Ticats and Argos connected in free agency, as always

In the days leading up to the Labour Day Classic, former Hamilton Tiger-Cats offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski used to lead his teammates in a colourful song filled with unprintable insults about their upcoming opponent and arch rival Toronto Argonauts.

Dyakowski will be singing a different tune this season but the animus that exists between the two organizations should be very much intact — particularly after a free agency period that already has seen several players head down the QEW at the urging of a couple of former Ticat staffers — assistant general manager Spencer Zimmerman and advisor Tommy Condell — now running things on an interim basis for the Argonauts.

Both teams have had an interesting start to the opening of free agency.

The Argos missed out on a couple of big name targets early on — including defensive backs Abdul Kanneh and Emanuel Davis who came to Hamilton — but have since added Dyakowski, quarterback Jeff Mathews and defensive back Johnny Sears, all former Ticats. They’ve also signed receiver Jeff Fuller, linebacker Winston Venable and a number of Canadians.

It’s a solid, if unspectacular haul, even after the inauspicious start.

The Ticats, meanwhile, followed the blueprint laid out by Austin. They landed Kanneh, one of their high-profile targets, while re-signing the all-star Davis and once again rewarding talent they’ve developed from within.

Extending receiver Brian Tyms, a late-season pickup who showed tremendous promise in limited action, coupled with the extension for Terrence Toliver, shores up a receiving corps that will be without Chad Owens (signed in Saskatchewan) and Andy Fantuz (who is a free agent and will miss extended time with a knee injury no matter who he plays for.)

And there may be more help coming. Receiver Terrell Sinkfield has reportedly agreed to a contract in principle to return to the Ticats but has until April to take advantage an NFL opportunity, should one materialize. While that’s certainly possible, it would be a stretch to call it likely and so Hamilton is likely penciling in another speedy receiver with a 1,000 yard season on his resume.

So the receiving corps, so ravaged by injury last season, now looks something like this: Luke Tasker, Tyms, Tolliver, Sinkfield and a Canadian (Spencer Watt or Mike Jones, likely) with a steady dose of Brandon Banks. Junior Collins provides veteran insurance. It’s a nice mix of experience and potential, size and speed.

The defensive backfield, meanwhile, features two all-stars in Kanneh and Davis and a Canadian safety in Courtney Stephen. They have the option to play a second national in Craig Butler, if they need or want to. The other spots will be filled by the cornucopia of American defensive backs either already on the roster, on the negotiation list or on their way to a free agent camp. It’s still a question mark but there’s a solid nucleus, to be sure.

There have been some inevitable departures but virtually all were by design.

Dyakowski, for all his off-field value, is on the down side and Sears played just eight games in two years due to injury. Mathews was a third-string quarterback who’ll be replaced by someone younger and with more potential (at least in the eyes of the Ticats.) Running back Anthony Woodson has been supplanted by Burlington’s Mercer Timmis — both younger and cheaper — while defensive tackle Drake Nevis left for Winnipeg after getting a deal the Ticats had no intention of matching.

Given their atrocious injury luck the last couple of seasons, the Ticats are clearly being cautious in this regard. Toliver’s deal includes play-time and performance incentives.

There are still some question marks, however. The team doesn’t have a kicker under contract and doesn’t seem keen on providing Brett Maher with a contract that would provide him with any kind of job security. They will likely look to hold another open try out and bring the best of the candidates to training camp.

The other concern: strong side linebacker. That’s a tough position to fill at the best of times, a hybrid that requires cover skills and run-stuffing ability with no real NFL equivalent: CFL experience is almost a must. It was a problem spot last season and the final solution — 34-year-old veteran Keon Raymond — won’t work again.

The Ticats and Argos play each other three times this season, including marquee games to open the season and on Labour Day. There’s plenty of history and bad blood, both historically and in more recent times. It will be interesting to see, once all is said and done, who is singing a happy song.

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