While the jubilation resulting from the Redblacks’ Grey Cup win will sustain R-Nation throughout the off-season, the reality is that GM Marcel Desjardins cannot rest on his laurels if he hopes to see his team repeat at home next year.
But before Desjardins can even think of reloading for next year’s Grey Cup run, he must first look to take care of business on the home front, as with 31 potential free agents, the Grey Cup champions could lead the CFL in roster turnover.
Here’s a look at which players Ottawa’s GM should concentrate on extending before they hit free agency on Feb. 14th.
Kienan LaFrance, RB, National
Nolan MacMillan, OL, National
Ernest Jackson, WR, International
Greg Ellingson, WR, International
The two absolute no-brainers from Ottawa’s potential FA list are Jackson and Ellingson. Not only did they post 1000 yard seasons for the second consecutive year, but both are capable of taking over a game. If anyone doubts their importance, just look back to Ottawa’s 2014 season and watch receivers kill drives by dropping catchable ball after catchable ball.
When it comes to LaFrance, not only does he help the ratio with his passport, but the 2016 playoffs were his coming out party. Having proven that he is a viable starting option at running back in addition to being a significant special teams contributor, it’ll be interesting to see where LaFrance winds up on next year’s depth chart if he re-signs.
Lastly, until Nolan MacMillan returned from his broken wrist in September, Ottawa’s offensive line was in a constant state of flux, with the starting five being shuffled around every week. The 1st pick in Redblacks’ franchise history is a stabilizing presence who must be retained.
Taylor Reed, LB, International
John Boyett, LB, International
Antoine Pruneau, DB, National
Mitchell White, DB, International
Abdul Kanneh, DB, International
Much like MacMillan stabilized the offensive line, Reed’s addition to Ottawa’s defence was a catalyst for the unit’s strong play down the stretch. His veteran presence and sure tackling was a boost to a group that lacked both at times during the season. Before getting hurt, Boyett was another impact player and a LB corps consisting of Munoz, Reed and Boyett would rank among the most dangerous in the league.
Canadian Antoine Pruneau has started nearly every game since being drafted by Ottawa and settled into his new position at safety following a mid-season move from linebacker. Aside from the obvious benefit of having a National starter in the secondary, Pruneau finished the year with the second most special teams tackles.
Although Kanneh is on everyone’s mind because of his incredible goal line tackle in the Grey Cup, since joining Ottawa in July, White was one of the Redblacks’ best corners. Even when he was beat, it was often by an incredible catch as he consistently maintained good position. As for Kanneh, though his torpedo like hits sometimes result in missed tackles, the reality is he’s a two-time CFL All-Star and brings an infectious confidence/swag that rubs off on his teammates.
Travon Van, RB, International
William Powell, RB, International
J’Michael Deane, OL, National
Scott MacDonnell, WR, National
Khalil Paden, WR, International
Jamill Smith, WR, International
Who should be Ottawa’s lead tailback? Once everyone gets healthy, it’s an interesting question for the Redblacks. Is it worth bringing back Powell given what he showed in 2015? Or will his recovery from a ruptured Achilles make Desjardins wary of offering him another contract? As for Van, with his healthy 5.2 yards per carry and his ability to make defenders miss, will the team want him in the mix come training camp?
Despite his propensity for being flagged, Deane is an excellent offensive linemen. That being said, perhaps he will be viewed as expendable given the money tied up in former 1st round pick Alex Mateas and the fact that depth OL Matt Albright held his own in limited starts. Not to mention it’s extremely likely the Redblacks scoop an offensive linemen or two in the early rounds of this year’s draft.
This group of receivers is an interesting one. Already cut once, will Paden’s 17.9 yards per catch be enough to earn him a new deal? Paden has fantastic hands and quick feet and could be the team’s new deep threat if Chris Williams leaves. Though MacDonnell is a non-factor in the passing game, he does contribute on special teams and provides Canadian depth behind Brad Sinopoli and Jake Harty. Smith is another receiver whose main contributions come on special teams, specifically in the return game. Given that he shared the role (and starts) with Tristan Jackson, I don’t see them both returning.
Moton Hopkins, DL, International
Aston Whiteside, DL, International
Nigel Romick, DL, National
Ettore Lattanzio, DL, National
Andrew Marshall, DE, National
Jerrell Gavins, DB, International
Forrest Hightower, DB, International
An emotional leader, Hopkins has been with the franchise since Day One and was an integral part of Ottawa’s defensive line rotation. Though he wasn’t a full time starter, Lattanzio made the most of each rep, turning limited action into 24 tackles an 5 sacks. Marshall and Romick not only provided Canadian depth but were valuable contributors on special teams, with the former leading the Redblacks with 16 special teams tackles on the year. One year removed from a torn knee, Whiteside often failed to dress and struggled to get after the QB when he did hit the field. Still, when healthy, his ability to pressure opposing QBs is second to none.
As for Gavins and Hightower, though I don’t have them listed as high priority, both deserve to be brought back and likely will, depending on what happens with Kanneh and White. Gavins’ transition to SAM linebacker was flawless and he acquitted himself well despite his smaller (for a LB) frame. In his first season as a regular starter, Hightower played well but saved his best for the biggest moment of the year, stepping up in the Grey Cup by picking off CFL MOP Bo Levi Mitchell twice.
Ray Early, K, International
Tristan Jackson, DB/KR, International
With the up and down season he had, Chris Milo must have felt a bit uneasy watching Ray Early come in and make every field goal he attempted. At the very least, Early deserves a shot to fight for Milo’s job in training camp. With regard to Jackson, even if he struggled with injuries and missed significant time, he was Ottawa’s most dangerous returner, as evidenced by the two punts he returned for TDs.
Danny O’Brien, QB, International
Chris Williams, WR, International
In three seasons with the Redblacks, O’Brien has played in 15 games, completed 55% of his passes, thrown 2 TDs to 7 INTs and averaged 5.9 yards per pass. Frankly, it’s hard to see him back with the team as Brock Jensen is more than capable of backing up Burris and Harris. As for Chris Williams, though he is arguably the most explosive and fastest player in the CFL, it’s unlikely he’ll be healthy until at least mid-season. Furthermore, he won’t come cheap as he amassed 1246 yards and 10 TDs in just 14 games. If Desjardins chooses to let Williams walk, the emergence of Juron Criner in the playoffs helps soften the blow. All that being said, if Henry Burris does retire, I expect a bigger push from Desjardins to sign Williams, due to the chemistry he’s shown with Trevor Harris.
Cleyon Laing, DE, National
Mike Moore, DL, International
Jeff Richards, DB, International
Nicholas Taylor, DB, International
Dan West, DB, National
Laing was signed to help the Redblacks capture the 104th Grey Cup and that’s exactly what he did. Since it was common knowledge he still harboured NFL aspirations, it’s no surprise that he’s already been released. Moore, Richards, Taylor and West were mainly special teamers who rotated in but if Desjardins fails to re-up the guys they back up, their value increases.