Steinberg: 5 impactful defensive Free Agent signings


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2024 Free Agency is humming. When you account for the communication window leading up to Feb. 13, it’s been a steady two-week stream of big CFL news with more to come.

AJ Ouellette, William Stanback and Ka’Deem Carey have all made headlines on offence by signing deals with new teams. But some of the most significant moves this winter have been on the defensive side of the ball.

Even with reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player Mathieu Betts signing in the NFL, the star power we’ve seen on the move is impressive. It’s been tough to narrow it down, but here are five of the biggest impact defensive signings we’ve seen so far.

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Hamilton isn’t messing around. After a disappointing 2023, the Ticats have completely revamped on defence with Scott Milanovich taking over as head coach. One of their most intriguing additions is defensive end Barlow, who signed a two-year deal after a breakout campaign with the arch-rival Argos in 2023.

At 26, it feels like Barlow is only getting started. In his first full CFL season, Barlow recorded 30 defensive tackles, nine sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in just 14 appearances. Barlow proved to be one of the most dangerous edge rushers as part of Toronto’s vaunted pass rush. It’s a good fit for a Tiger-Cats team that finished near the bottom of the league in sacks last season.

Speaking of revamping, we’ve seen plenty of noteworthy change in the capital. On defence, Ottawa’s crown jewel addition has been Pickett. After being granted his release after a stellar season in Toronto, Pickett signed a one-year contract with the REDBLACKS earlier this month. As a result, Ottawa is gaining one of the league’s most versatile defensive players.

2023 saw Pickett establish himself as the gold standard at SAM linebacker. He finished third overall with 105 defensive tackles, which is a ridiculously high total for the position, to go along with six sacks, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. Oh, and Pickett also added 19 tackles on special teams. Pickett’s strength, ability to cover, speed, and football IQ makes him one of the most impactful defensive players in the game.

Big free agent splashes haven’t always been Calgary’s off-season MO, but that didn’t stop them from signing Houston to a two-year contract. With the type of player we’re talking about here, any team would jump at the chance. The Stamps are getting one of the CFL’s truly elite defensive backs, whichever way you slice it.

Houston led the league with seven interceptions last season and established himself as one of the best ball-hawks in the game. Houston spent all of 2023 as Winnipeg’s starting boundary corner, which gives Calgary an incredible array of options on that side of the field. Both Tre Roberson and Jonathan Moxey excel on the boundary, too, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Stamps use their impressive secondary depth.

Jameer Thurman pairing with Riders’ head coach Corey Mace in Saskatchewan is a natural fit (Matt Smith/

Seeing the Riders sign Thurman to a one-year contract to reunite with new head coach Corey Mace has been one of the less surprising moves of free agency. That doesn’t mean it’s not a huge addition for Saskatchewan. As part of Calgary’s defensive coaching staff in Thurman’s first three CFL seasons, Mace knows well what type of player he’s getting.

I still believe Thurman is one of the league’s most underrated defenders, even knowing he had a career season in 2023. In his first year away from the Stamps, Thurman recorded career bests with 98 defensive tackles and five sacks to go along with two interceptions and two forced fumbles as a member of the Ticats. Thurman hits like a truck, has great lateral range and drops into coverage as well as any pure linebacker, so he’s bound to be a hit for the Roughriders.

We’ll bookend things with Hamilton, especially knowing how many former Argos they’ve brought down the QEW. In addition to Barlow and Peters, the Tiger-Cats have also signed defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix from Toronto and traded for linebacker Jordan Williams. In Peters, Hamilton is adding one of the league’s very best defensive backs.

Much like Houston, Peters is one of the CFL’s premier boundary cornerbacks, which is a position the Ticats had trouble locking down last season. 2023 saw Peters record 32 defensive tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in 13 appearances. By adding Peters, who’s still just 27, Hamilton should solidify its defensive backfield in a big way.

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