Analyzing the Ticats’ free agent list

The CFL released its list of pending free agents and cue the panic from fans of all nine teams.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have 31 players potentially headed to the open market, players that range from stars like Jeremiah Masoli and Bralon Addison to key depth players like Mike Daly. The Ticats’ front office has a lot of work cut out for them as 15 starters from this season’s Grey Cup are eligible to go elsewhere.

The Ticats, like every team in the CFL, won’t sign back all of their pending free agents; that’s just not how free agency works. But who should the Ticats focus their energy on? Who is as good as gone? Who should they let walk?

Let’s break things down into three categories, as I did last year: the bring backs, the thank you for your services and the wild cards.

(* denotes national player)

The Bring Backs
REC Bralon Addison, DB Tunde Adeleke*, DE Ja’Gared Davis, DE Ted Laurent*, DB Richard Leonard, OL Ryker Mathews, DB/LB Rico Murray, DT Dylan Wynn

Bralon Addison was named a league all-star this season and finished top-six in every major receiving category. I wouldn’t be surprised if after a breakout year Addison fields NFL offers, but if those don’t materialize to his liking, he needs to be back in black and gold in 2020.

A free agent addition from a year ago, Tunde Adeleke went from a role player in Calgary to a star in Hamilton. He started 17 regular season games and two playoff games for the Ticats at safety, and was named a CFL all-star because of his stellar play. Good Canadian talent is never easy to find, and the Ticats found a stud in Adeleke a year ago. He needs to be back.

Another Calgary transplant that needs to return is Ja’Gared Davis. Davis came as advertised, finishing second in the league with 13 sacks. Davis was a key part in a resurgent Ticats pass rush, garnering divisional all-star consideration because of it.

Sticking on the line, both Ted Laurent and Dylan Wynn also need to return. Laurent has flirted with free agency almost every year since he came to Hamilton and they always find a way to bring him back. Wynn was probably the biggest surprise of the season, notching 11 sacks, good for fourth in the league and doing so as an interior lineman. The Laurent-Wynn tandem was the best tag team to emerge from Canada since the Hart Foundation, and hopefully they continue to ply their trade in the Steel City for years to come.

After a rough 2018, Richard Leonard exploded back on the scene with an all-star campaign of his own. Leonard’s excellent third season in the CFL shows that his rookie season was no fluke and that he is ready to establish himself as one of the league’s best field halfbacks. Don’t be surprised if NFL suitors come calling for the 28-year-old Florida International University standout.

The addition of Ryker Mathews in the summer took the Ticats offensive line to another level. After being surprisingly cut from the New England Patriots, Mathews made it known Hamilton was where he wanted to be. I imagine if the NFL doesn’t come calling once again, Mathews won’t be wearing different colours in 2020. He wants to be in Hamilton and I can’t imagine the team feels any differently.

After spending two years in the wilderness — aka Toronto and Ottawa — Rico Murray returned to the Hammer and had probably his best season in black and gold. Murray had a tough task replacing reliable fan favourite Don Umamba, but he had fans forgetting about Unamba quickly. Murray has always been a fan favourite himself, but that is not enough to keep a guy. Playing at an all-star level, however, is, and that is why Murray should be back.

The Thank You for Your Services
REC Justin Buren*, REC Brian Jones*, REC Mike Jones*, RB Cam Marshall, DE Connor McGough*, LB Curtis Newton*, OL Kay Okafor*, DT Bobby Richardson, RB Tyrell Sutton, DE Adrian Tracy, QB David Watford, DE Jamaal Westerman*

Both Justin Buren and Bobby Richardson announced their retirements, so their inclusion here is strictly ceremonial. Neither will be back and I doubt either will be on the field for anyone.

Brian Jones was brought in during free agency and at the time I wasn’t sure why. He was released midway through last season and brought back later in the year when injuries struck. But with some good, young Canadian receivers in the pipeline, including 2019 draft pick David Ungerer and a pair of first-round picks in May’s draft, I don’t see Jones returning.

The same can be said of Mike Jones, who followed up a breakout 2018 campaign with a very quiet 2019 one. Most of that isn’t his fault, as playing the field-side wide out position doesn’t lend itself to a lot of action, but seeing his numbers drop as they did — just 22 catches for 319 yards in 15 games — was still disappointing. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him return, but I think we know who Mike Jones is now and it’s not a guy who is going to be an elite Canadian receiver.

The Ticats are committed to going with a Canadian tailback, and if Sean Thomas-Erlington is back and healthy next year he is the starter. They also have Jackson Bennett and Maleek Irons for backups, so the Ticats are fairly set at running back, which means both Cam Marshall and Tyrell Sutton are likely not returning. Marshall is more likely than Sutton, despite the latter outplaying the former (and that’s no knock on Marshall, so don’t take it as such). One of them could return, but both have proven they have starting abilities and some team should take advantage of that.

Despite being a former first-round pick, Connor McGough never materialized into a starting-calibre player. He has been wonderful on special teams and that is usually enough to warrant a player returning, but given his ties to Calgary, it would not shock me if the 2017 No. 4 overall pick opted to return to his home province.

