Dave Dickenson dives into CFL free agency in first year as Stampeders' GM

CALGARY — Dave Dickenson's 20th year in the Calgary Stampeders' organization is his first pushing contracts across the table for players to sign.

When John Hufnagel handed the general manager's reins to his head coach in December after 15 years on the job, Dickenson began prepping for his first foray into CFL free agency that opens Feb. 14.

"I've got a good model to follow," Dickenson said Tuesday at McMahon Stadium. "I haven't probably put in this many hours in January and February, but it's been fun."

The 50-year-old from Great Falls, Mont., was Calgary's quarterback from 1997 to 2000 and played his final CFL season in 2008 with the Stampeders before joining the team's coaching staff the following year.

Dickenson took over as head coach for Hufnagel in 2016 after apprenticing under him for seven years. Hufnagel continued the succession plan when Dickenson added GM to his job.

Hufnagel, 71, remains with the Stampeders as president and a talent evaluator consultant.

Dickenson and assistant general manager Brendan Mahoney have been hard at their quest to re-sign as many players as they can under a $5.51 million salary cap before the gong sounds to open the free agent market next week.

"Once you head to the open market and free agency, it's kind of a free-for-all and exciting, yes, but it's ultimately a little bit of less sleep," Dickenson said.

Offensive lineman Derek Dennis, receiver Reggie Begelton, defensive back Jonathan Moxey, linebacker Cameron Judge and all-star kicker Rene Paredes were among the dozen players that opted to re-sign with the Stampeders rather than test the market.

Dickenson also brought former Stampeder defensive lineman James Vaughters back into the fold after his three-year NFL stint.

But linebacker Jameer Thurman, all-star offensive lineman Shawn Lemon and longtime Stampeder receiver Kamar Jorden were still among prospective free agents Tuesday.

"You kind of feel like you have a feeling on numbers and where guys fit and you know what the rest of the league might think and then sometimes some big numbers come out," Dickenson observed. "You're like 'whoa, that kind of throws off our negotiating position or where we're at with our team.'

"And then there's surprise on the other end. 'I thought he'd get more. Now, OK maybe we can find a player in that range that helps our team.' I really wasn't privy to that sort of stuff before. Now I'm actually seeing the numbers, talking to the agents."

While Calgary can avoid hectic quarterback bidding with Jake Maier signed to 2024, there are other Stampeder voids to fill.

Dickenson, who coached Calgary to a 12-6 record in 2022, doesn't believe he's necessarily lost a player to free agency if he can't sign him before Feb. 14.

"We also told some of the guys, 'hey, we can't really give you what we think you deserve, doesn't fit our structure, go to free agency, see what's out there. If you get a great deal, go for it. If it's something you don't like, or you don't want, circle back with us and see if it can fit for our team.'

"It's awkward, especially with the vets. The guys that have given you so much, and so much blood, sweat and tears and then to say 'hey, go look elsewhere and if you don't like what you get, come back,' that's just hard for me to really look at a guy in the eye and say that even though that's the truth. Ultimately, I think they respect it, but it's still tough."

There will be competition for 34-year-old defensive end Lemon, who was last season's West Division nominee for the CFL's defensive player of the year.

"He actually really played for a cheap deal last year and he understands he deserved a raise and now we've got to see where we're at," Dickenson said.

"Once again, it's another one of those veteran guys. Makes it difficult. I don't know what he's getting offered, but he should be a guy who ultimately gets a raise and I think he deserves it."

Canadian receiver Richie Sindani, who must serve a two-game suspension for a drug violation, is headed for free agency, Dickenson said.

Calgary's GM was confident global punter Cody Grace would return to Calgary after working out for NFL teams.

Judge's two-year extension was vital for Dickenson because he's "growing into that role as a shutdown guy."

In the meantime, Dickenson's off-season work trying to build a championship team continues before he can start directing on-field work at training camp.

"All of our players are aware of where they stand," the coach and GM said. "I feel good about that.

"I don't know how many times I hit free agency as a player, but I always felt as long as you know where you stand and can make an informed decision, that's the way I think it should be."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press