Lion at top of short list

KIRK PENTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

CFL free agency kicks off tomorrow night, and while there are a handful of premier names on the list, it is by no means a long one.

As of last night, only 36 players -- 18 Canadians and 18 imports -- were poised to test the free agent market tomorrow at 11:01 p.m. Three teams, the B.C. Lions, Edmonton Eskimos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, have only two players whose contracts are set to expire.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders lead the way with 11 potential free agents, followed by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with seven. Next are the defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders, who have five set to go free.

B.C. offensive lineman Rob Murphy and Saskatchewan middle linebacker Maurice Lloyd are the most attractive players poised to go on the market, but Bombers head coach Mike Kelly doesn't believe the league's GMs will be falling all over themselves trying to sign players.

"I don't think there's going to be a feeding frenzy at 11:01 on Sunday night," he said.

Kelly's theory is that this is the start of a new era when it comes to free agency.

He believes that with so many more players looking for work following the demise of NFL Europe and the Arena Football League, the days of huge CFL contracts for import players is about to become extinct.

That just might be the way Kelly is planning to do business, but he believes there will be a downward shift in the value of American players north of the border.

"There's enough good available talent out there that you can get younger and be fiscally more responsible with players that are out there," Kelly said. "And you're going to find better players."

Despite that, executives would not be doing their jobs if they didn't explore the possibility of signing a player like Murphy, who knows the CFL well and will likely command a salary in the neighbourhood of $150,000 per season.

If the Bombers feel there's a free agent they really like or suddenly need to fill a gaping hole, Kelly said they'll be able to dole out the dough without any concerns.

"We've handled the cap well," he said, "and we'll be able to do the things that are necessary to do to respond to whatever happens to us."

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CREAM OF THE CROP

The top 10 CFL players -- in alphabetical order, since every team's needs are different -- who are poised to become free agents tomorrow at 11:01 p.m. Destinations are rumoured possibilities or teams that have a need at that position:

- P Burke Dales, Calgary

The skinny: The best punter on the market, Winnipeg is said to be very interested. Which they should be.

Possible destinations: Calgary, Winnipeg

- CB Mark Estelle, Montreal

The skinny: The 27-year-old has six interceptions and seven knockdowns in 32 career games. The Bombers need defensive backs, but it's hard to pry free agents out of Montreal.

Possible destinations: Montreal, Winnipeg

- OL Alexandre Gauthier, Winnipeg

The skinny: If B.C.'s Rob Murphy doesn't end up in Toronto, expect the Argos to take a run at Gauthier. Interesting tidbit: Ticats president Scott Mitchell used to be Gauthier's agent.

Possible destinations: Hamilton, Toronto

- LB Maurice Lloyd, Saskatchewan

The skinny: The middle linebacker is just 26, he's fast, and he's tenacious. There's a good chance he'll follow his former defensive co-ordinator, new Esks coach Richie Hall, to Edmonton.

Possible destinations: Edmonton, B.C.

- RB Jesse Lumsden, Hamilton

The skinny: When healthy, the 26-year-old is dominant. Shoulder injuries should have suitors concerned.

Possible destinations: Edmonton, Toronto, Hamilton

- OL Joe McGrath, Edmonton

The skinny: He has started at left tackle for the Eskimos since 2004 and is valuable because he's Canadian. He's likely to stay put.

Possible destinations: Edmonton, Toronto

- LB Anton McKenzie, Saskatchewan

The skinny: The 28-year-old outside linebacker was a CFL all-star last year. The Lions are looking for linebackers after cutting Otis Floyd and losing Jamall Johnson to the NFL.

Possible destinations: B.C., Saskatchewan

- OL Rob Murphy, B.C.

The skinny: The 29-year-old left tackle was the CFL's most outstanding lineman in 2006 and 2007 and plays with a chip on his shoulder. The Argos tried to snag Murphy two years ago.

Possible destinations: Toronto, B.C.

- OL Dominic Picard, Winnipeg

The skinny: If the Bombers lose Gauthier, they must bring back Picard, who is developing into a top centre.

Possible destinations: Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan

- LB Willie Pile, Toronto

The skinny: The 28-year-old has 148 tackles in his two CFL seasons.

Possible destinations: B.C., Toronto, Edmonton


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