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Debating the top five pending free agents

TORONTO — We’re just nine days away from the official opening of 2020 CFL Free Agency, and with a Furious Friday that saw a number of names sign new contracts, organizations will be looking over their boards once again ahead of the big day.

There are still some very talented individuals that are set to hit the open market, but with needs constantly changing when it comes to the various CFL squads, there’s no guessing where each player could be ranked on a team’s board.

On the latest episode of The Waggle presented by Sport Clips, Davis Sanchez and Donnovan Bennett take a shot at their own rankings and offer up their top five lists of free agents heading into Feb. 11.

Episode 196: We’re big in Japan + Ranking the FAs

EPISODE OVERVIEW: The boys are joined by a very special guest all the way from Tokyo. But before that, Davis and Donnovan debate the recently released Top 30 Free Agent list on Later, in this week’s Objectionable Conduct, Davis weighs in on people “doing it for the ‘gram” in public.

EPISODE RUNDOWN: Welcome to The Waggle (0:00); Passing of Kobe Bryant (2:34); Collaros signs in Winnipeg (9:06); Donnovan’s Top 5 FAs (11:20); Davis’ Top 5 FAs (19:10); Toronto and Ottawa QB options (21:40); Should Nichols feel slighted by the Bombers? (28:48); Objectionable Conduct: Influencers in the wild (37:37); Interview with Scotty from Tokyo’s CFL Podcast ‘Two Guys, One Grey Cup’ (43:29).

“No. 5 is Shaq Evans,” Bennett said to start off his list. “He was No. 9 (overall), second on his team and second at his position (in the top 30). He’s a guy who’s playing in games, played all 18 in 2019, had 72 receptions and is a difference-maker in the pass game.

“If I’m paying him enough, I might use him in the return game as well.”

Receivers are always at a premium in the CFL, and following a breakout season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Evans is now in the conversation as one of the next big No. 1 targets in the league.

The 28-year-old finished the year with 72 catches for 1,334 yards, earning West and CFL All-Star honours in the process.

Derel Walker was the lone pass-catcher to feature on both lists. The star receiver missed three games during the year with Toronto but was still able to haul in 65 passes for 1,040 yards.

“To me, you know he can get you 1,000 yards per year, he’s done it three times,” Bennett said. “He’s still relatively young at 28, but what he does in terms of dictating coverage, he makes your No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 (receivers) better. That’s why I want Derel Walker.”

Walker did head a talented group of Toronto receivers, but the team struggled throughout the year to string consecutive wins together.

“I think he’s asking ‘who’s throwing me the ball?'” Bennett added when asked whether a reunion with the Double Blue was possible.

Quarterbacks dominated the top both Sanchez and Bennett’s lists, with Nick Arbuckle occupying both of their top spots.

“You cannot start a season without a proven No. 1 quarterback,” Sanchez said. “… Because of how important the position is in this league, (Arbuckle and Nichols) are No. 1 and 2 for me.”

However, we won’t get to see the intrigue that would have come with Arbuckle hitting the open market. The 26-year-old officially signed a two-year deal with the Ottawa REDBLACKS on Friday, taking yet another quarterback name off the board.

With that domino falling, Nichols now becomes the top quarterback on the free-agent board, and all signs would realistically point to the 32-year-old landing with the Toronto Argonauts — who are the only team still looking for a starting quarterback on the open market.

More intriguing than the quarterback scenarios may be the debate over the best lineman available. Both Willie Jefferson and Ja’Gared Davis.

Jefferson is still a question mark, as nobody is sure whether he’ll be returning to the CFL next year or heading down south to pursue another opportunity.

The reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player had 24 tackles, 12 sacks, one interception and six forced fumbles in 2019, and he bookended that dominant campaign with two tackles, three sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.

“He’s 28 years old and you’re getting an athlete who’s in his physical prime,” Bennett said of Jefferson. “At 245 (pounds), he can rush the passer, we saw him as a zone coverage guy and he also took a lot of strides as a leader last year.

“I’m sure Winnipeg wants him back if the money is right, but with 12 sacks — you pay to get the quarterback down in this league — I’m willing to pay Willie Jefferson.”

Jefferson was ranked second on Bennett’s list of free agents, but on Sanchez’s list, he was ranked behind Davis.

The 29-year-old somehow flew under the radar for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last season despite racking up 13 sacks, 54 tackles and three forced fumbles on the year.

During his four-year stint in the CFL to date, Davis has never ended a year before the championship game. He appeared in three consecutive Grey Cups with the Calgary Stampeders before making the move out to Hamilton this past season. The team would be dominant on the defensive end and the Ticats would finish with a franchise-best 15 wins en route to making it to the championship against Winnipeg.

One thing’s for sure: Davis can help elevate a defence to a championship level.

“All he does is get to the Grey Cup. You want to get to the Grey Cup and win it? Get Ja’Gared Davis in your room,” Bennett said. “No matter the defence or scheme, he’s getting into the backfield. He had 13 sacks last year and 54 tackles; he’s 29 years old — hasn’t hit 30 yet — so I think he’s got a couple more real high-level years in him.”

There’s always turnover in the CFL during the off-season, and all but one man featured on these lists could be on the move once free agency officially opens on Feb. 11.

It’ll be an exciting time for teams, players and fans alike. Get your popcorn ready.