This offseason has been by far the most active, craziest and most covered in the history of the Canadian Football League. It happened so fast, with players being traded twice, other complaining about being held back from the NFL, and of course Johnny Manziel. Since the waves have settled down, it’s time to organize and evaluate each team’s performance. Here are the grades from the offseason for the East Division.
CFL Free Agency Grades
Toronto Argonauts: A-
The Argonauts won a Grey Cup in the organizations first year with General Manager Jim Popp and Head Coach Marc Trestman at the helm. The journey started slow and as the season went on, the team came along. The number one target for them to accomplish in the offseason was to keep the group together. A challenge they accomplished in the process of adding top-notch pieces.
Future Hall of Famer Ricky Ray decided to come back for one more year which was fantastic news. Under Trestman, the 39-year-old posted his best statistical season in nine years. The worry last season was if Ray gets hurt, what backup do they have who would be capable of stepping in? They answered that question trading and signing James Franklin to a two-year extension from Edmonton. Franklin contains all the tools to be an elite pivot, and he’ll only get better learning from Ray.
The Argonauts extended 13 players from the Grey Cup roster headline by SJ Green, Bear Woods and Ken Bishop. The better job they did was in the James Wilder Jr. situation.
The running back was the main catalyst for the epic turn around. He registered unheard of numbers in a short span. The 25-year-old tallied 1,276 total yards and six touchdowns in the last eight games. It didn’t look good when the news came out that Wilder was going to sit out the year because the Argos weren’t allowing him to pursue NFL opportunities, while also making only $56,000(CAD). Toronto came to a solution with the star back extending him through the 2019 season at a reported $100 thousand dollars a year plus performance bonuses. It was huge for Toronto to get the issue resolved before training camp opens in May.
Popp also brought in key pieces that will make an impact from day one. Less than two years after being trading away, all-star defensive halfback T.J. Heath agreed to a two-year contract. The linebacker depth was improved with the signing of Taylor Reed from the Redblacks. The addition of running back Greg Morris is a perfect backup to Wilder, and kicker Swayze Waters officially reunited with his first CFL team.
The Argos kept the tight core together and improved the depth at positions. It’s hard to imagine them accomplishing anything more than that.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats: B
The Ticats experienced a tale of two tapes going from a beyond awful to a Grey Cup threat. They did what they needed to do in bringing back all the pieces to see if it’ll work for a full season.
After a disastrous 0-8 start to the season under then-Head Coach Kent Austin, June Jones took over and rejuvenated the team to finish the season 6-4. His great effort forced the organization’s hand to officially name the 65-year-old as head coach. From there all the pieces fell into place. Brandon Banks, who was one of the biggest threats when Jones took over was re-signed, Jeremiah Masoli got extended and was officially named the franchise quarterback, plus reliable receiver Luke Tasker came back.
Hamilton goes into the season with a very similar roster to last year. They extended 10 of the 17 players who were free agents during the off-season craziness. The only veteran player moving to the Hammer from another team was Argos Grey Cup and Canadian kicker Lirim Hajrullahu.
The Ticats did the work needed in order to line themselves up for success compared to going above and beyond. That’s the reason the Hammer fell short of an A-.
Ottawa Redblacks: B-
The Redblacks offseason was fairly quiet. They didn’t make any big splashes in free agency with their biggest and most significant signing that of linebacker Kyries Hebert. The linebacker is the last Ottawa Renegades player left still playing on a CFL roster. He brings leadership, tenacity and physicality to a defence. Other than that move, they didn’t make any significant signings, but they addressed in-house players.
Led by QB Trevor Harris under centre, Ottawa owns perhaps the most explosive offence in Canada when everyone is healthy. The organization made sure none of their key weapons walked out the door.
Wide receivers Dionte Spencer and Brad Sinopoli both signed extensions. Sinopoli is Mr Security blanket for Harris. In the past three seasons, the Canadian averaged 89 receptions for 1,027 yards. The impact Sinopoli brings was noticed when he missed the last two games of the regular season and playoffs with a shoulder injury. Whenever the Redblacks need to move the chains, the Peterborough product appears.
Spencer can take it to the house. He’s displayed gifts in all different areas of receiving, kickoff returning and punt returns. The 29-year-old put up a CFL single-game record with 496 all-purpose yards last October. Another year under the same system will only make him better.
Lastly, Ottawa brought back William Powell to ensure their ground attack. Last season he ranked second in rushing yards (1026) and yards-per-carry (5.9) among backs. When he’s healthy, the Redblacks offence is tough to stop, but that’s the question when it comes to 29-year-old. Can he stay healthy? He missed seven games due to various injuries and the entire 2016 campaign because of an Achilles injury.
The offence seems fine and dandy, however, the Redblacks get a lower grade due to their additions and losses on the defensive side of the ball. They lost their leading tackler (Taylor Reed) to Toronto and Canadian defensive tackle Zack Evans to Saskatchewan. They signed a couple players to fill the voids and assist in the secondary. Not one of the names is an impactful player as of now.
Montreal Alouettes: C+
The Alouettes were the worst team in the CFL last year only putting up three wins. Anytime teams experience a season like that, changes are on the horizon. The organization brought in former NFL coach Mike Sherman as Head Coach and cut ties with pivot Darian Durant. Even though there’s a huge question mark at the quarterback position, Montreal improved in other areas.
The defence ranked near the bottom in almost all major categories and they’ve brought in pieces to solve that. The Alouettes opened their wallets for Canadian defensive linemen Jamaal Westerman to help in the sacks category. The team ranked last in sacks and third worst in QB pressures. Even though Westerman is 33-years-old he did post seven sacks in just 11 games last season. He’s a perfect piece to line up opposite to John Bowman, who’s returning for at least one more season and ranked third in sacks with nine.
To help give the front seven a bit more time to wreak havoc, the Alouettes improved their secondary by snatching defensive backs Joe Barnett and Tommie Campbell from the Stampeders. Two of the pieces assisted in the best pass defence in the league and also played in the Grey Cup the previous two seasons. The pair will bring a new mentality to the locker room. Montreal also added defensive back Dominique Ellis from Hamilton.
Overall, the Alouettes contain talented players in plenty of positions. Just like last year, the CFL is more of a quarterback-driven league than the NFL. If the man under centre is struggling, it really doesn’t matter how talented a roster is. Maybe former NFL first-round pick Josh Freeman is the answer, but unless one of the other QBs on the roster takes charge and turns a few heads under the offensive-minded Sherman, the organization might be about to suffer a new bout of déjà vu from last year.