When CFL free agency period opens at noon Tuesday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will have quite the shopping list — and lots of players to choose from.
There are 32 Ticat players set to hit the open market, including 25 who played in the East Final game against Ottawa at the end of last season. Of even greater concern, three Canadian starters from that contest are set to become available, including defensive tackle Ted Laurent, a CFL all-star.
There will be more than 140 players available, however, as a record number of CFLers hit free agency.
General manager Kent Austin has been moderately active in the free agent market the last three off seasons, predominantly using his cap dollars to re-sign his own players (linebacker Simoni Lawrence, receiver Brandon Banks), secure elite-level Canadian talent (Laurent, safety Craig Butler) and find affordable American free agents (defensive back Brandon Stewart.)
With all that in mind, here’s what the Ticats could be losing, what that means and how they may look to fill the holes.
1. Defensive line
The problem: Laurent, a Canadian coming off back-to-back stellar seasons, is one of the biggest names available and seems determined to test the market. Two other national defensive tackles with questionable injury histories, Brian Bulcke and Mike Atkinson, are also set to become free agents.
Hamilton could also lose American defensive tackle Bryan Hall, who has started 25 games over the last two seasons.
The potential solutions: Re-signing Laurent would solve a lot of problems but the Ticats do have a couple high draft picks in Linden Gaydosh and Evan Gill under contract: players with plenty of upside despite their injury history. Potential free agent targets include Ottawa’s Keith Shologan, Toronto’s Cleyon Laing and Edmonton’s Don Oramasionwu but the Ticats could also signal a ratio shift by signing a Canadian starter at another position.
If Hall doesn’t return, sophomore Drake Nevis could be a cheap solution, supported by a raft of rookies battling it out in training camp.
The problem: starting middle linebacker Taylor Reed is poised to become a free agent, SAM (linebacker) Erik Harris has signed with the New Orleans Saints and backups David Caldwell and Dan Molls — guys who haven’t played much but know the system — are also free agents.
The potential solutions: There are some big name middle linebackers available, including Edmonton’s J.C. Sherritt and Toronto’s Greg Jones but the Ticats have already made a significant investment in weak side all-star Simoni Lawrence and may not want to invest big dollars in another international defender. At SAM, Hamilton has veterans Rico Murray and Johnny Sears under contract for next season both of whom have the skillset for the position.
Getting Reed, Molls or Caldwell under contract at a reasonable rate – and there will be plenty of value to be had after the initial frenzy – might be the best course of action.
3. American defensive back
The problem: all-star halfback Emanuel Davis, starting corner Ed Gainey and veteran utility man Brandon Stewart are all set to become free agents.
The potential solutions: Davis has developed into a nice player but it won’t be a surprise if the Ticats move on from the rest of the 2015 secondary. Defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer has shown a preference for veterans and there will be a ton of guys on the open market, including Edmonton’s Aaron Grymes, Montreal’s Jerald Brown, Ottawa’s Jovon Johnson, Winnipeg’s Lin-J Shell and Demond Washington, Saskatchewan’s Weldon Brown and B.C.’s Cord Parks.
As they’ve done in the past, the Ticats may also look to bring a large number of American defensive backs to training camp in hopes finding one or two serviceable ones: in a salary cap world, finding good players is often preferable to buying them.
The problem: Justin Medlock is set to become a free agent.
The potential solutions: Re-signing Medlock makes a lot of sense, given his accuracy and leg strength in the perpetually breezy Tim Hortons Field. But as an American, Medlock takes up a valuable designated import spot and is a big-ticket item — he was paid in excess of $150,000 last season. Concerned with his inconsistent punting, the team brought in Canadian Hugh O’Neill last season before going back to Medlock after O’Neill got hurt.
If they re willing to spend similar money and use up the DI spot, Toronto’s Swayze Waters has similar leg strength and better punting numbers (though he’s also been injured a lot.) Canadian Lirim Hajrullahu, who played his university ball at Western and won’t be back in Winnipeg, does all three jobs and would likely be cheaper than Medlock or Waters.
5. Canadian receiver
The problem: veteran Andy Fantuz is set to become a free agent.
The potential solutions: Fantuz is 32 years old and has struggled with injuries the last few seasons, meaning the Ticats are unlikely to offer him anything close to the monster money he was making the last four years. Still, for a hometown discount and that would allow him stay local… maybe.
Spencer Watt, who suffered an Achilles tear last off-season, should be ready for training camp and Matt Coates was having a break out season before suffering a knee injury in October. At worst, he provides solid insurance and special teams play. With a draft pick or affordable free agent pick up, the Ticats could easily start one Canadian receiver.
If they want the option of starting two Canadian receivers — and Laurent’s departure may force that — then picking up a guy like Edmonton’s Shamawd Chambers makes sense. He’ll be cheaper than Laurent and he’s a Toronto guy with close ties to linebacker Simoni Lawrence.
6. Canadian depth
The problem: Players like Fredo Plesius and Arnaud Gascon-Nadon are free agents.
The potential solutions: Both Plesius (a linebacker) and Gascon-Nadon (a defensive end) may look for bigger pay days and a better chance at a starting job elsewhere. The Ticats have done a good job drafting depth/special teams guys (Byron Archambault, Beau Landry) or picking them up as undrafted free agents (Coates) and will likely look to replenish their Canadian talent without spending big dollars.