One of the most anticipated events of every offseason is the start of free agency. In part one of a two-part Ticats free agency primer, I will take a look at what might happen with some of the team’s remaining unsigned players.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats had remarkable roster consistency from 2014 to 2015. Of the 24 players who started on offense and defense for the team in the 102nd Grey Cup, just two did not return to the team in 2015: Delvin Breaux, who signed with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, and Sam Giguère, who the team allowed to leave in free agency to Montreal (and who is a free agent again this year). Over the course of the season, the team made changes, but to have 22 of 24 starters back from one year to the next is almost unheard of in the salary cap era.
But then we come to this year and the Ticats have an incredible 33 players scheduled to hit the free agent market on February 9, many of whom started for the team last season. It will be impossible for the team to lock up all their pending free agents, so some will head elsewhere, while others may test the market and decide they would like to return to Hamilton.
The biggest name on the Ticats’ list, and probably the biggest name of any player available, is also one of the biggest players in the league: defensive tackle Ted Laurent. Laurent will have more than his far share of suitors, and will have his pick of where to go. While Hamilton is probably still in the mix, do not be surprised if Laurent heads west to the prairies and lands in either Saskatchewan or Winnipeg. Winnipeg has the money to spend and have been very vocal about being aggressive in free agency, while Saskatchewan just shed some salary and we all know how much Chris Jones loves his big, middle-clogging defensive tackles. Laurent is due a huge payday, so whether he stays in Hamilton or leaves for a bigger paycheque somewhere else will have a ripple effect on the rest of the free agent class.
Laurent is not the only stud Canadian player possibly on his way out of Hamilton. Defensive back Courtney Stephen, who had an all-star-calibre season in 2015, is also looking for a new contract. Stephen really came into his own in 2015, posting a career-high four interceptions, while also picking up a career-high 48 tackles. Stephen, who is a natural safety, was moved to wide-side corner when the team signed Craig Butler in 2014. Stephen has blossomed into one of the league’s best at that position, and due to his versatility, will be highly sought after come February 9. A lot of teams will want a guy of Stephen’s skills in their secondary, and do not be surprised if the Brampton, ON native heads a little further north and signs with the Toronto Argonauts. The marriage makes sense, especially if Stephen cannot reach an agreement with the Ticats.
Two more 2015 all stars could be headed elsewhere, with defensive back Emanuel Davis and kicker Justin Medlock still unsigned. Davis had a breakout season in 2015, recording five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, and Medlock was just, well, Medlock. Both are due for raises and both of those raises could be from a team that is not the Tiger-Cats. Word out of Winnipeg is that the Bombers will go hard after Medlock, which considering their kicking woes last year, makes a lot of sense. Few in the game are as accurate and clutch and Medlock, so any team with kicking questions would be wise to give him a call. Meanwhile, Davis’ name has not been floated as much, but a team like Edmonton could be interested if they lose one of their own pending free agents, Aaron Grymes.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. There are a number of players that could hit free agency that might still return to Hamilton. While the four above look to be headed elsewhere, there are a few that could be staying right where they are. Two of those players are Andy Fantuz and Brian Bulcke. Four years ago Fantuz was the free agent prize and this year he is almost an after-thought, failing to crack both TSN’s and the CFL’s lists of top free agents. Incredible what four years can do. But while Fantuz may not be the big fish this time around, the 32-year-old former Most Outstanding Canadian can still be a big contributor in the receiving game and the Ticats would be wise to bring him back. Despite the injuries that have marred his Tiger-Cats career, when Fantuz is healthy, he is still among the league’s best. He can’t be relied upon to give the team a full 18 games, but he can still be a valuable member of the team.
Bulcke has had it even worse than Fantuz, missing the last year and a half with a pair of injuries, first to his bicep and then to his knee. But in 2013 and the first half of 2014, Bulcke was one the team’s best interior lineman. While he did not perform at a Ted Laurent-level, he was still a key cog in helping get the Ticats to the 101st Grey Cup. With Laurent possibly headed elsewhere, the team would be wise to try and retain Bulcke’s services. Having quality, starting-calibre Canadians is one of the most important parts of any CFL team’s roster, so locking up guys like Fantuz and Bulcke, despite their recent injury struggles, would be a wise move.
One of the most unheralded players of Hamilton’s most recent run of success is defensive tackle Bryan Hall. While Ted Laurent has rightfully garnered most of the attention, Hall has been more than just Robin to Laurent’s Batman. Hall might not have the eye-popping stats — few defensive tackles do — but he has still been a key component of Hamilton’s defense, and losing him in addition to Laurent would be a huge blow to Hamilton’s defensive line, so making sure Hall is retained should be a priority for the Ticats front office.
Fan favourites such as Bakari Grant, Taylor Reed and Justin Hickman might have to wait for the dust to settle on the bigger names before they will know what their futures hold. All three are good players, but teams look to add the superstar players first before heading into that middle tier where players like Grant, Reed and Hickman reside. Guys like them are important to roster building, but are not seen as high priorities based on their output and position. It will be interesting to see what happens with guys like these, not just on the Ticats front, but around the league. With so many free agents available, this is an offseason unlike any other and those mid-level guys could get pushed even further to the back than they normally would be at this time of year.
There are a lot of things that could happen between now and the start of free agency, but the Ticats know that roster consistency is important, so even if some of these men are without a contract come February 9, that does not mean they won’t return to the team in 2016.