With the 2016 Hamilton Tiger-Cats season officially in the books, here’s a position-by-position look at where the team stands heading into next year:
Quarterbacks: The Ticats have a bona fide No. 1 starter in Zach Collaros and quality backup (Jeremiah Masoli) under contract for next season. After an up-and-down campaign, look for Collaros to return to his 2015 form with the benefit of a more typical off-season training regimen (he was rehabbing from knee surgery last year) and full training camp. No. 3 man Jeff Mathews is slated to become a free agent and likely won’t be back as the team will look to give youngster Everett Golson the opportunity to develop.
Potential free agents: Mathews, Jacory Harris.
Running backs: C.J. Gable posted his best numbers since his rookie season, finishing sixth in the CFL with 693 rushing yards to go along with 405 receiving while playing in 15 games. Gable, now 29, is under contract next season but the Ticats will have to decide whether they want to go with a more cap-friendly option and already have Ross Scheuerman — still on his rookie deal — in house. Among the Canadians, rookie Mercer Timmis showed promise while playing in nine games this season while Anthony Woodson could depart via free agency. Indestructible fullback C.O. Prime will return.
Potential free agents: Woodson, Kendial Lawrence, Da’Rel Scott
Receivers: This group was ravaged by injury in 2016 and could look radically different by the time training camp rolls around. Expect Luke Tasker, fully recovered from an abdominal injury that cost him the last six games, to be back but Canadian Andy Fantuz is a free agent in February and is facing a long recovery from an ACL tear, while 34-year-old Chad Owens, who played well before breaking his foot, and 1,000-yard man Terrence Toliver are also set to hit the open market. Brian Tyms, who finished the season strong, is expected to be back. Without Fantuz, look for Canadian Mike Jones to be given the opportunity to step into a starting role.
Potential free agents: Owens, Toliver, Kevin Elliott, John Chiles, Giovanni Aprile, Matt Coates.
Offensive line: The Ticats have a solid core of Canadian offensive linemen with veterans Mike Filer and Ryan Bomben along with youngsters Brandon Revenberg and Mathieu Girard all under contract. The team will have to make a decision about veteran Peter Dyakowski, who was listed as a back up to Revenberg for four games late in the season. There may be change at tackle as Xavier Fulton, acquired in October via trade, is a free agent though Jake Olson, who missed the entire season with a torn patella, could return. Hamilton could also elect to start four Canadians next season or dip into the free agent pool for talent.
Potential free agents: Fulton, Landon Rice
Defensive line: Defensive tackle Ted Laurent, as well as defensive ends John Chick and Adrian Tracy are all under contract for next season — only tackle Drake Nevis is set to hit the open market. The team also has Canadian defensive end Justin Capicciotti and tackles Mike Atkinson and Evan Gill under control — that’s a solid base of both national and international talent.
Potential free agents: Nevis, Louis Richardson
Linebackers: Perennial all-star Simoni Lawrence and impressive first-year man Larry Dean will form the nucleus of this unit but the team will need to either find or develop a strong-side linebacker after struggling at that spot this season. Veterans Rico Murray and Johnny Sears have the ability but neither have shown the ability to stay healthy and both are set to be free agents. Aging veteran Keon Raymond was a stop gap at best.
Potential free agents: Sears, Murray, Raymond
Secondary: With Canadian safety Craig Butler expected to return from a knee injury, the Ticats have the option to revert to a secondary featuring two national starters (with Courtney Stephen moving back to corner.) Backup Mike Daly is set to be a free agent, however, and may command starter money elsewhere. There’s plenty of uncertainty among the American defensive backs as well: Emanuel Davis is a pending free agent and the team may look to move on from several others.
Potential free agents: Johnny Adams, Daly, Davis, Shane Herbert, Cleshawn Page, Jermaine Robinson.
Special teams: Kicker Brett Maher is a free agent and may be looking for a more significant raise than the Ticats are willing to offer. Given their success at finding Maher after a broad casting call and extended competition last season, the team may be comfortable going that route again. Long snapper Aaron Crawford has another year on his deal and the team has an excellent core of young Canadian talent, including Frederic Plesius and Terrell Davis, for coverage units. One big question: will Brandon Banks be back? His three kick return touchdowns this season led the CFL but he struggled with consistency and was at the centre of two big controversies, missing the first part of training camp with a “family issue” then serving a two-game suspension after testing positive for a recreational drug.
Potential free agents: Maher, Beau Landry, Ron Omara
Coaching staff: Vice-president of football operations and head coach Kent Austin has three years remaining on the extension he signed before this season so he isn’t going anywhere. Defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer’s contract is up and he is expected to be a candidate for head coaching jobs, particularly if there’s an opening in Toronto, but left the door open for a return. If Steinauer leaves, one option could see special teams co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold take over the defensive reins. Offensive co-ordinator Stefan Ptasek is under contract for next year.
Three reasons the Ticats should be good next year
While this season may have been the team’s poorest showing of the Kent Austin-era, there’s reason to be optimistic for 2017. Here are three reasons why:
1. Stability at quarterback. The Ticats were the first team in CFL history to have two players throw for 15 touchdowns in the same season and both Zach Collaros and Jeremiah Masoli are slated to return next year. While Collaros wasn’t spectacular down the stretch, he’s still considered an elite player at the game’s most important position and he’s still only 28.
2. Canadians under contract. Hamilton did an excellent job getting its core group of Canadian players signed to extensions last season, locking up offensive linemen Mike Filer and Ryan Bomben as well as defensive back Courtney Stephen and tackle Ted Laurent. With safety Craig Butler expected to return from knee surgery and a stable of young players in development — offensive linemen Brandon Revenberg and Mathieu Girard, receiver Mike Jones, running back Mercer Timmis, linebacker Terrell Davis — the Ticats have excellent national depth.
3. The East Division is a train wreck. Montreal has just fired their general manager, there’s uncertainty in Toronto and Ottawa will have a number of big names slated to hit free agency this February. Hamilton has stability in ownership and management, a solid season ticket base and a talented group of core players. They need to get better, certainly. But they are in excellent shape to contend in 2017.