April 28 will not go down as a banner day for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The team lost defensive tackle Linden Gaydosh and receiver Spencer Watt for the season with a pair of Achilles’ injuries.
Losing quality, National players is never a good thing, but Watt’s injury is definitely more harmful to the Cats going forward. While Gaydosh is a good, young player, Hamilton employs about 637 Canadian defensive linemen, so finding someone to fill in for the former No. 1 overall pick won’t be difficult. But it is Watt’s injury that truly presents a conundrum for the Tabbies.
Watt was signed away from the Argos during free agency to replace Sam Giguère, who signed with Montreal. Watt was going to be a starter, paired with Andy Fantuz as one of Hamilton’s two National receivers, but with the Simon Fraser product being lost for the entire 2015 season, the Ti-Cats will be forced to reconfigure things to reach the ratio minimum of seven National starters. It is safe to say that Fantuz, Peter Dyakowski and Mike Filer will start on offence, and that Ted Laurent, Courtney Stephen and Craig Butler will do the same on defense. That leaves one spot open, so what can the Ti-Cats do to make up for the loss of Watt?
(1) Start two Canadian defensive tackles
Seeing as Hamilton employs a ridiculous number of Canadians along the defensive line, perhaps the best place to begin is by starting Canadians at both interior defensive lineman positions. Brian Bulcke was a starter before being lost to injury last year, so it would be well and good for the Cats to simply just reinstall him next to Laurent and not worry. The problem there is that Bryan Hall played tremendously all last season, and really stepped up when Bulcke went down. So to allow Hall to be part of the rotation, but not the starter, means that the Cats would have to make changes elsewhere on the defence. Perhaps bringing in Frédéric Plesius when Hall comes in for Bulcke or Laurent.
While this is less than ideal, this is probably the safest route Hamilton can go. Bulcke is a proven commodity and should be a starter; Laurent is the defending East Division Most Outstanding Canadian. Both are starting-calibre players, and this might be the easiest change for Hamilton to make.
(2) Rejig the offensive line
In addition to point No. 1, this is also an easy path for the Ti-Cats to take. The Cats had to do a bit of ration gymnastics last year because of Peter Dyakowski’s injury in the 101st Grey Cup, but Canada’s Smartest Person returned late last year and looks to be ready to resume his old role at guard. The Cats started two Nationals along the line, so with Dyakowski back they can start three and problem solved, right?
Not so fast. Last year, after a disastrous Week 1 outing against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Ti-Cats made changes to their offensive line, one such move saw Brian Simmons move from tackle to guard. Simmons was named a division All-Star, should have been named a league All-Star and probably should have been the East Division nominee for Most Outstanding Lineman. CFL teams rarely start International interior offensive linemen, but rarely are they as talented as Simmons.
Sure, the team could move Simmons back to tackle, as he was excellent in the role as well, but that would then mean displacing one of the two man-mountains the team employs at tackle, Jake Olson (6’8″, 315 lbs) or Joel Figueroa (6’6″, 320 lbs.). While I am not as high on Olson as some, the former Central Michigan Chippewa did enough to warrant a second season to prove himself.
While I think replacing Olson with Simmons would work out just fine, I really do not like the idea of moving Simmons from guard back to tackle. This, however, might be the move the team has to make.
(3) Draft, and start, a rookie receiver
Many say that this year’s draft is one of the most talented in years. One of the areas of strength is at the receiver position. LeMar Durant, Nic Demski and Addison Richards are all considered to be bright prospects and some even think they could start in Year 1. While drafting a receiver should be something Hamilton does, especially considering star slotback Andy Fantuz is in the final year of his contract, starting a rookie wideout is usually not a terribly good idea.
I don’t think it is ridiculous to say that the aforementioned Fantuz was probably the most “pro-ready” receiver to come out of college but even he wasn’t entirely ready to make significant contributions his rookie season. His 30 catches for 408 yards and three touchdowns didn’t really wow anybody, and while Durant, Demski and Richards are enticing prospects, none of them are on the same level as Fantuz was coming out of Western.
While drafting one of the top receiver prospects is a solid idea on its own, it is not a good idea to expect one of them to come in and replace Watt in the starting lineup Week 1.
(4) Move Anthony Woodson to WR
This move might seem farfetched, but hear me out. The team signed Woodson to be a solid special teams contributor and a valuable Canadian asset, but it was unlikely that he was expected to see much time on offense, especially at running back (he was, in no way, jumping C.J. Gable, Nic Grigsby or Mossis Madu on the depth chart).
But during this week’s mini-camp, Woodson has been working a bit at receiver and slotback. He also played a little there last year in Toronto after Andre Durie was injured. This means Woodson is not entirely unfamiliar with playing multiple receiver positions, so he could be a stop gap solution for the Ti-Cats in the wake of Watt’s injury.
This is far from an ideal solution, but running backs have been converted into receivers in the past and had success. Durie might be the best example, but his current Argo teammate Anthony Coombs is making the transition and, going back a bit, former Tiger-Cat Archie Amerson became a darn good receiver after making the switch.
And Hamilton might consider this move to find a way to get Woodson onto the field, into the offense and replace Watt.
Hamilton is in a really unenviable position right now, trying to find a way to replace players who, especially in Watt’s case, were going to be major contributors this season. Hopefully both will make a speedy recovery and we will see them in black and gold next year.