EDMONTON - Ed Hervey looks at Odell Willis and sees an old teammate.
“If you guys remember, Elfrid Payton came in a few years ago and everyone said he was this, he was that,” said Hervey, the Edmonton Eskimo general manager who took a trip back in time to his playing days in discussing Willis on Friday.
“He came into a strong locker room with a group of good guys and was very productive and we expect the same from (Willis).”
Payton, a Canadian football Hall of Fame defensive end, joined the Eskimos at the end of his career in 2002 and was a valuable part of the Grey Cup-winning team in 2003.
Willis, 27, approached the Eskimos and quickly become the first high-profile signing minutes after the Canadian Football League free agent market opened at 10 a.m. Friday.
A prolific pass rusher with the Blue Bombers in 2010 and ’11, Willis’s reputation for trash talking — he called himself the mayor of Swaggerville in Winnipeg — precedes him.
“I don’t think Odell has a problem,” Hervey said. “We always admired his play, we’ve always respected him, and he’s always been very cordial to us. We know what we’re getting from him as a player. Coach (Kavis) Reed has coached him and vouches for him. That’s good enough for me.”
Willis’s interest in the Eskimos likely stems from his strong relationship with Reed. They crossed paths in 2010 when the Reed was the defensive coordinator for the Blue Bombers.
“Once a person gets a reputation, everyone judges him based on that,” Reed said. “When you have an intimate relationship with the players, you know what makes them tick. Odell is about winning and, No. 1, when you’re about winning, you’ll demand a lot.
“Odell is about making certain his performance is a signature of who he is, and what I see is a young man who is in the locker room and cares about his teammates, yet he wants to have fun. But when he comes to work, he goes to work and you never have to prod him to go to work.”
Willis almost ended up in Edmonton last year when the Bombers were shopping him around the league. Instead, he landed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where his performance took a hit in Richie Hall’s defence. While he had 11 quarterback sacks in 2010 and 13 in 2011, Willis managed only six in Saskatchewan.
Reed sees those numbers going back up this year.
“Odell probably wasn’t the centrepiece of all that,” Reed said. “They were a very potent defence using the many schemes that they did use. We have a somewhat different plan for Odell and, hopefully, with him returning with another bookend (defensive end Marcus Howard) who’s as prolific as it was with Phillip Hunt in Winnipeg. We can get the productivity out of him that he had in 2010.”
Ultimately, the Eskimos should benefit from Willis’s presence. The defensive line also has Canadians Don Oramasionwu and Ted Laurent in the middle. Reed was quick to remind everyone that defensive end Brandon Lang is a part of that equation, too.
“That’s what football is about, having the favourable matchups,” Reed said. “For us, we really believe that this gives us opportunities to have favourable matchups in our defensive line.”
The Eskimos later added former Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive back Marcell Young and non-import offensive lineman Alexander Krausnick.
Young, 25, played 23 games, had 64 tackles and three interceptions during two seasons in Hamilton. He’ll replace Rod Williams, who signed with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, or Weldon Brown, who will play elsewhere in 2013. Hervey said he would not match any CFL offers made to Brown.
Krausnick, a six-foot-three, 290-pounder, played with the Roughriders the last two years. He’s the second former University of Calgary Dinos O-lineman to join the Eskimos this off-season. Carson Rockhill was acquired in a trade with Hamilton on Feb. 5, but has yet to sign.
The Eskimos also let Julius Williams walk away as a free agent. The BC Lions quickly signed the defensive end.
Hervey said he is already finished with free agent signings. The paperwork is being prepared on the rest of the deals, with announcements soon to follow. He said the Eskimos signed all of the players they targeted.