As Ticats clean out lockers, many face uncertain future

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If you are a Tiger-Cat free agent, and there are a lot of you, expect the smallest player on the team to send you a big message.
“I’ve got most of the guys’ phone numbers, so any that are free agents I’ll definitely be calling,” says game-breaking punt returner and receiver Brandon Banks.
“We’ve got something here. We haven’t finished the past two years, but we know we can. I’m definitely going to put my two cents in if it can help get people back.”
There could be as many as 34 Ticats, including 16 “National” (Canadian) players, who are free to negotiate elsewhere as of Feb. 9, the start of the CFL’s free agency period. Coach Kent Austin, who wears mostly his GM hat during the off-season, hopes to re-sign a few of his free agents prior to the deadline. He also hinted Tuesday that some have already been inked, but did not expand.
With the CFL now allowing one-year contracts for non-rookies it means more players become eligible for free agency this winter and one of them, kicker Justin Medlock, says it’s been kind of an elephant in the Ticat locker room the past few weeks. He says the players recognized that the team, maybe even a large percentage of it, wouldn’t be together again in its entirety, so it was important to go as far as possible with this group. But Burris-to-Ellingson ended things earlier than they’d anticipated.
“I think there’s been a couple of weeks like that,” agrees defensive end Justin Hickman, one of the free agents. “I remember having a conversation that we need to capitalize on this season because we have a great team.”
But the ‘team’ portion of that ended on the field with Sunday’s loss to Ottawa and in the city with players packing and departing their Tim Hortons Field locker room Tuesday. Now, there is an I in team, and for the family men, a ‘we’ too.
“I think everybody is out for themselves now,” Medlock said. “This is a business so you have to do what’s good for yourself. It would be a great thing to continue playing here, all of us.”
But it won’t happen and won’t come even close to happening.  Some stars, such as defensive tackle Ted Laurent, will receive multiple CFL offers and maybe even some interest from the NFL. Receiver Terrell Sinkfield, linebacker Taylor Reed and others probably will get at least a sniff stateside. And with Ticat players in demand partly because they will bring some of the Austin/Ticat approach to their new team, some will get a sweeter deal elsewhere than the Cats can work into the salary cap here.
“We will prioritize,” Austin said. “Every player is at a different stage, and at a different level of counsel. We get that. And hopefully we have some players that are open to signing before  the free agent deadline. And others won’t. A player is only going to sign a couple of contracts in his career and we respect that.”
Austin says that Hamilton’s interest and activity in the free agency market will be determined by “how it plays out with our current group. We just have to look at the entire puzzle and make sure we have the depth and versatility we need to stay competitive through a tough season. We’ve had a lot of experience on injuries and I think some of our versatility, that philosophy, across the football team has helped us stay competitive.”
He did say he hopes to have his entire coaching staff on the field again next year and wants free agent Jeremiah Masoli in livery, along with his other three pivots already under contract: injured starter Zach Collaros, injured backup Jeff Mathews and starter-in-brief Jacory Harris.
Neither Collaros nor Austin could set a timetable for the quarterback’s return to action from the ACL injury which ended his till-then brilliant season. Conservative estimates usually peg recovery at around a year, but Collaros originally was hoping for an eight-or-nine-month ceiling, so he could be ready for training camp.
“Knowing Zach the way I do, the probabilities for that happening with him is probably greater than it is for most players,” Austin said. “That said, we’re going to be smart. We’re going to go according to the people who are most knowledgeable: his surgeon and our trainers.
“He’s valuable to us, so we’re not going to push him to come back too early.”
Defensive end Eric Norwood, who also faces ACL surgery, will be out of action deeper into the season than will Collaros.
Lawrence, heading to the Grey Cup as a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, is under contract and quips that if Reed doesn’t get to the NFL he’ll come back to Hamilton just to play beside Lawrence.
He added, more seriously, “As a player is you can’t just say, ‘I’m leaving Hamilton.’ There’s nothing to leave for.”
Tailback C.J. Gable is leaving for California but will be back for a fourth season after the past two have been shredded by injuries.
“My problem is that I’ve had freak accidents,” Gable said of shoulder, finger and elbow injuries.
“I’ve just gotta stay healthy.”
Collaros, like Banks, will try to influence as many of his current teammates as possible to become his future teammates.
“Definitely, I will,” he said. “Whatever’s best for guys and their family….but this is a great facility and I think it’s one of the best organizations in the  CFL so I think guys would want to be back here.
“It should be interesting.”
Very.

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