Key Ticat contributors on track to hit free agency

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The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are about to have a problem of national importance.

According to a list compiled by the Spectator, the team is slated to have 16 Canadian players hit the free agent market in February, second most of any team in the CFL (only Saskatchewan has more.) Another 18 American players could be available, including quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, kicker Justin Medlock and six defensive starters.

And the man charged with shoring up the roster – vice-president of football operations Kent Austin – will also be entering the final year of the contract he signed in December 2012.

Continuity has been one the team’s strengths this season: of the 46 players on the depth chart for the Grey Cup defeat in Vancouver, 43 were back with the club the following spring, including 22 of 24 starters on offence and defence. Austin was able re-sign pending free agent receiver Luke Tasker and return man Brandon Banks, then inked receiver Bakari Grant and defensive end Justin Hickman after they hit the open market.

Both Grant and Hickman signed one-year contracts and will be available to other teams again but the list of teammates joining them is considerably longer.

Among them: all-star halfback Emanuel Davis, defensive back Brandon Stewart, defensive tackle Bryan Hall, receiver Terrell Sinkfield, offensive linemen Joel Figueroa, Jake Olson and Jeremy Lewis as well as linebackers Taylor Reed and Erik Harris.

But it’s the list of potential Canadian departures that’s of even greater concern: defensive tackle Ted Laurent (the team’s Most Outstanding Canadian the last two seasons), starting corner Courtney Stephen, wide receiver Andy Fantuz, fullback C.O. Prime, defensive tackles Brian Bulcke, Mike Atkinson and Hasan Hazime as well as standout special teamers Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Frederic Plesius and Neil King.

Canadian talent is coveted in the CFL because ratio rules mandate that each team’s 44-man game roster incorporate 21 national players, including seven starters. While there is a large number of American-born players available, the pool of national players is comparatively small: high-profile Canucks are often the highest-paid players in the league behind starting quarterbacks.

With that in mind, the Ticats locked up starting centre Mike Filer and guard Ryan Bomben – both Canadians were set to become free agents – to contract extensions during this season. And the team should also see the return of three key Canadians from injury next season: receiver Spencer Watt as well as defensive tackles Linden Gaydosh and Evan Gill.

Hamilton is hardly the only team facing a substantial roster turnover. The Saskatchewan Roughriders lead the CFL with 35 potential free agents – one more than the Ticats – and overall, there could be more than 200 players available. That an increase of over 50 per cent from last season and a 65 per cent jump over 2014 (when the league had one less team.)

One factor in the jump in numbers is one-year contracts, which were introduced as part of the collective bargaining agreement signed by the league and players’ association before the start of the 2014 season. It allows veteran players to sign for just one year; previously, the minimum deal was two years (technically one year plus a team-held option.)

Rookies signing their first contracts are still under team control for two seasons.

The 2016 free agency period begins in mid-February and, as they’ve done in previous season, look for the Ticats to try and re-sign some key contributors before they hit the open market. This time, however, it could take more time – and money – than the team can afford.

The Ticat list of potential free agents:

INTERNATIONAL

Masoli, Jeremiah, QB
Lewis, Jeremy, OL
Figueroa, Joel, OL
Olson, Jake, OL
Madu, Jr., Mossis, RB
Sinkfield, Terrell, WR
Grant, Bakari, WR
Hickman, Justin, DL
Hall, Bryan, DL
Harris, Erik, LB
Caldwell, David, LB
Reed, Taylor, LB
Stewart, Brandon, DB
Gainey, Ed, DB
Davis, Emanuel, DB
Carter, Jalil, DB
Sears, Jr., Johnny, DB
Medlock, Justin, K

NATIONAL

Prime, Carl-Oliver, RB
Aprile, Giovanni, WR
Fantuz, Andy, WR
Gascon-Nadon, Arnaud, DL
Ellefsen, Everett, DL
Hazime, Hasan, DL
Laurent, Ted, DL
Bulcke, Brian, DL
Atkinson, Michael, DL
Plesius, Frederic, LB
Edem, Michael, DB
Stephen, Courtney, DB
King, Neil, DB
Miller, Kyle, DB
Crawford, Aaron, LS
O’Neill, Hugh, P

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