SURREY — Heading into the opening day of CFL Free Agency, the BC Lions’ co-general manager duo of Rick Campbell and Neil McEvoy were looking to add some dynamic talent to go alongside the likes of Mike Reilly, Bryan Burnham and Lemar Durant on offence.
You can never have too much speed in football, and the BC offence could hit another gear once the 2021 season gets underway.
“We’re just trying to get as many playmakers,” Campbell said to reporters on Tuesday. “We like the guys we have and the guys we’re used to seeing around here like Burnham and Shaq (Johnson) and Lemar and Mike. So just adding these guys into the mix only makes us better.”
The Lions focused on the offensive side of the football on Tuesday. Veteran back John White jumped ship to Toronto to open the window, leaving BC with a hole in the backfield, which they quickly filled with promising rusher Shaq Cooper.
At first glance, Cooper might not seem like a marquee signing, but in the seven games he’s played in his CFL career, the Fort Hays State product has been dominant. he stepped into the Edmonton Football Team’s lineup against Toronto in 2019 and ran for 128 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.
He followed that up with three games of 65-plus yards, finishing the year with 361 yards and two majors in five games. He was set to take over the Edmonton backfield in 2020, but the cancelled season put a halt to those plans. Now, with one of the best passing attacks in the CFL, BC also has one of the most exciting young backs in the league.
“I’m excited about Shaq because he’s a motivated guy with a lot of speed,” Campbell said. “I know looking at it from a defensive point of view, not only getting him the ball in the open field but even on check-downs and things like that, he’s a guy that makes things happen in space.”
In addition to Cooper, of the more under-the-radar signings of the day was Lucky Whitehead, who was coming off a solid first campaign with Winnipeg in 2019. The 28-year-old started off his stint with the Bombers strong, popping off for 155 yards and a pair of touchdowns on seven catches in Week 3 against the Argonauts.
He was a part of a deep receiving core in Winnipeg, however, and with the emergence of pass-catchers like Kenny Lawler and Rasheed Bailey, it was hard to get constant touches in the passing game. Add onto that the emergence of Janarion Grant in the return game and Whitehead’s role wasn’t as prominent down the stretch as it was to start the year. Despite that, he still finished with 52 catches for 521 yards and two majors for the year while helping Winnipeg to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
With this signing, the Florida Atlantic product gives himself a chance to get a new start and an increased role with one of the most exciting offences in the league.
Whitehead will likely split time in the return game with veteran Chris Rainey, who was re-signed by the Leos on Tuesday. This will be the 32-year-old’s second go-around in the lower mainland following a one-year layover in Toronto.
“When we started this process, we wanted to get as many offensive weapons, and Mr. Rainey is certainly that,” McEvoy said. “He’s a dynamic returner, both as a punt returner and a kick returner, and once we started building on last year, we just felt like having a guy like him would help us out.”
But with all the additions on the offensive side of the ball, the logical next step for the Lions would be to make some additions to the defensive unit. Micah Johnson was a marquee signing for them last off-season, but the veteran pass-rusher decided to return to Saskatchewan on a one-year deal.
Despite that, the team made some key additions ahead of free agency that they’re looking forward to seeing between the lines.
“I’m feeling good about that too,” Campbell said about his defence. “The difference for us in free agency is we had the two offensive guys today, but we actually signed three more free agents prior to this in Bo Lokombo, Marcus Sayles, and Anthony Cioffi. So those are three guys from other teams that just happened to fall before today. So we had three guys on defence and I think those three guys along with the two guys today, I think all five have shown that they can be starters in the league and they’re going to get opportunities to help us.”
Lokombo is another individual that will be returning for a second stint with the Lions. The 30-year-old is one of the hardest hitters in the league and also offers flexibility for Campbell on the defensive side, as he was converted from linebacker to safety in Montreal last season.
Sayles returns from a stint with the Minnesota Vikings and will be one of the marquee signings of the Lions’ off-season. In his two seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, he’s helped locked down the secondary, making 136 tackles to go along with two sacks, six interceptions, and five forced fumbles.
Cioffi has also been a consistent contributor during his two seasons with the Ottawa REDBLACKS, posting 97 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles.
With those three signings, the Lions have been able to transform their secondary with some difference makers. If they choose to bring Lokombo back to the second level as a WILL linebacker, they can pair him with 2020 first-overall pick Jordan Williams.
The Lions are far from done this off-season. With training camp just a few months away, there will be tweaks made to the current roster ahead of the start of the season. But based on the first day of free agency, BC could be adding some solid pieces to make a run back to the playoffs in 2021.
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