The CFL season may be over but the action never really quiets.
Coaching staffs are already beginning to change while free agency approaches faster than ever. After the free agent flurry, the combine and draft kick into gear and before you know it training camps will be kicking off.
The Edmonton Eskimos and Ottawa REDBLACKS emerged as true CFL powerhouses as the balance of power in the league shifted in 2015, but we’ve seen many examples of how quickly things can change.
The off-season is when those changes happen, and these next few months promise to define what will happen next season and beyond as teams look to either stay at the top or bump the Esks and REDBLACKS out of those spots.
With the official free agent list out there and coaching rumours swirling for every team, we ask one critical question for every team in the league entering these next few tumultuous months.
How will the BC Lions approach their cap flexibility?
With the coaching situation settled in BC and Wally Buono in as head coach, the biggest question for the Lions might be how they approach what could be a lot of cap flexibility.
This is the time of year when big contracts come off the books, and the Lions have a few particularly big ones set to become free agents. Travis Lulay, Andrew Harris and Emmanuel Arceneaux are all set to become free agents and while they are big names, they also had big contracts.
The Lions have an opportunity to get better value for the money they’re spending and refocus their attention on building a younger core surrounding the electrifying 23-year-old Jonathon Jennings under centre, who proved quickly in 2015 that he is the quarterback of the future in BC.
Wally Buono has a full range of options available to this season and will be able to mold the Lions’ future however he chooses. Which direction will he take his team in?
Who will Ed Hervey hire as the Edmonton Eskimos’ new head coach?
The Eskimos do have some talented and young free agents coming off the books that could land elsewhere or pursue opportunities to the south. But the biggest question now surrounds the vacant head coaching position immediately following the departure of Chris Jones.
Jones signed with the Riders late Sunday night and is undoubtedly a major loss for the Eskimos, as his aggressive coaching style and focus on U.S. scouting helped the Eskimos fast-track their emergence as a CFL powerhouse.
Ed Hervey’s ascension as one of the CFL’s brightest young executives will help off-set the loss of Jones however, while there are many highly-touted coaching candidates out there and a vacant Eskimos job would be an appealing one, especially with the talent to be inherited.
Available names out there include Orlondo Steinauer and Jason Maas, both assistant coaches who have had great success over the past few years, while the Eskimos could also either go with a more experienced head coach like Mike Benevides or Paul LaPolice or also turn to the U.S. for a lesser known name.
Who the Eskimos sign is now one of the biggest questions of the off-season, as the Green and Gold will be a Grey Cup calibre team but need a head coach to lead the charge next season.
Is it time for the Calgary Stampeders to re-tool?
The league’s most successful franchise of the last decade is getting a face lift, from the head coach and defensive coordinator to a roster that stands to lose Eric Rogers and Jeff Fuller to free agency among other talented pieces.
Calgary is used to adjusting on the fly because successful franchises become a go-to source for other teams looking to improve. Meanwhile, John Hufnagel is still the general manager in Calgary which means the Stampeders’ approach to roster decisions won’t change.
With that said, the Stampeders’ core outside of Bo Levi Mitchell isn’t getting any younger. A number of Calgary’s aging veteran players dealt with injuries throughout 2015 and while the Stamps’ depth held up, too many losses this off-season could spell trouble.
This roster could be in for some re-tooling despite coming off a successful 14-4 season.
How will Chris Jones approach the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ rebuild?
The Riders have already made the biggest off-season splash with the reported signing of Chris Jones as head coach and general manager, but the bulk of the work still remains. Saskatchewan has many of the league’s highest-profile free agents while Jones will also have to round out the Riders’ coaching staff.
Tough decisions are ahead for Jones in terms of shaping his roster, but with that comes an opportunity to shape the team in his exact mold. Jones could opt to bring back a number of the Riders’ veterans or focus his attention, as he often does, to younger international players with an emphasis on U.S. scouting. Then there are also free agents from Edmonton who could follow Jones over.
How Jones plans the Rider rebuild will be interesting to watch as he could look to fast-track things, especially with Darian Durant expected to be ready to return, or he could build a young team much like he did in Edmonton.
Who will be the Winnipeg Blue Bombers new offensive coordinator?
After announcing that Mike O’Shea would return as head coach and Kyle Walter as general manager, the Bombers announced the dismissal of Offensive Coordinator Marcel Bellefeuille, meaning big changes to Winnipeg’s offence are on the horizon.
