While much has been made of the fact that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats do not have a kicker under contract at the moment, there is one other glaring hole in the roster: the absence of a proven strong-side or SAM linebacker.
The position poses some unique challenges. It requires a linebacker’s tackling ability, but the coverage skills of defensive back. It is the toughest spot to play on a CFL defence and no real NFL comparison. So knowledge of the Canadian game is a must.
Hamilton has had some great players in recent memory at the position: Markeith Knowlton, who was named the league’s top defensive player in 2010, and Erik Harris, who is now with the New Orleans Saints, are two recent SAM standouts.
But, the position was a bit of a no man’s land last year, as the Ticats started four players – Rico Murray, Brandon Sermons, Keon Raymond and Jeremaine Robinson – none of whom are currently under contract with the club
While SAM was a concern last season, the biggest trouble spot was actually the entire secondary. So it’s hardly a surprise that the Ticats went looking for upgrades this off-season. They brought Abdul Kanneh over from Ottawa, and brought back all-star Emanuel Davis in free agency. They signed two American rookies in Keon Lyn and Axel Ofori, Jr., traded with Montreal for Ethan Davis, re-signed Cleshawn Page and recently added four other American DBs, including former New York Giant, Will Hill.
Add in holdovers: Cassius Vaughn, Demond Washington, Dominique Ellis, Chris Davis and Travis Lee, and the Ticats currently have 15 American defensive backs on their roster. Obviously, not all these players will make the team out of training camp, but they’ll have plenty of competition – and the option to convert a defensive back to the SAM spot.
That evolution is par for the course in the CFL. Raymond and Harris came into the CFL as defensive backs, but were moved to SAM linebacker, where they excelled. The same could happen again with the Ticats in 2017. And there are a couple players that make some sense and one that fans seem to be clamouring for: Craig Butler, Demond Washington and Dominique Ellis.
Butler’s name is one you see a lot of fans bandy about when it comes to finding someone to fill the SAM role. They will talk about how he was a SAM in Saskatchewan, how moving him to SAM will give the team better ratio flexibility. Butler at SAM would allow for Courtney Stephen to stay at safety, but it could also allow Stephen to move back to field corner (where he started from 2013-2015) and start Mike Daly at safety. That flexibility would allow the Ticats to potentially start an all-American receiving corps. It is a very appealing idea for fans.
But it is not going to happen.
The role Butler played in Saskatchewan was not a traditional SAM. He played some SAM, but it was more of a hybrid position. He would not have that luxury in the Ticats system, where he would have to be a traditional SAM and his skills are not suited for that role. So as much as fans may want it, Butler will not be the team’s SAM linebacker, so we have to move on to other possibilities. That is where Washington and Ellis come in.
The cases for Washington and Ellis are pretty similar, as both have the skills necessary to succeed. Washington played halfback with the Bombers in 2015, and the Ticats have both their halfback spots taken care of with Kanneh and Davis. And with Butler at safety and Stephen at field corner, the only open spot in the secondary is at boundary corner. Washington could play that position, but that seems to be where the team is loading up at the moment.
Of the American DBs the team has, both Vaughn and Page have started for the Ticats at boundary corner, as has the recently acquired Ethan Davis. So perhaps the Ticats have tipped their hand slightly and we’ll see a battle in camp between Vaughn, Page and Davis at boundary corner, and we will see Washington get a crack at joining Lawrence and Dean in the LB corps.
Like Washington, Ellis has the skills necessary to play the position. With the acquisition of Kanneh and the re-upping of Davis, there really isn’t a spot in the secondary for Ellis, who has started at halfback for both Hamilton and Montreal over his career. With his mix of coverage skills and physicality, Ellis is basically a healthy version of Johnny Sears. Moving Ellis makes a lot of sense, and he might be the perfect candidate to take over as the team’s new SAM linebacker in 2017.