‘Doing it for the right reasons’: NFL vet Christian Covington ‘initiated’ surprise signing with hometown B.C. Lions

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Kyusung Gong

The B.C. Lions made the biggest splash signing of the CFL offseason when they repatriated veteran Canadian defensive lineman Christian Covington on Wednesday, but the club wasn’t in the driver’s seat when it came to the move.

“If we were begging him to come back, that would be the tough thing but he is the one who initiated all of this,” co-general manager and director of player personnel Neil McEvoy told the media this week. “He’s the one that wants to do it. He’s the one who wants to come and play for the B.C. Lions.”

According to McEvoy, the team’s fifth-round pick from the 2015 CFL Draft first reached out a couple of months ago to let them know he was weighing his options and would be coming to a decision regarding the future of his career after the NFL Draft.

Though the Lions had always kept tabs on Covington’s career, that was the first time that adding the nine-year NFL veteran was ever considered to be a real possibility. The front office was more than happy to be patient in the hopes of landing a potential difference-maker.

“We told him from the get-go: ‘Don’t commit to something until you’re 100 percent ready.’ Professional football, as he knows, is not easy regardless of what side of the border you’re on and he’s got to be all in to be impactful,” McEvoy said. “He knows that and that’s why he took his time. He waited for the NFL Draft process to dissolve and then called us this past weekend to say, ‘I’m ready, I’m 100 percent, and I want to make an impact.'”

Once that call was placed, a deal was quickly struck between the two sides to bring Covington back to his hometown. On Thursday, the 30-year-old dismissed speculation that his signing would be a one-and-done attempt to cap his career with the Grey Cup in Vancouver, stating that he wanted to play into his mid-thirties just as his Hall of Fame father, Grover Covington, did.

“He’s definitely doing it for the right reasons. He’s a guy who’s all in on coming here and wants to play in his hometown in front of friends, family, and all those things,” head coach and co-general manager Rick Campbell said. “That’s not a guy you want to try to talk into doing that, it was definitely him wanting to do it.”

Originally selected in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Rice University, Covington spent nine years south of the border, dressing for 102 games as a member of the Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, and Los Angeles Chargers. He recorded 196 total tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and two pass knockdowns.

Despite earning $8.65 million USD over the course of his career, the 30-year-old pass-rusher believes he has gas left in the tank and is eager to get back on the field after spending 2023 on the Chargers’ practice squad.

“I actually was surprised when I saw his age just because of how long he’s played football,” Campbell said. “It shows you how young he started down in the NFL, but good for him. He’s only 30 years old and I’m sure he does have a lot of good football left in him.”

“It’s not like he hasn’t played in three years,” McEvoy echoed. “He was under contract with an NFL team last year and he just feels that this is time for him to give back to his community and play with his hometown team. I’m excited for it because I know he’s really excited and that’s how it fits.”

The move comes at a perfect time for the Lions, with the franchise set to host the 111th Grey Cup and facing major changes along the defensive line. Ratio-breaking defensive end Mathieu Betts, the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player, will not be back after signing with the Detroit Lions and other veteran contributors like Woody Baron and David Menard had to be let go as salary cap casualties.

“It worked out exactly as we thought it would,” McEvoy laughed, tongue firmly in cheek. “We lost a Canadian defensive lineman and we were able to bring in another one.”

There will be increased pressure on third-years Sione Teuhema and Nathan Cherry, as well as new additions like Pete Robertson and Daniel Joseph in 2024. Some consider the young defensive line to be a major question mark for the team, though neither McEvoy nor Campbell expects a step back in their production.

While veteran NFL additions, even Canadian ones, have often been buyer beware in the CFL, there is hope that Covington will be able to step in to help fill a leadership void. Already slimmed down to an effective three-down playing weight of 280 pounds, it is his unusually high buy-in that makes McEvoy view him as an exception to the rule.

“A guy like Christian is coming in and not only playing high-level football but giving those young guys some guidance,” he said. “Usually, I wouldn’t say that but because of who he is and his experience and the fact that he’s from this market and everything else, it’s just a great fit for us on and off the field.”

The Lions will open their 2024 season on Sunday, June 9 in Toronto. Preparations get underway on Wednesday, May 8 when rookies are set to report to camp.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.