Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly throws a pass during first half CFL football action against the Montreal Alouettes in Montreal on July 26, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Edmonton quarterback Reilly expected to raise bar in CFL free agency

Mike Reilly is expected to significantly raise the bar in the quarterback-driven open market when CFL free agency begins Tuesday.

The Edmonton Eskimos passer is regarded as the best player available in a deep talent pool that’s top-heavy with quality starting quarterbacks. Also poised to become free agents at noon ET are Bo Levi Mitchell — who led the Calgary Stampeders to last year’s Grey Cup title — and Trevor Harris of the East Division-champion Ottawa Redblacks.

The expectation is Reilly, 34, will be the first of the Big Three to sign. For weeks, the overwhelming sentiment has been that Reilly, who was the CFL’s highest-paid player last year at over $500,000, would sign a multi-year deal with the B.C. Lions worth about $700,000 annually.

And with good reason. Reilly hasn’t missed a game the past three years and thrown for over 5,500 yards each season. After guiding Edmonton to a Grey Cup title in 2015, Reilly was the league’s outstanding player in 2017 and has thrown a combined 88 TD passes the past three campaigns.

But the six-foot-three, 230-pound Reilly is a dual threat, having rushed for a combined 1,311 yards on 319 carries (4.2-yard average) and 34 TDs the past three seasons. In 2018, Edmonton was first in CFL passing (311.14 yards per game), second in net offence (399 yards), third in offensive points (26.1 per game) and fourth in rushing (103.6 yards per game).

By comparison, the Lions were seventh in passing (220.6 yards per game) and offensive scoring (23.5 points) and eighth in both rushing (94.4 yards) and net offence (316.8 yards).

What’s more, Reilly is a native of Kennewick, Wash., and relocating to Vancouver would move him closer to family. And he’s certainly familiar with the Lions, spending his first two CFL seasons in B.C. before heading to Edmonton in 2013.

Earlier this month, the Eskimos gave Reilly permission to speak to other teams prior to the start of free agency.

Reilly’s departure from Edmonton would provide a second blow to the Eskimos. On Monday, the club announced president/CEO Len Rhodes won’t be seeking another term and will be leaving the club Feb. 20.

There was a flurry of action Monday as teams locked up pending free agents. Most notable were cornerback Delvin Breaux and linebacker Simoni Lawrence re-signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats while receiver Bryan Burnham and Canadian offensive lineman Hunter Steward remained with B.C.

Only Hamilton (Jeremiah Masoli) and Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Matt Nichols) head into free agency with established starters under contract. That should leave no shortage of potential suitors for both Mitchell and Harris once Reilly goes off the open market.

Mitchell, 28, has led Calgary to four Grey Cup appearances (winning two) and captured the CFL’s outstanding player award twice (2016, ‘18) since becoming the club’s starter in 2014 while amassing a 69-15-2 record. The native of Katy, Texas, worked out for seven NFL teams this winter but hasn’t signed a contract and the prevailing talk is if Mitchell decides to remain in Canada he’ll consider all offers.

On Monday, Calgary president/GM John Hufnagel said he’s optimistic about re-signing Mitchell. If Hufnagel does, though, the question becomes at what cost. The Stampeders’ list of pending free agents includes stalwart defensive linemen Micah Johnson and Ja’Gared Davis, young receiver DaVaris Daniels and offensive lineman Spencer Wilson.

“I’ve given a lot of players what I think are fair offers,” Hufnagel told reporters in Calgary on Monday. “Sometimes I’ve thought I’ve had a deal and the player has gone AWOL.

“It’s been a very confusing, stressful type of couple weeks. You just have to deal with it. That’s the way the game is now.”

Harris is coming off his best CFL season. The 32-year-old established career highs in pass attempts (615), completions (431) and yards (5,116) while sporting an impressive 70-per-cent completion percentage.

Harris threw a CFL-record six TD passes in Ottawa’s 46-27 East Division final win over Hamilton. But he and the Redblacks fell short in the Grey Cup 27-16 to Calgary.

Teams missing out on Reilly, Mitchell or Harris would be left to consider a second tier of available free-agent quarterbacks. That group would include Zach Collaros (Saskatchewan), Travis Lulay and Jonathon Jennings (both B.C. Lions). Kevin Glenn, 39, is a longtime CFL starter who didn’t throw a pass last year backing up Reilly while Brandon Bridge, 26, of Mississauga, Ont., started some games the past two seasons with the Riders.

But there’s more quality available than just quarterbacks. Derel Walker (28, two-time CFL all-star coming off knee injury) and Greg Ellingson (four 1,000-yard seasons, three straight with Ottawa) top the list of eligible receivers while the defensive lineman pool includes Willie Jefferson (28, 10 sacks last year with Saskatchewan), Shawn Lemon (30, 11 sacks last year with B.C.) and Odell Willis (34, 11 sacks with Edmonton).

Also expected to garner much attention are linebacker Larry Dean (29, 96 tackles, East Division’s top defensive player last year with Hamilton) and offensive linemen SirVincent Rogers (32, right tackle in Ottawa) and Sukh Chungh (26, missed just three starts in four years with Winnipeg).

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