Jim Popp maintains the Alouettes won't be pursuing free agents, except for one - Keith Stokes.
"The reason we have an interest in Keith," the Montreal general manager said yesterday, as the free-agent period kicked off in the CFL, "is that he can add a dimension to our offence. He's got family in Montreal and spends the offseason here. It would be a good fit."
Stokes is a kick returner who can also play receiver and running back. And he should be familiar to Montreal fans, having spent 2002 and 03 with the Als before being traded to Winnipeg for a pair of draft choices and the CFL rights to quarterback Rod Rutherford, who completed last season on the practice roster of the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
Stokes was traded two months after the 2003 Grey Cup loss to Edmonton. He fumbled twice in that game, leading to 10 Eskimos points.
Stokes earned a base salary of $80,000 last season, receiving an additional $20,000 in incentives. During the season, he spurned an offer of $120,000 from the Blue Bombers. While he's certainly money-driven, Stokes is a multi-dimensional player who wants to do more than return kicks. He caught 58 passes for 832 yards, scoring three touchdowns, in 2005. He averaged 8.4 yards on punt returns, scoring once, while averaging 21.7 yards on kickoff returns.
"I'm open (to any and all offers) right now," Stokes said. "I don't want this to be long and dragged out. The sooner it's settled the better. But I'm also not going to jump on the first offer.
"There aren't many versatile players like myself. I can play in the backfield and at receiver. A team's getting two players for the price of one."
That's why Toronto, Hamilton and possibly B.C. will also enter the Stokes sweepstakes.
While Popp contacted Stokes yesterday, their initial conversation didn't proceed smoothly. The GM didn't make the player an offer and attempted to press negotiations through without giving Stokes many options.
"If he wants to be here, he can be here," Popp said. "And if he chooses elsewhere for the money, he can do it. If he's chasing money, I won't be in the mix. If he wants something done, he's got to see me."
While Popp said the Als have no great need to add free agents, he nonetheless emailed several agents this winter seeking defensive backs, defensive ends and athletic linebackers that can pass rush or are strong in pass coverage - preferably both.
"We'll look at everybody if they can help our scheme," he said. "We've talked to one guy and won't be talking to too many others. I'm not looking at other free agents, honestly. But there could be a guy two weeks from now that we may talk to."
Meanwhile, safety Richard Karikari, the Als' only free agent, heard from Winnipeg yesterday. The Bombers will pursue him, despite signing B.C. linebacker Barrin Simpson. Hamilton also figured to be interested in Karikari, but the Tiger-Cats yesterday signed three players - running-back Josh Ranek and offensive-lineman George Hudson from Ottawa, along with Toronto linebacker Ray Mariuz
"Karikari's a great player," Ticats GM Rob Katz said. "But right now, I don't anticipate us getting involved and we've made no contact yet. When you talk Canadian talent, we're as strong as anyone, and our ratio's set."