Ticats gain more than they lose on opening day of free agency

It was a busy first day of free agency as a lot of big names came off the market with new contracts in hand, but none may have been as big, both figuratively and literally, as the man the Ticats got back: defensive tackle Ted Laurent.

Laurent’s signing capped off a pretty good day for the black and gold, and was the biggest of a quartet of players to ink a deal with the Ticats. Receiver Andy Fantuz, offensive lineman Brian Simmons and linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis all agreed to terms with the Ticats.

Fantuz, who the team famously signed back in 2012, is coming off his worst season since his rookie year, but is still capable of being a go-to receiver. The Chatham, ON native caught 42 passes for 432 yards and two touchdowns in an injury-shortened campaign. And therein lies the problem with figuring out Fantuz’s worth: he simply cannot stay healthy. Just once in his 10-year career has he played a full 18 games and he has missed 20 games over the last three years with the Ticats. But when healthy, he can still be a reliable threat in the passing game. If the Ticats can get anywhere from 14-18 games out of Fantuz, this is a great signing.

The signing of Hoffman-Ellis is one of those sneaky-good acquisitions that we will find ourselves praising midway through the season, but isn’t going to grab many headlines right now. Hoffman-Ellis had the unenviable task of filling in for Solomon Elimimian when the 2014 MOP went down with torn Achilles last August and performed more than admirably. He racked up 57 tackles, while also picking up three interceptions playing the weak-side spot in BC’s linebacking corps. The Ticats currently have a weak-side linebacker in the East’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Simoni Lawrence, so one of the two will have to move, most likely to middle linebacker. No matter who moves, the Ticats got one heck of a player in Hoffman-Ellis.

While the team didn’t bring Simmons back simply because of of sentiment, you can’t help but be happy for a guy like Simmons. During his first stint in Hamilton, Simmons did everything he was asked and became one of the league’s best offensive lineman that no one really knew about. He was good as a rookie in 2012, got even better his sophomore season in 2013, and became an all-star, at a completely different position, in his third year. He was traded at midseason last year to Edmonton, but with the Ticats in need of some offensive line help, Simmons was brought back. With Simmons, Ryan Bomben, Peter Dyakowski, Mike Filer and Jeremy Lewis (who was re-signed on Sunday), the Ticats have the makings of a pretty good offensive line.

The headline grabber, however, was getting a deal done with Laurent. He was, by most accounts, the top player available and has been a major part of what Hamilton has done defensively the last seasons. He is, without question, the best interior defensive lineman in the CFL and might be the best Canadian player, at any position, in the entire league. As he has shown during his two years in Hamilton, having him anchor the line makes the whole defense better. And with John Chick already on board, the Ticats now have a pair of game breakers up front defensively.

However, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses as the Ticats lost a trio of players on Tuesday. Kicker Justin Medlock, and defensive backs Brandon Stewart and Mike Edem all changed addresses, with Medlock heading to Winnipeg and Stewart and Edem heading to BC.

Medlock’s loss leaves a big hole in the Ticats kicking game. He was, by far, the league’s best field goal kicker, though his punting was below-average at best. The one guy who could best replicate Medlock’s success, while also providing an upgrade in the punting game is Toronto’s Swayze Waters. With the Argos bringing in former Bombers kicker Lirim Hajrullahu, Waters looks to be on his way out of the Big Smoke. There would be no better landing spot for the former Argo than Hamilton (and Ticats quarterback Zach Collaros seems to agree).

The losses of both Stewart and Edem are not as great as the loss of Medlock, but Hamilton is once again woefully thin in the secondary — 2015 all-star Emanuel Davis remains unsigned — and will need to find players, one way or another, to replace those two. Stewart had his ups and downs during his two years in Hamilton, but he was a quality depth player and an ace special teamer, so his departure does hurt. Edem came over at the trade deadline last year, but didn’t see much action outside of special teams duty. But losing depth Canadians, especially when the team has so many Canadians still unsigned, always hurts.

All in all, day one for free agency needs to be considered a net win for the Ticats. They lost some guys, but retained a couple important pieces and added a couple more. When you bring in more talent than you lose, and one of those talents was the prize of free agency, it is hard not to think the day was a success.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.