Lions lock up stars Jovan Olafioye, Solomon Elimimian in unexpected bonanza
'I just felt the Lions were my best opportunity,' says CFL's top offensive lineman
B.C. Lions offensive tackle Jovan Olafioye holds the trophy for Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman as he poses at the CFL awards in Toronto Thursday, November 22, 2012.
Photograph by: Sean Kilpatrick, THE CANADIAN PRESS
METRO VANCOUVER — Like LeBron James before them, Jovan Olafioye and Solomon Elimimian made a statement about Cleveland Friday by turning their backs on the beleaguered sports city by the frozen shores of Lake Erie.
B.C. Lions general manager Wally Buono optimistically pegged his chances of keeping Olafioye and Elimimian from the clutches of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns at "50-50" this week, a day before the Canadian Football League’s free agency period opened Friday morning.
By noon, however, Buono began to rub his hands in glee when it appeared that two of the CFL’s most prized free agents were making a beeline back to B.C.
Olafioye, in fact, was in Cleveland, with his father and girlfriend, being assessed by the Browns, when the CFL’s most outstanding lineman in 2012 decided to re-up with the Lions for two more years (plus an option).
"I did my physical with the Browns, they put in an offer ... and I decided to stay with B.C.," Olafioye explained in a conference call. "I just felt the Lions were my best opportunity. No NFL team offered me what I wanted, so I could be comfortable. The money up front wasn’t where Dan (agent Dan Vertlieb) and I wanted it. And that wasn’t the only offer we got. But this (Lions) is the best opportunity for me. It’s the best opportunity for my family."
Earlier Friday, the Lions announced contract extensions to two veterans — receiver Paris Jackson and defensive back Korey Banks. The team also improved its depth on the defensive line by signing Julius Williams, a 26-year-old free-agent defensive end from the Edmonton Eskimos.
But the re-signing of both Olafioye and Elimimian was an unexpected bonanza, catching most CFL observers off guard.
Elimimian reached a deal with the Lions less than two hours after free agency began, against the advice of his agent, Bardia Ghahremani, and counter to better offers from other CFL clubs.
"He (Elimimian) had a contract offer with the Browns but chose to come back to the Lions," Ghahremani explained to The Vancouver Sun. "I still believe he can be an NFL player and deserves a shot down south."
That could happen at some point. But, for now, the CFL’s rookie of the year in 2010 is sticking with the Lions after signing a one-year (plus option) deal.
"Solly had the choice to go to the NFL or other CFL teams," Buono said. "He probably had better offers to go elsewhere. But, I think, for him, he wants to go to a place where he’s appreciated, comfortable with the people around him. We did what he had to do to move forward, and this is where he wanted to be. I think his agent was maybe pushing him forward to the NFL."
Buono said the onus now rests with head coach Mike Benevides to figure out an all-star alignment where Elimimian, all-CFL choice Adam Bighill and the underappreciated Anton McKenzie can be on the field together. No CFL linebacking corps has the potential to be as disruptive.
A powerful drive blocker and impenetrable pass protector, Olafioye’s return to right tackle uncomplicates the situation on the O-line, with veteran Angus Reid, the Energizer Bunny of centres, and Cadillac left tackle Ben Archibald also returning. The guard positions, following surgeries to Dean Valli (knee) and Jon Hameister-Ries (back), remain problematic until the health issues are resolved. But the basis for a sense of renewed confidence from quarterback Travis Lulay is there.
"Getting the best offensive lineman in the country back (Olafioye), and knowing he’s locked up for three more years ... if I were Travis I think I’d feel pretty secure knowing that," Buono said.
Even though Olafioye’s 6-6, 325-pound frame, youth (25) and impressive CFL resume, left a favourable impression with the Green Bay Packers, the team’s medical staff expunged a potential deal based on his medical history. Olafioye requires medication to control hypertension, a condition which runs in his family.
That was the same reason the St. Louis Rams decided not to sign him last year when Olafioye unwisely was off his meds and unwittingly blocked his own path toward required medical clearance.
"I knew I already had a deal in place with Wally, if things didn’t work out with the NFL," Olafioye explained. "I knew I still had somewhere where I was loved, and loved deep. I knew if the NFL didn’t offer me what I wanted, I still had the B.C. Lions in my back pocket, someplace where I could finish my career. They’ve (Lions) been convinced this is the best fit for me, and always has been. That’s the place where I’ll finish my career."
Those words were sweet music to the ears of the Lions’ general manager.
"This is only Phase 1 (of free agency)," Buono said. "But the first day has been a pretty good day for us."
END ZONE: Paris Jackson, now the Lions’ most tenured receiver, said the trade of Geroy Simon to the Roughriders and the release of Arland Bruce (who subsequently signed with Montreal) came at him like "a curveball." Buono threw a change-up at him this week with the offer of a one-year contract extension that caught him off guard. Jackson, going into his 11th CFL season, had been preparing to move on. He believes interest in him from a rival club (Edmonton) caused the Lions’ GM to reassess his worth and potential contribution. "I told Wally I want to eventually retire here," Jackson said. "I believe I still have three or four years left. But we’ll take it one year at a time."
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