TORONTO — Willie Jefferson has answered the biggest question heading into CFL free agency.
The CFL's top defensive player last season opted to stay put Monday rather than test the open market. The six-foot-seven, 248-pound defensive lineman agreed to terms to remain with the Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The decision came after Jefferson visited both the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the CFL's free-agent negotiating window last week.
"As an organization, we are very excited to have Willie and his family return for another two seasons," Bombers GM Kyle Walters said. "The talent he brings to the table and his ability to change football games speaks for itself, but what we have gotten to know over the past season is the person behind the player, and that is just as important to our football operations."
With no elite quarterbacks slated to hit the open market at noon ET on Tuesday, the free-agent spotlight was firmly fixed upon Jefferson, and with good reason. The 29-year-old native of Beaumont, Texas, was named the league's top defensive player last season, then delivered an emphatic performance in leading Winnipeg to its first Grey Cup title since 1990.
"They always said the East is sweet," Jefferson tweeted Monday. "But the West is Best!!! #CmonDownToWinnipeg."
The freakishly athletic Jefferson spearheaded a Winnipeg defence that recorded six sacks and eight turnovers (three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, three on downs) in a 33-12 dismantling of the heavily favoured Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the CFL title game. For his part, Jefferson had a team-high three sacks and two forced fumbles after delivering a career-best 12 during the regular season. his first with the Bombers.
Jefferson also had a CFL-record 16 pass knockdowns and led the league with six forced fumbles. He added 24 tackles, an interception and two fumble recoveries.
Jefferson is entering his seventh CFL campaign, having spent time previously with Edmonton (2014-15) and Saskatchewan (2016-18). He's appeared in 94 career regular-season games, registering 43 sacks, 151 tackles, three interceptions and 12 forced fumbles.
Winnipeg also signed Canadian centre Michael Couture to a two-year extension. Like Jefferson, he was scheduled to become a free agent Tuesday.
And pending free-agent defensive lineman Ja'Gared Davis signed an extension Monday with Hamilton. Davis had a career-best 13 sacks in 2019, his first season with the Ticats after spending three years with Calgary.
Toronto re-signed Canadian receiver Llevi Noel, also a pending free agent, and signed American running back Marcus Thigpen, released recently by Saskatchewan.
Financial details of Jefferson's deal weren't immediately available but he'll reportedly receive $265,000 a year from Winnipeg. That's less than Toronto's reported offer of $280,000 annually.
And Jefferson opted to remain in Manitoba rather than follow former Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols to Toronto. Nichols, who signed a three-year deal Friday with the Argos after being released by Winnipeg, had been texting Jefferson about coming to Ontario.
"Our wives are friends, our kids are friends," Nichols said Monday. "For me on a personal level, I'd love to have Willie and his family here because he's a good person, they're good people and people you want to build around.
"Second of all, I don't want to play against that monster."
Jefferson might be locked up but, pending last-minute deals, there's still plenty of quality expected to hit the open market. Speedy Derel Walker (65 catches, 1.040 yards, six TDs last year with Toronto) is expected to garner plenty of attention, as is burly defensive tackle Micah Johnson (four sacks last year with Saskatchewan after registering a career-best 18 in 2018 with Calgary).
Other potential notable free agents include defensive linemen Dylan Wynn (11 sacks in 18 games with Hamilton) and Canadian Cleyon Laing (seven sacks in 15 games with Toronto); receiver DaVaris Daniels (54 catches, 738 yards, two TDs in 13 games with Edmonton); linebackers Solomon Elimimian (88 tackles with Saskatchewan, third-most in CFL, four sacks in 15 games), Larry Dean (86 tackles, one sack in 18 games with Edmonton) and Don Unamba (43 tackles, six sacks, one interception in 12 games with Eskimos); veteran offensive lineman Derek Dennis (16 starts with Calgary last year); and running back C.J. Gable (1,002 yards rushing in 14 games with Edmonton).
Veteran slotback S.J. Green (85 catches, 1,039 yards, four TDs in 18 games) was released last week by Toronto and remains unsigned but is expected to sign an XFL contract.
It's been a busy off-season thus far for Walters as Jefferson becomes the 13th pending free agent to remain in Winnipeg rather than test the open market. Ditto for Saskatchewan GM Jeremy O'Day, who has re-signed 14 Rider players who were slated to become free agents.
Subsequently, O'Day doesn't expect to be busy once free agency begins.
"The key for us was to try to get as many of our guys back as we could," O'Day told reporters in Regina on Monday. "We thought if we did that we wouldn't have as many holes to attack in free agency so we've been plugging away on that.
"I'd say we're probably not going to be very active in free agency. We're still talking to a couple of our players but it can change quickly."
Traditionally the Calgary Stampeders haven't been major players in free agency but president/GM John Hufnagel said that could change Tuesday.
"I think we'll have more action (Tuesday) than what you normally expect from our organization," he said.
Rookie Toronto GM Mike (Pinball) Clemons is tasked with rebuilding a Toronto franchise that's missed the playoffs the past two years with consecutive 4-14 records. He said while free agency can help do that, it's one part of the entire process.
"We don't want to spend money because we have it, we want to spend money because we're getting better," Clemons said Monday. "What we don't sign we're going to have to find.
"It really is many of those foundational pieces, things that might not be a glittery to the eye, that we need to make sure we satisfy the next little while."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press