Free Agent Frenzy. It can sometimes be a classic case of ‘Buyer Beware’. Grey Cups are never won in February. In fact, you can even make the case some teams’ quests to win it all are actually derailed by activity on the opening of said shopping spree. But in the case of Rick Campbell and Neil McEvoy, they hope their 2021 journey will be best-remembered for some moves that were made weeks before the opening of Tuesday’s frenzy.
Campbell joined 1st and Now to talk about building the roster for this season. The squad got a pretty good head start on the frenzy by addressing the secondary. Both Marcus Sayles and Anthony Cioffi will be impact players in Campbell’s defence.
“Those are really free agents, two real good guys to get early in the process,” said the co-GM/ head coach.
“It’s a big thing in the CFL to not play with a bunch of rookies (in the secondary). And if you’re going to play with some rookies it’s good to mix them in with some older guys. It takes a little bit for the rookies to learn the CFL style of game. I’m really glad we were able to retain as much as we could as a veteran group and add guys like Sayles and even another CFL veteran guy like Anthony Cioffi. I’m excited about working with that group in the back end.”
— BC LIONS (@BCLions) January 10, 2021
Speaking more on those two additions, Campbell lauded their ability to play multiple positions and contribute on special teams. In the case of Sayles, he can also block kicks, something he did more than any other player in West Georgia history and even a couple of times with the Blue Bombers against the Lions in 2019.
The squad also brought back Kenny Ladler who can fill a need at the nickel position. Veterans TJ Lee and Garry Peters are both back after agreeing to re-structured deals for 2019.
Burnham Return Adds More Excitement To Frenzy
Another big priority involved three-time CFL All-Star Bryan Burnham. Number 16 finally put pen to paper on an extension last week, easing the nerves and tension of Lions fans province-wide.
Behind closed doors, the brass had started preparing for possible replacements to target. But in the end, they understood just how important it was to have one of the game’s top receivers back on their side.
“It’s been an interesting process, just a bit different than it is normally with things changing and stuff,” said Campbell.
“Getting guys back like Bryan is a big deal. I know the fans love him. Obviously, he’s a very good football player but does a lot for the Lions, on and off the field. That was a big piece of the puzzle and that was really our goal over these last couple of months was to get a lot of our guys re-signed that were going to be free agents or some guys had to re-structure contracts, things like that. The more of those boxes we checked, obviously the better.”
Should he have hit the market this week, Burnham was easily the top target available. The receiver himself admitted it took some time to ponder an offer from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at the start of last week’s negotiating window.
With number 16 locked in and the likes of Lemar Durant, Shaq Johnson and Dominique Rhymes also re-signing in the last couple of months, the offence with Mike Reilly at the helm should be a force to be reckoned with. However, none of that is possible without the offensive line intact.
Offensive Line Buy In Provides Good Story
Some of those contract re-structures Campbell referred to involve four of the big men up front: veterans Hunter Steward, Sukh Chungh, Peter Godber and 2019 free agent addition Ryker Mathews were all signed for 2021. Each agreed to take a pay cut in order for some of these other big names to be retained.
Left tackle Joel Figueroa responded by signing a new deal of his own for this season as he was eligible to hit the market. Campbell says having that buy-in from such an important position group is impressive.
“I totally give the players credit because everybody is taking some type of pay cut. There are multiple things at play, one with having to manage our money. And two, with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that went in, the minimum pay for players went up. If you’re a higher-end guy, not only are you dealing with less money, you’re dealing with the lower end guys getting paid more. It really puts some financial strain on things.
Our big thing overall is we wanted to be as fair as possible across our roster. Kind of spreading the pain around, so to speak and trying to be fair, not asking one guy to take a big hit and not another guy. I feel totally fortunate that our guys were working within the system. We tried to explain to them what we were doing to maintain a good football team. We certainly are lucky that those guys were able to adjust.”
The group may have struggled for parts of 2019, but the return of Kelly Bates as offensive line coach gives them more of that continuity as they aim to help Reilly continue as one of the CFL’s top signal-callers.
So now we bring on the frenzy. Although Campbell and McEvoy have checked a lot of those boxes, you never know what kind of items might be in reach of their shopping cart come Tuesday morning.