With rivals losing out, Ticats had a great first day of free agency

While free agency may have kicked off at noon on Tuesday, the Ticats were busy well before that.

No, no, I don’t mean they went out and (allegedly) tampered like Ed Hervey did, but you can’t accurately gauge how well Hamilton did in free agency without taking into account what they did the day before the frenzy kicked off — and unlike in past years, what happened on Feb. 12 could very accurately be described as a frenzy.

What Ticats did, as I am sure you know, is ink Simoni Lawrence and Delvin Breaux to new contracts, two years and three years in length, respectively.

By getting two defensive cornerstones in place before the market opened, the Ticats saved themselves from getting into a bidding war for their services–  and had both hit the market, they likely would have had more than their fair share of suitors.

The Breaux deal is also significant because of its length. Breaux is an NFL-calibre player, and had injuries not derailed his college career he likely never plays a down in the CFL. And if injuries didn’t derail him a second time when he finally got his shot with the New Orleans Saints he likely never returns to Hamilton. But at 29, and with a new deal that makes him as the highest-paid defensive back in the CFL and under contract until he turns 32, Breaux has shut the door on going back to the NFL.

Breaux returning also means the Ticats will have their entire starting secondary back from the Eastern Final last year. Yes, that is the same unit that Trevor Harris (more on him in a bit) strafed for a playoff-record six touchdown passes, so it seems as if the team felt it was the pass rush that needed help (more on than in a bit as well).

Once the market opened at noon, the Ticats were deal some blows early on as two all-star linebackers from a year ago, Larry Dean and Don Unamba, traded in their black and gold for some green and gold. Both losses are significant but not as bad as some might think.

Dean was reportedly turned down a deal with the Ticats in the $175,000 range because he wanted money in line with what reigning MODP Adam Bighill is making with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Edmonton ponied up a reported $210,000 on a one-year pact with Dean. Dean is a great player, but he is not Adam Bighill, and the Ticats moving on from him when his demands didn’t meet the team’s offer is understandable.

Losing Unamba is a much bigger blow. The Ticats have cycled through so many SAM linebackers in the last three years that I lost count. Unamba not only solidified the position but had an all-star season and now the Ticats are tasked with finding his replacement… which they may have already done.

The Ticats also lost a pair of running backs, as Mercer Timmis signed with the Argos and John White signed with the Lions. With the re-signings of Sean Thomas-Erlington and Alex Green, both guys were unlikely to be back.

But now back to the positives, as the Ticats re-upped with two players and signed two others, with a potential third on the way who could be the impact defensive lineman the team has been looking for since John Chick was traded to Edmonton.

First, the re-signings as Mike Jones (WHO!?) and Adrian Tracy are both back for another tour with the Ticats. Jones was high on my list of players the Ticats needed to bring back after he finally started to live up to his immense potential in 2018, finishing the year with 49 catches for 841 yards and three touchdowns. He ended the season in the top 15 in receiving yards, and was the second-leading Canadian pass catcher behind Brad Sinopoli. If the only guy better than you at your position is Sinopoli, you’re a darn good player and if Jones can build off his impressive 2018, the sky is the limit.

Tracy has never had the monster season many expected when the Ticats made him a focal point of the team, but he has been a solid contributor and will likely continue to do so for as long as he remains a Ticat. The possible addition of Ja’Gared Davis means Tracy is likely to be in a timeshare instead of being asked to be an every-down player, which could make him more effective, while also lessening the wear and tear on his body.

The team added a pair of Canadian players, one a huge get and the other… not so much.

Tunde Adeleke might not be a household name just yet, but he is a versatile player that fans will get to know very quickly. He has experience at safety, where the team currently deploys a Canadian in Mike Daly, but also at SAM linebacker. Hello, replacement for Don Unamba? The Ticats also have 2018 draft pick Jackson Bennett who played a little SAM last year, so if the Ticats want to flip that position into a Canadian one they now have the ability to do that.

And we can’t forget what Adeleke brings to the return game either, as he has speed to burn. Remember when Nate Behar said he’d streak if Adeleke “cribbed one” in his first game? Yeah, he did (though Behar did not streak). The Ticats have needed an upgrade at returner, and while Frankie Williams did an admirable job last year, Adeleke is a different beast.

They also signed receiver Brian Jones. To say Jones has disappointed since being the fourth overall pick in 2016 draft (where he went ahead of Mike Jones, Juwan Brescacin, Shaq Johnson and Alex Singleton) would be a massive understatement. I’m not sure what his signing does, exactly, since he won’t start and hasn’t proven to be much a help on special teams, so this one was a bit of a head-scratcher.

Lastly, according to our own Justin Dunk, the Ticats are bringing Ja’Gared Davis in for a visit with the expectation being that he will sign with the team. This, if it happens, would be huge and the type of splash the team needed to make. Hamilton’s pass rush was poor last year, as witnessed in the Eastern Final and adding Davis would upgrade it tremendously. Davis isn’t Willie Jefferson (few are), but he is an excellent player and could be in for a very big year playing next to Ted Laurent and opposite Jamaal Westerman and Justin Capicciotti.

But it wasn’t just what the Ticats did that should have fans of the team smiling, because Tuesday also saw a Maas… err… I mean a mass exodus of star players from Ottawa head out of the division, mostly to Edmonton. Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson and SirVincent Rogers all took their talents to Commonwealth, while William Powell left the nation’s capital for Saskatchewan. Those are four of Ottawa’s five or six best or most-important players all gone, and that doesn’t include the loss of Diontae Spencer to the NFL earlier in the year. Ottawa has been a thorn in the Ticats’ side for years, but they took a massive hit on Tuesday and can no longer be considered the favourites in the division.

Maybe the Argos were never truly in the mix for Bo Levi Mitchell, but if they were and had he signed, it could have shifted the balance of power in East and maybe the entire CFL. But alas, Bo decided to stay in Calgary and the Argos now roll with a guy who everyone knows they were ready to move on from in James Franklin. I’m sure that won’t be awkward at all, and instead of the Argos becoming a sexy worst-to-first pick, they remain a question mark.

Everyone always thinks their team “won” free agency — no, I’m not talking to you Redblacks fans, but I’ll be nice since free agency did a number on you and piling on is no fun — but it is hard to look at the first day of free agency and say that it was anything but good for the Ticats. Yes, they lost some valuable pieces, but not irreplaceable ones. And if you take into account who they brought in and who they retained, in addition to what happened to some of their division rivals, it has to be said that Tuesday was definitely a win for the black and gold.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.