The free agency period in the Canadian Football League kicked off on February 14th, commencing the annual shuffle.
While 12:01 p.m. marks the official opening of the markets, much of the groundwork is done a week prior during the legal tampering window, General Managers make their pitch to other teams’ pending free agents. Its introduction has led to free agency day taking a slightly different shape, changing from negotiations to finalizing deals that have already been put into place.
“It’s a lot of logistical things,” said Shawn Burke, the General Manager of the Ottawa REDBLACKS. “Phillippe Moreau, [our Football Operations Assistant] does an excellent job with it, he had everything prepared to send out contracts to guys that we had talked to about deals. Until you get that signed contract back, there’s a little trepidation.”
Although the negotiations have been done, and getting pen to paper is oftentimes the only step left, the excitement of the big day hasn’t diminished for Burke, or the rest of the front office.
“We’re excited because we’re officially adding guys,” Burke said. “They can start getting their numbers, talking to the equipment managers, talking to the film people, and everything along those lines. We can make them more a part of our family.”
After another disappointing season where the club failed to reach its own expectations, Burke knew that things needed to change, and in partnership with his new coaching staff, he put together a plan of attack for the offseason.
“We wanted to get more of an identity on offence, and then we wanted to secure our quarterback room,” he said. “By extending Jeremiah Masoli for another year and getting a veteran like Nick Arbuckle under contract, we think we have a very good quarterback room.”
Defensively, the REDBLACKS owned one of the top units in 2023, and had the CFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in Lorenzo Mauldin. It required a different plan, one more focused on retention, rather than additions, but Burke didn’t shy away from a big splash.
“We wanted to maintain our defensive line, and we made it a priority to get those guys back,” Burke said. “We also added some piece in the backfield and a linebacker in Jovon Santos-Knox who can become the captain of our defence.”
Burke is thrilled with the way things went, but it required some variations on the initial plan.
“It never goes perfect,” Burke said. “Anyone who says it did is lying to you.”
Much has been made about former Hamilton Tiger-Cats following Burke to the Nation’s capital, including Santos-Knox, Masoli, Jaelon Acklin, and Jackson Bennett, but he believes the connection with Hamilton is “a little overstated.”
“We have brought in free agents from everywhere, both last year and this year,” Burke explained. “With the guys from Hamilton, they don’t need to spend time getting to know me and my vision, but we’re looking for good football players who can help our organization, I don’t care where they come from.”
For all players – both returning and free agent acquisitions – they can expect training camp to be competitive, and when it’s over, there won’t be any spots handed out for free.
“The reality is that we were a four-win football team last year, we need to have lots of competition,” Burke said. “There won’t be any given spots on this team, and guys have to understand that.”
Happy with the offseason as a whole to date, Burke isn’t settling for moral victories anymore. He needs to see it translate to on-field success.
“Right now, we’re 0-0, but we feel just like everyone else, we think we have improved,” he said. “But the proof is in the pudding.”