Steinberg’s MMQB: All-Decade departures

With the Super Bowl officially behind us, football fans in this country get to keep the momentum going by diving right into CFL signing season. We are T-minus one day to 2021 free agency and the last week has added a pair of All-Decade players to the pool: John Bowman and Almondo Sewell.

It was no surprise to see Sewell and Bowman named as first team members of the inaugural CFL All-Decade Team presented by LeoVegas a few months ago. That’s why it’s a bit of a jolt to see them leave the only teams they’ve ever played for. Bowman and the Montreal Alouettes parted ways after 14 seasons late last week, while Sewell said goodbye to Edmonton earlier in the week after nine years.

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I understand the business of football. Teams move on and decide to go in different directions. Coming off a year with no football and in uncertain times, CFL teams have faced even more difficult personnel decisions getting set for 2021. Still, it’s always a little sad to see longstanding, fruitful relationships like these come to an end.

While Anthony Calvillo, Scott Flory, and Ben Cahoon defined the 2000’s for Montreal, it really was Bowman who served as the driving force for much of the 2010’s. After joining the Als as a rookie for the 2006 season, Bowman was just hitting stride for back-to-back Grey Cup wins in 2009 and 2010. As the aforementioned trio of Montreal mainstays started to retire following that second Grey Cup, the torch was gradually passed to Bowman.

In 14 years with the Alouettes, Bowman put up insane numbers. He posted double-digit sack totals on seven separate occasions, including a league-leading 19 in 2015. Bowman won two Grey Cups, was named an East Division All-Star nine times, and capped it off by being named to the All-Decade team alongside Charleston Hughes at defensive end.

So now we wait to see what Bowman does next, although the expectation is the 38-year-old will opt to retire. While he has yet to officially declare one way or the other, Bowman told the Montreal Gazette the likelihood of him playing again “is zero.”

Selfishly, I’d like to see him back for another season. Bowman can still play, as he finished 2019 with eight sacks and a career-high 45 tackles. And, while already Montreal’s franchise leader with 134 career sacks, Bowman is knocking on the door for top five in league history. As it stands now, Bowman is one back of Joe Montford (135) for fifth all-time, and in striking distance of James Parker (fourth, 139.5) and Bobby Jurasin (third, 142.0).

All that said, Bowman’s career already speaks for itself and has him destined for the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. And, most importantly, with what Bowman has accomplished, he gets to go out however he chooses. Sure, I’d like to see him back, but there’s also something special about the prospect of him taking every single professional snap with one organization.

Seeing Bowman in a different uniform would be weird, but it feels unlikely that’s something we’ll have to prepare for. The same isn’t true in Sewell’s case, though, as all signs point to him testing free agency when it opens tomorrow. Whoever ends up landing Sewell will be getting a dominant interior force with something to prove.

Sewell was nothing but class as he announced his departure from Edmonton and he understands how the football business works. That doesn’t mean the 34-year old defensive tackle won’t have a little extra motivation driving him when the 2021 season kicks off. Who wouldn’t have a little chip on their shoulder in a similar situation?

At 34, Sewell has shown no signs of slowing down. His 2019 with Edmonton saw him rack up eight sacks, 35 tackles, and one forced fumble. It was another silly statistical season for an interior lineman, but it’s what we’ve come to expect from him. Since entering the league in 2011, no one has been as consistently dominant as Sewell.

His near-decade in green and gold was full of accolades: a Grey Cup in 2015, seven West Division All-Star nods and six CFL All-Star nominations. Going into 2021, it feels like Sewell has a few more of those seasons in him, which is why he’ll get plenty of interest when free agency opens Tuesday at noon eastern.

Linebackers galore

2021 free agency has already been full of excitement and it hasn’t even officially opened. With the quarterback shuffles we’ve seen the last few weeks, and the blockbuster trade Toronto pulled off with Calgary, we’re already humming going into Tuesday. Now my biggest focus is on this massive group of All-Star caliber linebackers up for grabs.

Led by Canadians Cameron Judge and Henoc Muamba, this free agent crop of linebackers is ridiculous. Also in the mix are Justin Tuggle, Solomon Elimimian, Chris Ackie, and Don Unamba…and that’s leaving out the guys I want to focus on!

Hamilton has a couple interesting decisions to make at the SAM spot. Both Rico Murray and 2020 addition Patrick Levels remain unsigned as of this writing. Having both Levels and Murray in the fold was one of the more interesting potential position battles going into a 2020 training camp that didn’t end up happening.

Patrick Levels signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a free agent in 2020 (MontrealAlouettes.com)

Murray has been established as one of the league’s best cover linebackers since entering the league in 2012. But with the addition of Levels, who is almost six full years younger, that battle was going to be a fascinating situation to watch. Levels is widely regarded as one of the most gifted athletes anywhere in the CFL and had a breakout 2019 season with Montreal.

Speaking of the Tiger-Cats, I was looking forward to Larry Dean’s return after one year in Edmonton. Dean, also unsigned as of this submission, has established himself as a consistently high-end MIKE linebacker, and was set to be a seamless fit in his return to Hamilton.

Dean has finished top five in defensive tackles in each of the last three seasons, and was just barely outside as a rookie in 2016. Even switching teams after three years with the Ticats, Dean made an immediate impact with Edmonton and was the team’s unanimous nominee as Most Outstanding Defensive Player. If Hamilton isn’t able to bring Dean back for 2021, he’ll have no shortage of suitors.

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