The Toronto Argonauts proved to be the big winner on a busy opening day of CFL free agency Monday.
The Argos landed the top offensive lineman available in the free-agent pool when they agreed to terms with tackle Rob Murphy, the former B.C. Lion and two-time winner of the league's top lineman award. Toronto further bolstered its front line by adding centre Dominic Picard, formerly of Winnipeg, and secured its defensive leader by agreeing to terms with linebacker Willie Pile, who posted a team-high 75 tackles last year.
And Toronto wasn't stopping there. The Argos were also in the running for free-agent running back Jesse Lumsden. Sources say other teams vying for Lumsden are Winnipeg and Edmonton with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats also interested in re-signing him.
Overall, there were two trades and 16 players either signing new deals or agreeing to them Monday. And there certainly was a premium on offensive lineman as seven switched teams.
The flurry of opening-day deals did dramatically thin out the free-agent talent pool with Lumsden regarded as the top remaining player. However, he's expected to sign a new contract very soon.
One of the CFL's top linebackers found a new home Monday night. A CFL source requesting anonymity said Maurice Lloyd, who had 74 tackles with Saskatchewan last season, has agreed to terms with Edmonton. That reunites him with Eskimos head coach Richie Hall, who was the Roughriders defensive co-ordinator last season.
Calgary punter Burke Dales is also reportedly close to signing with Winnipeg. Other notable remaining free agents include receiver D.J Flick and offensive lineman Mike Abou-Mechrek (both with Saskatchewan last year) as well as rush end Tom Canada and offensive lineman Matt Sheridan, who both were recently released by the Blue Bombers.
Shoring up an offensive line that surrendered 48 sacks (second-most in the CFL) last season was an off-season priority for Toronto. The Argos posted a 4-14 record in 2008 to miss the CFL playoffs, thanks in part to an offence that ranked seventh in scoring (21 points per game) and last in total yards (347.3 yards per game).
The six-foot-five, 310-pound Murphy will certainly improve Toronto's offensive wall. The former Ohio State Buckeye is not only big and athletic, but also plays with a nasty disposition that should make the Argos much tougher.
Hamilton missed out on Murphy but did sign tackle Alexandre Gauthier. The six-foot-six, 326-pound native of Maria, Que., spent the last two seasons with Winnipeg and last year helped anchor a Bombers offensive line that gave up just 29 sacks, second-fewest in the CFL.
Hamilton, by comparison, gave up a league-high 67 sacks last season en route to posting a CFL-worst 3-15 record.
"We're very excited to add an outstanding Canadian player like Alexandre to our offensive line," Ticats general manager Bob O'Billovich said. "He's played left tackle at a high level for a number of years, and being a Canadian, he allows us more flexibility in regards to the ratio.
"Signing a player of Alexandre's ability immediately upgrades our offence."
Winnipeg was also busy Monday, making two trades and coming to terms with former Saskatchewan offensive linemen Glenn January and Steve Morley. But the Bombers also lost three starters from their offensive wall who became free agents - Picard, guard Kyle Koch (to Edmonton) and tackle Alexandre Gauthier (signed with Hamilton) while running back Graeme Bell (team-high 23 special-teams tackles) has agreed to terms with Edmonton.
The Bombers did secure defensive back James Johnson, the '07 Grey Cup MVP, from Saskatchewan for a 2011 Canadian college draft pick and also obtained linebacker Siddeeq Shabazz from Edmonton for defensive end Kai Ellis. The acquisition of Johnson is ironic, given he had a Grey Cup-record three interceptions - including one he returned 30 yards for a TD - in Saskatchewan's 23-19 win over Winnipeg at Rogers Centre.
It also was a tough opening day for Saskatchewan, which lost a total of six players in free-agents Morley, Lloyd, January, safety Scott Gordon (to Edmonton) and linebacker Anton McKenzie (to B.C.) as well as the trading of Johnson.
Saskatchewan did manage to free-agent offensive lineman Joe McGrath (a native of Moose Jaw, Sask., who was with Edmonton last season) and also re-signed free-agent punter/kicker Jamie Boreham and linebacker Mike McCullough. McCullough's contract details weren't immediately available but both McGrath and Boreham signed two-year deals, plus an option.
Edmonton fared well Monday, bolstering its defence by trading for Ellis and securing free agents Gordon and Lloyd while finding a replacement for McGrath with Koch. Adding Bell also improves the Eskimos' special teams.
The Montreal Alouettes also re-signed defensive back Richard Estelle and receiver Brian Bratton to two-year deals, plus an option. Both players were slated to become free agents at 12:01 a.m. ET on Monday but agreed to their new deals before then.