With the exception of one major move — promoting Orlondo Steinauer to head coach — it has been a fairly quiet start to the off-season for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
As other teams around the league have started to re-sign some of their pending free agents, you heard nary a peep from the Ticats on that front.
But that all changed on Friday when they announced that Jalen Saunders had signed a one-year extension with the club.
Saunders was having another magnificent year in 2018 when he tore his ACL and was lost for the season on Labour Day. Saunders played in just nine games and was sixth in the league in receiving with 739 yards when he got hurt. The week before, in the last full game he played, he was just 32 yards behind Brandon Banks for the team lead in receiving yards. We all know how great a season Banks had, so just imagine what Saunders could have done if he had been available for the last half of the season.
But playing with Banks and Luke Tasker is a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because having two dynamic playmakers alongside you helps free you up, which it did for Saunders over the last two seasons. But it is also a curse because for as good as Saunders has been, he is often overshadowed by his more well-known counterparts. Had Saunders stayed healthy, he easily zooms past 1,000 yards once again and probably finishes in the top five in receiving yards for the second year in a row.
That’s right, Jalen Saunders finished his rookie campaign in 2017 as the CFL’s fifth-leading receiver with 1,170 yards. He has more than 1,900 yards over 25 games, which are all-star level numbers on a per-game basis and it shows that he’s not just along for the ride.
Saunders has to play in the shadow of Speedy B (who, in my opinion, is the league’s best and most dangerous receiver) and Luke Tasker, and those two formed perhaps the league’s most dynamic one-two punch at receiver in 2018. They each had 11 touchdown catches, good for a tie of the league lead with Edmonton’s Duke Williams, and their 2,527 yards was highest for any two receivers on the same team, besting the 2,462 posted by Ottawa’s combo of Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson. It’s easy, and understandable, to see how they can overshadow even someone as good as Saunders.
But getting Saunders back is key as he takes Hamilton’s dynamic duo and turns them into a terrifying trio. The Banks-Tasker-Saunders triumvirate is as good, if not better, than any other trio of receivers in the league. Ottawa, with Sinopoli, Ellingson and Diontae Spencer, was the only team in the league to have three receivers crack the 1,000-yard barrier last year. But Spencer just barely eclipsed 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,007 yards in 17 games, and I think it is fair to say Hamilton’s top three would have surpassed Ottawa’s in terms of production given that Saunders was fewer than 300 yards away from 1,000 after just nine games.
Saunders’ injury last year really dampened his numbers — and if you want to prorate his production over a full season it is pretty easy to do as you literally just have to double all his numbers — but there is no denying that Jalen Saunders is one of the league’s best receivers. He may not be a household name yet, but if he picks up where he left off in 2018, he will be one sooner rather than later.