquely suited to exploit the league’s new rotational rule.
The Lions are projected to start a Canadian at defensive end for the second year in a row, with Mathieu Betts and David Menard featuring in a heavy rotation. Should Lemon be listed as a designated import behind second-year pro Sione Teuhema on the depth chart at any point next season, he would be allowed to take the place of either Canadian and give the team an extra American pass rush specialist on the field in key defensive situations.
Those are the exact scenarios in which Lemon has been most productive throughout his career and a reduced snap count will only help him stay fresh enough to pick his moments. While Campbell would not commit to deploying Lemon as a primarily rotational rusher, he admitted that the team would be looking for the best ways to utilize the new ratio rule.
“That’s going to be a fun thing to watch this year, getting used to that rule for everyone. You can always talk in a room and understand how it works, but it always is different once you get on the field and have a feel for how that works,” he said. “But that definitely is something you have to take into account now, is the guys that meet that veteran American status.”
Lemon has appeared in 135 regular-season CFL contests with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Edmonton Elks, Ottawa Redblacks, Toronto Argonauts, Stampeders, and Lions, winning two Grey Cups. He has registered 221 defensive tackles, 29 forced fumbles, one interception and 92 sacks in his career — trailing only Charleston Hughes amongst active players last season.
Whether his impact comes as a starter or as a situational weapon, the Lions see no downside in adding another potential difference-maker to their lineup — whatever the position.
“That’s kind of been our philosophy is we have a game plan in the offseason, but we’re never going to turn down good football players,” Campbell noted. “Those are two examples in (quarterback) Dane Evans and Shawn Lemon of guys that not we didn’t necessarily think we were going to end up with but we’re never going to turn away good football players. If we can make deals and things work out, we want to get as many good players as we can and those guys certainly fall into that category.”