Q&A: Ticats GM Eric Tillman on the trades, Johnny Manziel and free agency

It was one of the craziest off-season days in recent memory.

Last Friday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats traded for defensive end Charleston Hughes, then sent him to Saskatchewan for quarterback Vernon Adams in an unexpected turn of events that allowed the Ticats to secure a quarterback they’d been coveting.

We talked with Ticats general manager Eric Tillman about how the deals came together, what it might mean for Johnny Manziel and how the team is planning to approach the opening of CFL free agency next week.

Justin Dunk: Two high calibre defensive ends were traded on the same day in separate three-way deals, were the Ticats involved in just one or both? And how did your deals with Calgary and Saskatchewan unfold?

Eric Tillman: “We were involved in both, and, initially, it was solely based on our respect for Charleston [Hughes] and Odell [Willis]. Trades rarely happen in a phone call or two, and I had multiple exchanges with Huf [John Hufnagel] and Brock [Sunderland] regarding each. Originally, we viewed either as a high-quality addition to pair with Adrian Tracy, who, unless I’m mistaken, led the league in quarterback sacks during the second half of this past season. During those week-long discussions, our situation changed at the very end when we reached a new agreement with Justin Capicciotti. Obviously, that was a very positive development for our club.  With Adrian, Justin, Connor McGough, Ryan Mueller and Nikita Whitlock, well, we, obviously felt pretty darn good with that group. So, after getting Justin back in the fold, we had an internal discussion about whether we should simply pull out of our trade talks with Calgary and Edmonton, or, instead, look into possibilities of making a three-way deal. That conference call with Scott [Mitchell], Kent [Austin], June [Jones], Shawn [Burke] and me quickly turned to Vernon Adams. And, from there, we agreed that I would reach out to Chris [Jones] and test the waters regarding Vernon. From there, things unfolded rapidly.”

Dunk: Did Calgary know you were going to trade Hughes back to the West division?

Tillman: “Scott, Kent and I discussed that. As an organization, we wanted to do the right thing, so I called John before we made the subsequent deal with the Riders. We have great respect for Huf and their organization and felt it was appropriate to make that call in advance. I explained how the second part of this trade – the deal with Saskatchewan – transpired after Cap decided to re-up with us. Up until the final couple of days, we fully expected Charleston to be a Ticat. As he had done in every discussion, Huf spoke with great respect for Charleston and all he had done for the Stamps. In situations such as this involving vets, well let’s put it this way – there’s no doubt coaching is a lot more fun than the management side.”

Dunk: Back to Vernon, June Jones had a previous relationship with him, how did that factor in?

Tillman: “Yes, that’s correct. June coached him in the 2016 East-West Game down in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Vernon passed for three touchdowns and was selected as offensive MVP. Based on that experience, and their mutual respect, we had previously tried to acquire Vernon from the Riders, but, without success. This time, fortunately, it worked out. We feel like his skill set is a good fit for June’s offensive system and June and Kent are excited about our quarterbacking trio of Jeremiah [Masoli], Vernon and Dane Evans. There’s been a lot of talk, speculation and stuff about our quarterbacking situation, but this is what matters – the guys in our locker room have total confidence in Jeremiah.”

Dunk: Any discussion about the Ticats quarterbacking situation merits a question on Johnny Manziel. What’s the current status and do you expect Manziel will be in a Ticats uniform this year?

Tillman: “Kent is our point person on that one. He and Erik [Burkhardt, Manziel’s agent] have developed an excellent rapport. In this situation, though, think we all agree that the less said publicly, the better. So, let’s leave it there, please.”

Dunk: Another high profile player in Adarius Bowman is on the market. You brought him into the league in Saskatchewan, and signed him in Edmonton as a free agent, so will the Ticats be in the mix to get him?

Tillman: “No, and only because June really likes our current group of American receivers. Kent and I both have a high level of respect for Adarius and I’m sure other guys who’ve worked with Adarius, like Kavis [Reed], Ed [Hervey], and Chris [Jones], all feel the exact same way. He’s earned our collective respect. Adarius is a talented guy, a good locker room guy, and he’s good in the community. I’m sure Jason (Maas) would say the same thing. But, in a cap era, Brock [Sunderland] was in a tough situation cap wise. He inherited a veteran team and the highest number of free agents in the league. Sadly, age and salary have to factor into difficult decisions. Brock spoke highly of Adarius and Odell, just as Huf did of Charleston. Very highly. Obviously, it stings to be traded or released, but it’s not a lack of respect. Instead, it’s the business side of the game, that, unfortunately, comes with the territory in this salary cap era. As such, football is a business of constant change. But, some things don’t change, and, albeit in different jersey’s, we all expect Adarius, Odell and Charleston to continue as big-time players.

Dunk: With regards to the Ticats own high profile players, any update on pending free agents Luke Tasker, Ted Laurent, and Larry Dean?

Tillman: “Kent and Shawn handle contract negotiations, and they’ve done a great job getting several of our key players signed. But, clearly, all three players you asked about have made very significant contributions to our club. They’re good guys, too. But, in free agency, players have earned the right to listen and consider all options. Hey, we get that, but we feel good about our chances in most situations. We have a really strong locker room, guys who love playing together and love playing for June, and, facilities wise, Bob [Young] and Scott [Mitchell] have given us every resource to be successful. Obviously, our new stadium is nice, but, in terms of what players value the most, and what television doesn’t show – our meeting rooms, the locker room, the weight room, the training room and rehab facilities – they’re all first class.

Dunk: So, with all of that said, does Hamilton expect to be active in free agency when players from the other eight teams hit the market?

Tillman: “We feel very good about our returning nucleus and how we finished this past season, winning six of our last 10 games. In free agency, we’ll likely be selective shoppers – adding two or three or maybe four from outside in free agency. But, our greater emphasis will be on bringing in new young players off of our neg list, as we did last year, with rookies like Jalen Saunders, Richard Leonard, Daveon Coleman, and others. And with five picks (second, 10th, 11th, 15th and 20th) in the top 20 in the upcoming CFL draft, heck, we’re excited. Drew Allemang does an excellent job on the Canadian side, and, as you know, you can’t win in this league without quality Canadian talent.”

Dunk: There seems to be a lot of optimism in the Hammer, but, what a schedule to start the season. Hamilton opens in Alberta against Calgary and Edmonton. Then you come home to play Winnipeg at Tim Horton’s Field before you go back out west to Saskatchewan. That’s four legit Grey Cup contenders and you play them all in the first 19 days, with three on the road. How do you view the first four games of the 2018 season?

Tillman: “Well, if you operate out of fear, football probably isn’t the right business for you. We respect all four teams, but we will just embrace the challenge and go compete.”