Cody Fajardo happy Montreal Alouettes avoided Toronto-like ‘mass exodus’ in free agency

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Montreal Alouettes’ franchise quarterback Cody Fajardo has given general manager Danny Maciocia full marks for keeping the team’s roster together this off-season following a surprising run to win the 110th Grey Cup.

“What I’m really excited about is what Danny has done with this team. He’s retained the core guys, which is very hard to do. You’ve seen Winnipeg do it over the years and I think that’s why they’ve been so successful. But you look at a 16-2 Argos team, that seemed to be a mass exodus for them. The unfortunate thing about winning games and winning Grey Cups that I’ve seen in the past is you usually lose a lot of players,” Fajardo told the media via videoconference.

“We lost a couple of good football players obviously to the NFL, but what Danny has done was we didn’t lose a ton of guys to other teams in the CFL, so we didn’t help bolster other CFL teams’ rosters and we kept the core guys.”

Only two full-time starters from last season left the Alouettes in free agency as running back William Stanback and defensive back Ciante Evans signed with the B.C. Lions. Other departures were receiver Austin Mack and defensive end Lwal Uguak, both of whom signed in the NFL, and veteran defensive tackle Almondo Sewell, who was released and remains a free agent.

The Argonauts experienced far more turnover during the CFL’s recent free agent frenzy as running back A.J. Ouellette, offensive linemen Dariusz Bladek and Trevon Tate, defensive linemen Brandon Barlow and Dewayne Hendrix, strong-side linebacker Adarius Pickett, defensive back Jamal Peters, kicker Boris Bede, and return specialist Javon Leake all signed with other teams. Andrew Harris and Henoc Muamba both retired, while rookie standout Qwan’tez Stiggers is expected to be drafted by the NFL.

Toronto also made a number of key additions through free agency, though the sweeping changes that occurred in the offensive backfield, along the defensive line, in the secondary, and on special teams will challenge the team to develop chemistry quickly come training camp. For the Alouettes, there are very few holes to fill.

Fajardo recognizes that Mack, who was named a CFL all-star after catching 78 passes for 1,154 yards and four touchdowns in his first season north of the border, is a big loss for Montreal’s receiving corps, though he’s excited about some of the young players Maciocia has signed. He’s also happy to be reunited with Tevin Jones, the consensus front-runner to replace Mack, who was signed as a free agent from the Saskatchewan Roughriders where he played alongside Fajardo in 2022.

“Jones is one of the guys that I connected with really quickly in Sask and he was a rookie when he came in. The things he did last year were very impressive. Everyone wants to talk about his age being 31 but that guy can fly,” said Fajardo.

“The guy is all-in for the team and he’s one of those guys that — and I think this separated our receiving corps from a lot of receiving corps in the CFL — is when he’s not getting the ball, he’s not begging for the ball or asking for the ball. He is out there blocking, he is out there doing whatever he can to help the team win, and not say, ‘Hey, you should have thrown it to me here, you should have done this there.’ When you have receivers like that, as a quarterback, it helps you play a little bit better.”

The Alouettes were the last-place team in most CFL power rankings last off-season following an ownership crisis that saw the league temporarily take over the operations of the club. The team was bolstered by local billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau, who purchased the team in March 2023, and improved gradually as they added key free agents like Shawn Lemon and Darnell Sankey during the regular season.

Fajardo knows the team won’t be able to catch any opponents off guard this time around as the club is at or near the top of most power rankings. He’s embracing the team’s new role as a top dog and can’t wait to celebrate the team’s Grey Cup championship when they hold their home-opener against the Ottawa Redblacks on June 20.

“We’re really excited I think to now go from the hunters to the hunted now with the bullseye on our back, it’s a little bit different. As you said, the expectations are a little bit higher. People are gonna have probably a little bit shorter leashes or patience for us if things don’t start out the way that they finished last year, but what I will say is the amount of buzz, the amount of excitement that’s going on in Montreal and in the province of Quebec is what this team is really excited about,” said Fajardo.

“It’s unfortunate we’re gonna have to wait two weeks before we get our first home game, but I know that first home game and the banner reveal and all that entails is going to be something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. When I won a Grey Cup in 2017 with the Argos, I signed with the B.C. Lions the next year, so I didn’t really get to go through an offseason and then the start of a season with the ring ceremony and the banner reveal and all the excitement that goes into winning the Grey Cup before, so I think that’s what I’m looking forward to most in the early half of the season.”

The Alouettes will open the 2024 season on June 6 when they visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Princess Auto Stadium for a Grey Cup rematch.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.