Outside of Drew Willy and the foundation for what could be a strong offensive line, there hasn’t been any indication as to what this Winnipeg offence could be next season. The Bombers must surround their franchise quarterback with more talent and also look to keep him healthy, as Willy is the key to the team’s success in the coming years.
The difference that Jason Maas was able to make in his first season as Ottawa’s offensive coordinator was night and day, as Maas helped a struggling offence become the CFL’s number one unit in 2015 while producing the Most Outstanding Player in Henry Burris.
That’s the type of spark the Blue and Gold need this season, but who’s the offensive guru that can come in and make an impact?
Will Zach Collaros get healthy in time for the start of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats season?
The Ticats do have some big-name free agents, but overall their core remains intact. With a stellar defence and offensive line set to return to health and a number of proven young receivers, the only real question in the Hammer surrounds the quarterback position — strange considering Collaros’ dominance in 2015 before getting hurt.
Collaros was the leading candidate to win Most Outstanding Player before suffering a torn ACL and going on the shelf for the rest of 2015, and he is quiet obviously the straw that stirs the Ticats’ drink. If he can’t return healthy in time for the start of the regular season, then the Ticats will face a real test.
Hamilton struggled to win games in Collaros’ absence last season and while Jeremiah Masoli showed significant improvement as he played in more games, he may not have done enough to return as the number two man to Collaros.
Will Collaros be ready for the Ticats, and if not what will be their insurance policy?
Is Trevor Harris still the Toronto Argonauts‘ the future pivot?
The Argos may be facing the most questions out of any team entering this CFL off-season, so narrowing them down to one is difficult – but at the same time it’s the most obvious one that’s on everyone’s mind.
Ricky Ray is a future Hall of Famer and appears to be the preferred choice of Scott Milanovich and Jim Barker after replacing Trevor Harris late last season in the midst of a career year for Harris. Yet Harris showed so much in his first full season as a starting QB, leading the league in touchdowns for a good part of the year and showing off his accuracy and strong arm throughout the season.
Do the Argos think Harris is the future at quarterback? If so, they may need to act fast and get him back in Toronto on a long-term contract to avoid letting the free agent-to-be walk in another direction.
Ray is already back with the Argos on an incentive-based contract that will pay him based on how much he plays, and the most likely option is that Harris will be brought back on a similar deal as the two compete for the starting job.
Whatever happens, this off-season will provide a solid indication of how the Argos feel about Harris. If he doesn’t get a long-term contract, it appears as though they don’t believe he’s the future of a Toronto Argonauts club that could have a totally different look beyond 2016.
The Ottawa REDBLACKS’ quarterback waiting in the wings is … ?
The REDBLACKS enter the off-season with few questions after owning a top offence and defence in 2015 and getting most of their players back under contract next season. One question on the table comes at the quarterback position however, despite Henry Burris coming off an MOP season.
Burris has played some of the best football of his career but will be 41 years old next season, meaning the REDBLACKS have to start thinking about the future. Maybe they already have been and they think Danny O’Brien or Thomas DeMarco could be the answer – or maybe they’ll look to track down a player who’s had proven success like Trevor Harris, who developed under the watch of Jason Maas.
Right now this is a team that has strength at the quarterback position, but things can change in a hurry. Many teams have franchise quarterbacks locked in for potentially the next decade, but the REDBLACKS are a team that does not right now.
Can the Montreal Alouettes lock up their free agents?
The Als should have one of the quieter off-seasons as their coaching staff is fully settled and so is the quarterback position after the team announced that Kevin Glenn will be the starter next season.
For a team that’s switched quarterbacks and coaches seemingly every year since Marc Trestman left the team and Hall of Fame quarterback Anthony Calvillo retired, continuity is the key for the Montreal Alouettes entering 2016.
There are some key free agents on their list of players to sign, including John Bowman, Jerald Brown, Mitchell White and Winston Venable on defence along with Josh Bourke, Samuel Giguere, Dan LeFevour, Fred Stamps and Nik Lewis on offence – and if the Als can attain most of that talent at an affordable rate, they could easily be a contender next season.
The Alouettes are an aging group but with Glenn now in the fold, a high-ranked defence and a very talented offence could make Montreal a dark horse to contend throughout 2016. With their current roster, the Als don’t appear to have any gaping holes or weaknesses on the roster.