Chris Jones, Marcel Desjardins highlight busy opening day of CFL free agency

Jones, Desjardins make CFL free agency moves

Chris Jones and Marcel Desjardins highlighted an eventful opening day of CFL free agency.

Jones, the Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach/GM, landed one of the most coveted free agents in Derek Dennis. The six-foot-three 340-pound Dennis was the CFL’s top lineman last season after anchoring a Calgary Stampeders offensive line that allowed a league-low 20 sacks and paved the way for rushing leader Jerome Messam.

“Proud to announce I’ll be apart of @sskroughriders! Thank you to Coach Jones, Jeremy O’day, and John Murphy for welcoming me to Riderville!” Dennis tweeted.

But Toronto defensive lineman Shawn Lemon, who signed with Saskatchewan as a free agent last year but asked to be traded once the season began, didn’t exactly endorse Dennis’s decision.

“@6BONECRUSHER3 congrats on making the biggest mistake of your life Sincerely #Lemondrops,'” he tweeted.

Shoring up the offensive line is one of many off-season priorities for Jones, who posted a 5-13 record in his first season with the Riders. Saskatchewan’s offence ranked last in points (19.4 per game) and second-last in rushing (74.2) and sacks allowed (57).

Yet that didn’t deter Dennis.

“Just looking at the overall roster, at the O-linemen on the team and at the need, I think I can be a good complement to what the Riders are trying to build and help them be a competitive team in the West,” Dennis told the Riders’ website. “Out of all the offers I had on the table, for a team willing to compete for a Grey Cup this season and next, I think Saskatchewan was my best option.”

Saskatchewan also signed Canadian running back Kienan LaFrance, who spent the last two years with Ottawa. LaFrance ran for 157 yards, a TD and two-point convert in the Redblacks’ 35-23 win over Edmonton in the East Division final before adding 42 yards on 11 carries and six receptions for 31 yards in the club’s 39-33 overtime Grey Cup win over Calgary.

But Jones wasn’t nearly as busy as Desjardins.

The GM of the Grey Cup-champion Ottawa Redblacks re-signed offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan — the first player drafted in franchise history — before the start of free agency. Once the noon ET deadline passed, Desjardins went about changing the look of his team by adding linebackers Khalil Bass (Winnipeg) and Ron Omara (Hamilton), receivers Kenny Shaw and Diontae Spencer and defensive back A.J. Jefferson (all Toronto) and defensive back Adam Berger (Calgary).

Desjardins lost LaFrance and starting defensive back Abdul Kanneh (Hamilton) and released Canadian kicker Chris Milo and American linebacker Damaso Munoz.

Spencer and Shaw have the daunting task of replacing 1,000-yard performers Ernest Jackson and Chris Williams in Ottawa’s receiving corps. Jackson and Williams were among 16 Redblacks players to hit the open market Tuesday.

Shaw, 25, had 77 catches for 1,004 yards and five TDs last season while Spencer, 24, registered 71 receptions for 706 yards and three touchdowns. Spencer also returned punts and kickoffs with the Argos.

Jefferson joins an Ottawa secondary that’s minus Kanneh, cornerback Mitchell White (Philadelphia Eagles), backup safety Jeff Richards (Carolina Panthers) and defensive back Forrest Hightower (New Orleans).

Bass, 26, recorded 181 tackles, nine sacks, three interceptions and five forced fumbles over two seasons with the Bombers.

It was an active opening day as all nine teams either re-signed pending free agents or added new faces after the deadline. Rookie Montreal GM Kavis Reed was busy, re-signing linebacker Nicolas Boulay and receiver Kyle Graves, both pending Canadian free agents, to extensions before reportedly adding veteran Ryan Phillips, a free-agent defensive back who was released last week after 12 seasons with the B.C. Lions.

Montreal didn’t immediately confirm the move but Phillips all but did in a tweet to Darian Durant, the Alouettes’ new starting quarterback.

“@dariandurant let’s have fun my brother. #21 #4 #MTL,” Phillips tweeted.

Reed also re-signed former Laval kicker Boris Bede and was reportedly in talks with Canadian defensive lineman Jabar Westerman (B.C.) and American quarterback Jacory Harris (Hamilton).

Other moves included:

— Toronto signed quarterback Jeff Mathews to a two-year contract. The six-foot-four 225-pound Mathews spent the last three seasons with Hamilton playing for head coach Kent Austin, his former coach at Cornell. The Argos also came to terms with veteran linebacker Winston Venable, who played four seasons with Montreal.

— Winnipeg signed offensive lineman Sukh Chungh to an extension through the 2018 season then added defensive lineman Drake Nevis and Canadian receiver Matt Coates, who both spent last year with Hamilton.

— B.C. signed defensive back Buddy Jackson to a one-year contract. He played in six games last year with Saskatchewan and also spent parts of three seasons with Calgary. The Lions also signed Canadian receiver Marco Iannuzzi, defensive back Ronnie Yell and defensive lineman Mic’hael Brooks to extensions.

— Running back/returner Kendial Lawrence returned to Edmonton as a free agent. Lawrence spent 2014-15 with the Eskimos before splitting last season between Saskatchewan and Hamilton. The club also signed defensive back Andrew Lue and fullback Alexandre Dupuis, both Canadian free agents.

— Calgary signed receiver Marquay McDaniel and defensive lineman Micah Johnson to extensions. McDaniel was the Stampeders’ leading receiver last season with 83 catches for 1,074 yards and four TDs in 16 games. Johnson started 17 games last year and registered career highs in tackles (36) and sacks (seven).

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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