Alfieri: How the Alouettes offence looks after start of free agency

When Alouettes general manager Danny Maciocia woke up on Feb. 14, he didn’t know how much money he would have to spend on potential free agents. Would he be able to convince anyone to join the team if he couldn’t offer them a signing bonus? Would the team fail to land impact players? But at 9:00 a.m. ET on the morning of free agency, everything changed.

Three hours before the free-agent market opened on Tuesday, the CFL announced that it had taken possession of the Alouettes franchise back from the previous ownership group. This meant that the league would provide the necessary funding for Maciocia to spend money on key acquisitions.

Even with those funds available, the Als found themselves behind the eight-ball because other teams had been negotiating with free agents for more than one week. But the Alouettes GM and his staff huddled up and made the most of a difficult situation.

“It was pretty hectic,” Maciocia said during a press conference at Olympic Stadium on Wednesday morning. “Just the whole whirlwind of activity we experienced (Tuesday). You walk in and it’s all doom-and-gloom. You don’t know what you can and can’t do. We’re trying to sign players, but we didn’t have money available for signing bonuses. And then just before 9:00 a.m., you get the green light that you can go out there and start signing players, and now you’re just trying to salvage it. You’re trying to call players and agents.”

In the end, they lost some key players, but they were able to fill holes on the roster with quality additions, too.

They were able to build themselves a solid quarterback room by adding Cody Fajardo (Saskatchewan) and Caleb Evans (Ottawa). They also signed Davis Alexander to a one-year extension that will keep him with the Alouettes through 2024.

Fajardo will come into training camp with something to prove. After two solid years as the starting quarterback of the Roughriders in 2019 and 2021, Fajardo’s numbers dipped in 2022 but it’s important to put his performances into context.

First, the 30-year-old admitted that he suffered a torn MCL in his knee in the second game of the season. He played through the pain and wore a bulky brace, which isn’t ideal for a mobile quarterback. Also, the Riders offensive line was historically bad last season. Fajardo is still in his prime and it looks like he still has a lot left in the tank.

“My time in Riderville was everything I expected and more. The truth is that the club kind of wanted to go in a different direction. Sometimes, change can be scary, but for me, sometimes change can bring on a lot of success. When they told me that they were going to be going in a different direction, I started putting together a list of the other eight teams in the CFL. To tell you the truth, Montreal was way up there on my list, especially when they signed coach (Jason) Maas. We have an incredible working relationship; we know each other extremely well. We put offences together and there has been a lot of things behind the scenes that just didn’t go the way we wanted it to (in Saskatchewan) to reach that full potential of our offence, but I know what he can put together.”

Adding Evans and extending Alexander is a nice touch. Evans has shown flashes of brilliance during his two years in Ottawa. Alexander only got some playing time in the preseason and in the second half of the final regular season game in Toronto, but he impressed then and he also looked sharp whenever he received reps in practice. Both youngsters have the potential to become impact starters down the road.

The Alouettes also added receiver Greg Ellingson and offensive lineman Justin Lawrence. They also managed to re-sign standout running back Walter Fletcher after the start of free agency.

Ellingson is a CFL veteran has posted five 1,000-yard seasons in his career, and he was on pace to reach that mark again in 2022, but injuries limited him to eight games (he finished his lone season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with 38 receptions for 598 yards and three touchdowns).

The 34-year-old gives the Als a big-play receiver after Geno Lewis and Jake Wieneke left the team in free agency.

Funny enough, once Fajardo found out that Als management was chasing Ellingson, he asked them for the receiver’s phone number so that he could recruit him to Montreal.

“Having him on the field, he’s just a veteran presence,” Fajardo said of Ellingson. “I know we have a lot of younger receivers. When you have that veteran presence in that room to teach guys how to read defences, teach guys how to learn a playbook, to teach guys how to be savvy vets in their route running, that helps young guys mature quicker. I’m really excited about this signing. He said he’s 100 percent healthy and ready to roll.”

Lawrence started all but one game at centre for the Toronto Argonauts last season. The 26-year-old was named an East Division All-Star in 2022, and he helped the Argos win the Grey Cup over the Bombers last November.

“They’re signing great football players, but even better people,” Fajardo said of the work Maas and Maciocia have done this off-season. “When you have a great locker room, I think that wins more games than a super talented locker room. I think they’re doing a tremendous job with that.”