CFL DRAFT PREVIEW SERIES: Ticats could use some luck (and depth)

Welcome to the first of 3DownNation’s series of team-by-team draft previews. In the days leading up to next Tuesday’s CFL Draft, we’ll examine the state of each CFL squad’s Canadian talent, including where we expect them to play their seven Canadian starters. From there, we’ll assess their needs and predict what they might do in the the draft. Up first: the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Introduction

What the Ticats really need from the 2016 CFL Draft is a little bit of luck.

The team has suffered through an astonishing rash of injuries to its Canadian talent during the three seasons of the Kent Austin era and its recent draft picks have hardly been immune.

Linden Gaydosh could be the poster child for this group. A 2013 first rounder (first overall) the defensive tackle signed with the Carolina Panthers shortly after being drafted, hurt his back, arrived in Hamilton the following August, played in 11 games, then tore his Achilles in the off-season and missed all of last season. Their 2014 first rounder, defensive tackle Evan Gill, has battled shoulder and knee injuries and has yet to see the field. The team’s top pick in 2015, linebacker Byron Archambault, played in nine games last season, then ripped up his knee and is touch and go for training camp.

(This is part of a larger trend that has seen pretty much every one of the team’s Canadian starters miss at least some time with injury over the past two seasons. The most recent victim: safety Craig Butler, who is expected to miss a large chunk of 2016 with the knee injury.)

To compound matters, the team lost some significant Canadian talent via free agency this season. Defensive tackle Brian Bulcke left for Toronto, safety Mike Edem signed in B.C., defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon inked a deal with Ottawa and special teams stalwart Neil King joined his brother in Edmonton. They also traded veteran offensive lineman Tim O’Neill to the B.C. Lions. Four of those five could be starting with their new teams in week one.

Despite the departures, the Ticats’ Canadian situation could have been much worse had it not been for their ability to re-sign some key players in the months leading up to, and in the early moments of, free agency. Starting offensive lineman Ryan Bomben and Mike Filer were extended last fall while defensive back Courtney Stephen re-signed just before hitting the open market. Receiver Andy Fantuz re-upped just after free agency began and defensive tackle Ted Laurent – probably the best player available – considered multiple offers before ultimately returning to the Ticats.

Ticats Canadian depth chart

Projected starters

A look at their Canadian depth chart (above) shows where the Ticats are likely to play to their seven Canadian starters and the positions where they could use additional depth.

Five of those spots remain unchanged from last season. The team has three veteran Canadian offensive linemen in Bomben (who was acquired in a draft-day trade last year), Filer and the recently-extended Peter Dyakowski. Laurent is a lock at defensive tackle and Andy Fantuz can still be productive if – and this is a big if – he can stay healthy.

Last season, the team also started two Canadian defensive backs in safety Craig Butler and field corner Courtney Stephen. But Butler’s knee injury is expected to keep him out for all of 2016 and that means the Ticats have some decisions to make.

One option would be to promote Mike Daly into a starting role at safety, particularly after he played well in relief of Butler last season (three interceptions in six starts.) With Spencer Watt now recovered from his Achilles tear, Hamilton could also start two Canadian receivers. Going with two national defensive tackles is also an option, with Gaydosh or Mike Atkinson stepping in alongside Laurent. Linebacker Frederic Plesius, another sneaky-good re-signing this off-season, is another candidate though the team has plenty of American talent at the position.

Given the team’s injury luck (and lack of depth at some spots) it’s possible that all of these ratio configurations could become necessary over the course of the season, though I would expect the two defensive tackle or two receiver scenario to be the most likely, with Stephen moving to safety – a spot he played in college – if only to provide some depth behind him.

While some CFL teams choose seven positions at which to start Canadians, then design their rosters and depth charts accordingly, the Ticats emphasize stocking up on quality national players regardless of position, then starting the best seven available at any given time. That has necessitated some in-game ratio shuffling and roster manipulation when Canadian players are injured.

Recent drafts and philosophy

Since Austin took over in 2013, the Ticats have been active in the trade market with regard to their picks. In 2015, they sent the No. 8 overall pick and a third rounder to Montreal for Bomben (a deal that looks even better after his extension.) They made a slew of trades in 2014 that left them with two first round picks, then nothing until the fifth round. In 2013, they dealt second and third round picks for a lower second rounder and Canadian defensive tackle Hasan Hazime.

With the exception of taking Gaydosh first overall in 2013, the Ticats have – generally speaking – looked to trade down or trade picks away in order to get multiple picks or players who could contribute right away. Because they don’t necessarily start Canadians at set positions and have felt good about their overall national depth, they have generally drafted the best player available, regardless of position, while also emphasizing special teams play. Exhibit A: drafting linebackers with four of their six picks in 2015.

Of the 20 players selected since Austin took over, 10 are still on the roster while one, Brent Urban, is in the NFL. But just one of those 10 could be considered even a part-time starter (fullback C.O. Prime, who comes out in five receiver sets.)

Draft position, needs and possible solutions

The Ticats currently have their first round pick (No. 5 overall) as well as an extra third round pick at No. 18 acquired from Saskatchewan in the Brandon Boudreaux deal. They also have picks at 14, 23, 32, B.C.’s pick at 39 (acquired in exchange for Canadian offensive lineman Tim O’Neill) 41, 59 and 67. They dealt their sixth rounder at No. 50 to Montreal in exchange for defensive back Mike Edem, now with the Lions.

While Hamilton has eight or nine quality Canadian starters (including Gaydosh, Watt and Plesius) and plenty special teams depth, they could use some support along the offensive line and at receiver, two spots where they are vulnerable to injury should they lose their top talent.

Fortunately for the Ticats there are a number of highly-ranked players at both those positions. Offensive linemen Josiah St. John (Oklahoma), Charles Vaillancourt (Laval), Phillip Gagon (Laval) or Hamilton product Dillon Guy (Buffalo) would all be good fits. I would expect a number of teams, including the Ticats, to steer clear of using a high pick on Tevaun Smith, the top-ranked receiver, who signed a free agent deal in the NFL but Brian Jones (Acadia), Juwan Brescacin (Northern Illinois) or Doug Corby (Queen’s) could be targets.

Though without a consensus No. 1 pick and with some uncertainty surrounding the NFL prospects of some of the top players, this draft class has considerable depth. The Ticats, with picks at 5, 14 and 18 could land some quality talent or package those picks for something else of value. UBC kicker Quinn van Gylswyk could be of interest, though don’t expect Hamilton to use a high pick to take him.

He could fall to them, however, if they get lucky – though that would require a change of pace.

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