CFL GMs face busy off-season with over 200 players hitting free agency

CFL general managers face busy off-season

TORONTO — When CFL general managers return to their offices following the holidays, they’ll have much work to do.

According to the CFL, over 200 players are slated to become free agents at noon ET on Feb. 14. Grey Cup-champion Ottawa leads the way with 30, including 1,000-yard receivers Greg Ellingson, Chris Williams and Ernest Jackson, whose 18-yard TD catch in overtime secured the Redblacks their 39-33 upset Grey Cup championship win over Calgary at BMO Field.

CFL teams still have time to re-sign players before free agency begins. But GMs will face some tough decisions as the league salary cap increases just $50,000 to $5.15 million in 2017.

Toronto has 24 pending free agents, including offensive linemen Tyler Holmes and Chris Van Zeyl, kicker Lirim Hajrullahu and linebacker Cory Greenwood — all Canadians — as well as American Brandon Whitaker, a 1,000-yard rusher last season.

But GM Jim Barker has created some free-agent flexibility for Toronto. According to a CFL source, he and quarterback Drew Willy have agreed to restructured contract that includes extending it to 2018.

Toronto obtained Willy from Winnipeg last September for defensive back T.J. Heath, a 2017 first-round pick and ’18 third-round selection. Prior to the restructure, Willy was reportedly due a $100,000 bonus this month and slated to earn $400,000 this season.

The six-foot-four, 220-pound Willy completed 137-of-191 passes (71.7 per cent) for 1,473 yards with five TDs and four interceptions last season. He appeared in four games with Toronto (5-13), which finished fourth in the East Division and missed the playoffs.

With Willy’s deal done, Barker can concentrate on trying to re-sign Holmes, Van Zeyl, Hajrullahu, Greenwood and Whitaker as well as Canadian slotback/running back Anthony Coombs and Americans A.J. Jefferson (defensive back) Diontae Spencer and Kenny Shaw (both receivers).

Montreal, which promoted assistant coach Kavis Reed to GM last month, has 25 pending free agents, including leading receiver Nik Lewis (102 catches, 1,136 yards, three TDs). Also scheduled to test the open market are linebackers Winston Venable (88 tackles, seven sacks) and Kyries Hebert (78 tackles, two sacks), defensive backs Jovon Johnson and Billy Parker and defensive linemen Alan-Michael Cash and Gabriel Knapton.

Hamilton must not only hire a new defensive co-ordinator to replace the departed Orlondo Steinauer (Fresno State) but also has 27 potential free agents. Canadian slotback Andy Fantuz (club-record 101 catches, 1,059 yards, five TDs) — who’s coming off a season-ending knee injury — tops the list along with defensive back Emanuel Davis, kicker Brett Maher and receivers Terrence Toliver and Chad Owens (all Americans).

Calgary GM/president John Hufnagel has been busy, signing seven players to extensions, including defensive linemen Charleston Hughes and Cordarro Law, punter Rob Maver and kicker Rene Paredes. At 19, Calgary has the fewest potential free agents but tackle Derek Dennis, the CFL’s top lineman in 2016, remains unsigned.

Winnipeg is tied with Saskatchewan and B.C. with the second-fewest potential free agents (20). But GM Kyle Walters’ list includes starter Matt Nichols, who was instrumental in the Bombers (11-7) ending their five-year playoff drought.

Other pending free agents include kicker Justin Medlock — the CFL’s 2016 top special-teams player — linebacker Khalil Bass, offensive lineman Stanley Bryant and receiver Clarence Denmark, who are all Americans.

Quarterback Darian Durant is Saskatchewan’s most significant potential free agent. The 34-year-old has spent his entire 10-year CFL career in Regina, leading the Riders to a Grey Cup title on home soil in 2013.

American receiver Derel Walker is the biggest name among Edmonton’s 21 free agents. Walker, 25, was the CFL’s second-leading receiver last season (109 catches, 1,589 yards, 10 TDs) and teamed with league-leader Adarius Bowman to give the Eskimos a dynamic receiving duo.

But the six-foot-two, 185-pound Walker — the CFL’s top rookie in 2015 — is expected to sign an NFL deal. Other name free agents include Canadian kicker Grant Shaw as well as linebacker Deon Lacey, running back Shakir Bell and defensive lineman Marcus Howard, all Americans.

Wally Buono, B.C.’s head coach/GM, has extended four players, including all-star linebacker Solomon Elimimian. But Canadian defensive lineman Jabar Westerman remains eligible for free agency along American starters Alex Bazzie and Mic’hael Brooks (both defensive linemen) and Ronnie Yell and Anthony Gaitor (both defensive backs).

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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