Steinberg’s MMQB: The most interesting departures of 2022

Almost two weeks into 2022 free agency, we’ve seen as much player movement as I can remember. Teams like Ottawa and BC have bulked up in a big way, while other teams have had to sustain significant losses in a salary cap world.

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Last week’s column focused on an intriguing addition for each team in free agency, so this week we’re going in the other direction. We’re pinpointing four teams that have said goodbye to key personnel and I’m interested to see how those groups go about absorbing those losses this season, both on the field and in the locker room.

Michael Reilly, quarterback, BC Lions

One of the great quarterbacks of the last decade decided to retire in late January. And, while his two-season return to the Lions didn’t go exactly as planned, Reilly’s departure will certainly leave a void. Despite BC’s struggles in 2021, Reilly did lead the CFL with 3,283 passing yards and finished tied for second with 14 touchdown passes.

On the field, the Lions have enacted their succession plan. 2020 second round pick Nathan Rourke, who got his feet wet as a rookie last season, is going to be given even opportunity to succeed and take BC back to the playoffs. Fellow Canadian Michael O’Connor and former Rider Isaac Harper have also joined the Lions in free agency as options if Rourke isn’t quite ready for full-time starting duty.

Reilly’s loss will arguably be felt more off the field, however. There’s a reason Reilly is talked about as one of the league’s great leaders. He rose the ranks the hard way, he lays his body on the line every single play, and he’s a winner. Those aren’t easy things to replace, but Reilly’s retirement also paves the way for a new beginning in BC. I can’t wait to see how Rourke takes charge.

Andrew Harris, running back, Winnipeg Blue Bombers

After five seasons and two Grey Cup titles with his hometown team, Harris and the Bombers parted way this winter. Now a member of the Toronto Argonauts, there’s no question Harris leaves a big-time hole in Winnipeg.

Of course, the Bombers have been preparing for this day for some time. Their re-signings of Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine paved the way for Harris’s departure and handed the baton to a pair of younger and promising backs. Oliveira went for over 100 yards twice in 2021, while Augustine popped off for 148 in Week 16 against Calgary.

Much like Reilly, though, I’m curious about what Harris’s departure means for Winnipeg’s locker room. He was an engine for this team and an emotional leader for the vast majority of his five seasons with the Bombers. Fortunately, starting with head coach Mike O’Shea and trickling down all over the field, Winnipeg is blessed with great leadership and should be able to absorb the loss of Harris without much difficulty.

Ucambre Williams, offensive line, Calgary Stampeders

Replacing a starting left tackle is never an easy thing to do in this league. Williams was one of the steadying forces of Calgary’s up and down season and helped anchor an offensive line that allowed just 20 sacks in 2021, the second-best total in the league. And, because of his entry into free agency, Ottawa landed Williams as a huge addition alongside new quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.

Now, the Stampeders have a solid contingency plan. After not playing in 2021 for personal reasons, and after being granted his release from Edmonton in December, Calgary signed Derek Dennis in early January. The three-time West Division All-Star and 2016 Most Outstanding Lineman is the likely candidate to replace Williams at left tackle. And, let’s also not forget Calgary has a proven track record for seamlessly plugging in talent in place of departed players,

Ed Gainey/Loucheiz Purifoy/Elie Bouka, defensive backs, Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Riders have said goodbye to three parts of their 2021 defensive backfield, with Gainey’s departure to Edmonton the most notable. A mainstay in Saskatchewan’s secondary the last five seasons, Gainey racked up three interceptions and 37 tackles from his boundary halfback spot in 2021 and was one of the team’s “glue guys” defensively.

Purifoy (BC) settled into his role at safety in the second half of the season and finished his third year in Regina with 39 tackles and two sacks. Finally, Bouka (Calgary) ended up playing six games overall as he battled injuries throughout the year; he finished with two interceptions and one forced fumble and started the Western Final at SAM linebacker.

With a trio of defensive backs on the way out, it puts more responsibility on the returning Riders for 2022. I’m specifically interested in seeing how Saskatchewan uses Canadian Godfrey Onyeka, who saw time at safety and cover linebacker in his nine appearances. With the likes of Nick Marshall, Damon Webb, and Blace Brown back for another year, they’ll have plenty of talent to disperse in their backfield.

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