More than 10 days have passed since the opening of CFL free agency and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have signed a grand total of one player.
For a typical team coming off a 6-12 record the previous season, one that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in four years, this would be cause for concern. After all, the other two CFL teams who failed to qualify for the 2017 post-season – the B.C. and Montreal – have been two of the most active thus far. B.C. has signed a whopping 14 players while the Alouettes, an East Division rival, have inked eight, including big-name defenders Jamaal Westerman, Tommie Campbell and Mitchell White.
The Argos have signed five new players, including former Ticat linebacker Taylor Reed and ex-Bombers defensive back T.J. Heath, a two-time CFL all-star. The Redblacks, meanwhile, have nine new bodies, including linebacker Kyries Hebert, defensive back Louchiez Purifoy and defensive end A.C. Leonard.
Don’t worry though – the Ticats signed a kicker.
Jokes aside, Canadian Lirim Hajrullahu does fill a need for Hamilton but it was the team’s work in the months leading up to free agency that should give the Ticat faithful – some of whom have been grumbling on social media about the team’s relative inactivity – some measure of comfort during these exceedingly quiet times.
The team signed no fewer than 10 of its own free agents leading up to free agency, a list that includes quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, receiver Brandon Banks, defensive lineman Ted Laurent and Justin Cappicciotti, receiver Luke Tasker and offensive tackle Tony Washington. That’s six starters. Add valuable Canadians like Jay Langa and Nick Shortill and the haul is even better.
The team was also able to get some of its young talent under contract. Stud Canadian offensive lineman Brandon Revenberg signed a contract extension as did a slew of developing youngsters.
When taken collectively, that’s a very good haul and one that would have been seen as a coup had it been achieved in free agency. But it also came at a price.
With the exception of Laurent and the kids, most of the players Hamilton re-signed received a raise of some sort and, in the case of Dean and Masoli, a considerable one. Given that this is a salary cap league with a hard $5.2 million cap, it’s not hard to see why the Ticats haven’t been major players in free agency: they spent on their own guys before the market even opened.
But a look at the roster shows the Ticats are in pretty good shape. They have a legitimate starting quarterback – Montreal does not – and a very talented receiving corps. Most importantly, they know exactly where they plan to play their seven starting Canadians and yet still have some flexibility if things go wrong.
The importance of that last tidbit can’t be overstated: CFL rosters are built from the seven starting nationals out who, along with the quarterback, form the foundation of the roster. The Ticats will start three Canadian offensive linemen (all three are proven veterans), a Canadian receiver (Shamawd Chambers, looking to build on a promising 2017), Laurent and Cappicciotti on the defensive line as well as veteran safety Courtney Stephen. That’s a very solid line up.
They also have back ups at each position ranging from veterans like Landon Rice and the aforementioned Langa, to youngsters like Justin Vaughn and Connor McGough, both of whom saw time on defence last season. That’s another key element as head coach June Jones has expressed a preference for the next-man-up philosophy to ratio management, keeping the seven starters in the same positions week after week.
That’s a departure to the flexible approach employed during Austin’s coaching tenure, one that saw the next best Canadian player added to the starting line up – regardless of position. That often meant making two or sometimes three changes elsewhere on the field, something Junes would prefer to avoid. Both methods have their plusses and minuses but it’s clear the 2018 Ticats are being constructed to Jones’ tastes, as they should be.
Which isn’t to say the Ticats can’t change things up if they have to (and this team’s recent injury history would indicate that they will.) Hamilton has the depth to start Canadians at running back (Mercer Timmis), receiver (Mike Jones, Felix Flaubert-Lussier, Giovanni Aprile) and linebacker (Shortill and Terrell Davis.) They could move Stephen to the corner and start Langa (and don’t forget about Mike Daly, on his way back from injury.) They could start four Canadian offensive linemen.
Talented starters, depth and flexibility – that’s the holy trinity of ratio management and the Ticats have it. And that’s before a stocked CFL Draft in which the Ticats have five picks in the top 20.
There are some items still on the Ticats shopping list, however. The team could use some help to bolster a secondary that, while improved over the course of 2017, remains largely inexperienced. The lack of natural strong-side linebacker – Abdul Kanneh can fill the role but isn’t ideally suited – is likely the most glaring hole but one that teams across the league routinely face given the position’s unique demands. There were two elite-level SAMs available in free agency (Chandler Fenner and Otha Foster) and both went to teams willing to spend at the position.
The Ticats have decided to utilize their valuable money elsewhere, for better or worse. It wasn’t in free agency but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well spent.