The Most Impactful CFL Free Agent Pick-ups


While CFL Draft season has lately consumed much of our attention, today we take a look back at Free Agency.

Free Agency has become the marquee offseason event in the CFL, with notable players changing locales every season. The 2019 edition was one of the wildest ever, as high-profile quarterbacks such as BC’s Mike Reilly, along with stars at other positions, changed area-codes.

Any team wishing to succeed in 2020’s CFL needs use Free Agency as a significant part of their team-building strategy, as the volume of player movement in the league demands that roster holes be immediately fixed with veteran options year after year.

With this in mind, in this article I point out some of my favourite offseason signings around the CFL. There are other moves I like to lesser degrees, but these are just the ones that I feel will have a sizeable impact.

DB Josh Johnson

2019 Team: Edmonton Eskimos

2020 Team: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Courtesy of Montreal Sports on YouTube

Winnipeg faced significant NFL losses this offseason coming off their Grey Cup victory, but to make matters worse, they lost multiple members of their defensive backfield in Winston Rose and Marcus Sayles. To fill those big shoes steps Johnson, a player that was arguably the top member of the Eskimos’ secondary that conceded the fewest pass-yards in 2019. A capable player at multiple coverage spots, Johnson flashed his play-making skills in 2019, snatching 2 interceptions to go along with a sack. He will instantly provide Winnipeg with an upper-level CFL starter at corner or half-back.

DL J.R Tavai

2019 Team: Ottawa Redblacks

2020 Team: BC Lions

Photo Credit: 3DownNation.com Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.ca

Despite a last-place finish in a tough Western Division in 2019, the BC Lions actually didn’t fare too bad on defense, finishing 3rd in total yards allowed. They didn’t however, make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket, producing a mere 28 sacks on the year. This is where Tavai comes in. The defensive-end was bright-spot on an otherwise toothless Ottawa defense last season, wreaking havoc even when he didn’t show up on the stat-sheet. A high-motor player, Tavai is capable of getting to the quarterback while also being quick enough laterally to contest outside-runs. He is the type of player that the Lions’ defensive-front was missing.

WR Dominique Rhymes

2019 Team: Ottawa Redblacks

2020 Team: BC Lions

Courtesy of the Rod Pedersen Show on YouTube

Can you name the quarterbacks that Rhymes caught the football from last season in Ottawa? Well, I can, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an absolute circus under-center in the nation’s capital in 2019. Rhymes fought through it all, breaking out with 1056 receiving yards on 65 receptions, adding 5 touchdowns. The Lions didn’t necessarily need to add a receiver, but I tend to like when team’s double-down on an already-existing strength. With Rhymes joining a talented receiver room that includes both American (Bryan Burnham) and Canadian (Lemar Durant, Shaq Johnson) talent, BC has a chance at a special, balanced-offense if they can fix their woes along the offensive line.

OL Sean McEwen

2019 Team: Toronto Argonauts

2020 Team: Calgary Stampeders

OL Sean McEwen (#61) with his Argonauts’ teammates
Photo Credit: IndependentSportingNews.com

In 2019’s Free Agency, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats dove into the trenches to sign long-time Toronto Argonauts’ Offensive Tackle Chris Van Zeyl, and all the star lineman did was dominate at Right-Tackle for arguably the league’s best offense, especially in pass-protection. I sense Calgary’s signing of McEwen, another former Argo, will have a similar effect. Bringing in McEwen gives the Stamps a core of Canadian offensive lineman that rivals any in the league, adding to a group that already includes guards Shane Bergman and Ryan Sceviour. Toronto featured a heavy-pass focus last season with McEwen at Center, a style that Calgary has often played in recent years. Expect the 26-year-old to have many productive years protecting quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.

DL Craig Roh

2019 Team: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

2020 Team: Toronto Argonauts

Photo Credit: Via @CraigRoh on Twitter

We knew changes were coming for the Argos after the team’s defense got absolutely-slashed to the tune of 118 yards per game on the ground in 2019. While Roh was surrounded by plenty of talented defenders in Winnipeg, he more than did his part, chipping in 6 sacks and making an impact with 3 forced fumbles, in only 12 games. He comes to Toronto with his former Blue Bomber teammate, DL Drake Nevis, to provide experience and consistency up-front. Winnipeg’s run-defense led the entire CFL last season, allowing only a hair over 64 yards on average, and it is a worthwhile swing for Toronto to see if Roh and Nevis were major factors in that.

LB Don Unamba

2019 Team: Edmonton Eskimos

2020 Team: Ottawa Redblacks

Courtesy of Don Unamba on YouTube

The Redblacks struggled basically everywhere on defense in 2019, and heading into this offseason needed a complete re-tool. What do you do to help solve multiple problems? Find versatile players like Unamba. A part of the Edmonton’s top-ranked pass-defense in 2019, Unamba found a role as a strong-side linebacker that can exceed in both space and take on blockers. He filled up the stat-sheet last season, producing 43 tackles, 6 sacks and an interception. Unamba pairs nicely alongside 2020 standout Avery Williams.

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