Kay Okafor was a developmental project that never really developed. He got some spot starts over his time with the Ticats, but never became a full-time starter. With 2019 first-round pick Jesse Gibbon in the fold, and with two first-round picks in the next two drafts the Ticats have the ammo to find a young Canadian to develop alongside Gibbon, making Okafor expendable.

Stop me if you heard this before, but Adrian Tracy was having a wonderful season until it was ended by a fluke injury. Tracy has always had the tools to be one of the league’s preeminent pass rushers, but injuries always derail him. Tracy will be 32 before next season starts, and I expect to see him in different colours when it does.

The same can be said about Jamaal Westerman. Acquired in the Johnny Manziel trade, Westerman never saw the field in 2019 after a pair of injuries ended his season before it got started. Westerman is even older than Tracy, turning 35 in February. Given his age and the wear on his body, and his inability to see the field, I don’t think Westerman suits up for the Ticats ever again.

David Watford had a really nice year with the Ticats in a backup role, but unless he plans on sticking in a role — one that will be even harder to secure if (a) Jeremiah Masoli returns and (b) if the CFL continues on its unadvisable path of allowing teams to dress just two designated quarterbacks next season — there is no reason for him to return.

The Wild Cards
RB/REC Anthony Coombs*, DB Mike Daly*, OL Mike Filer*, DE Julian Howsare, DB Jay Langa*, QB Jeremiah Masoli, DB Jumal Rolle, LB Nic Shortill*, REC Luke Tasker, LB Justin Tuggle, DB Frankie Williams

Anthony Coombs had an up-and-down year in Hamilton after being cut by the Argos. Not all of that was his fault, and I do think he can be a valuable piece of the offence in a jack-of-all-trades role. Coombs’ fate will likely come down to what the Ticats do with their other free agent receivers, but if I was in charge Coombs would be extended, while Jones and Jones would be allowed to walk. I think Coombs offers much more in all phases and would be a great player to retain.

After starting the whole season at safety in 2018, Mike Daly was beaten out for the starting spot by Tunde Adeleke. If the Ticats can’t reach a new deal with Adeleke, I think Daly is a slam dunk to return. If Adeleke is re-upped, Daly might be going elsewhere. But he is a leader on special teams and that is just as valuable as his role on the defence. But another team might be able to offer Daly a starting gig and with it the pay raise.

Mike Filer was a late re-signing by the team a year ago, and he did not start the season as the team’s starting centre. We later found out that the team was unimpressed with the weight Filer had gained and needed to see him slim down before bringing him back. Slim down Filer did and he may have had his best season of his career. His late signing last year is the only reason I pause in saying he’s a definite return. Add in that the team will want to see what they have in Jesse Gibbon at some point and I could see Gibbon given a shot to supplant Filer as the team’s long-term centre.

Julian Howsare was the unsung hero of the Ticats’ d-line after taking over for Adrian Tracy. Howsare played exceptionally well in an expanded role, but the concern with him is that there might not be enough money to go around. The entire defensive line are potential free agents, and Howsare would be last on any list to bring back. If the Ticats find a way to bring all four back, kudos to them, but I suspect Howsare could be the odd-man out.

Jay Langa and Nic Shortill are both in the same category, core special teams players who play limited snaps on defence (Shortill more than Langa) and have been hampered by injuries. Shortill proved he could start when he filled in for a suspended Simoni Lawrence and led the Ticats in tackles over those two games. A team could see that and offer him a lot of money to be their weak-side linebacker. Langa is a fringe guy who will provide solid special teams play, but probably won’t crack your starting lineup.

Jumal Rolle and Frankie Williams are in interesting spots. Rolle led the team in interceptions despite being a backup. Williams obviously has the added value of being the league’s best special teams player. But Williams also plays starting minutes on defence, and I don’t know if that is sustainable. Rolle is likely deserving of more opportunities on defence as well. What happens with both these players will be interesting to follow.

Justin Tuggle was a bit of a whipping boy early in the season for Ticats fans that still pined for Larry Dean, but Tuggle came on strong at the end of the season and posted some respectable numbers. The Ticats enter another off-season with two-thirds of their linebackers without contracts for the next season, so it will be interesting to see if they find a way to keep them this time around.

And now we get to the two players who will likely spark the most debate: Jeremiah Masoli and Luke Tasker. I could see both players back, but I could also see both of them playing elsewhere (and maybe even for the same team).

The team has expressed interest in wanting Masoli back, and Masoli has said the same himself. But this will come down to money. With the Bombers, Argos and Redblacks all in the market for a starting quarterback, a guy like Masoli is going to be a hot commodity. If someone is willing to pay him upper echelon money to be their starter, he has to take it. The ACL injury confounds things a bit, but I still think someone (*cough* Ottawa *cough*) will pony up the dough to make Masoli their franchise QB.

There is no doubting Tasker’s toughness or his ability, but he spent the majority of the season on the shelf and we saw the emergence of Jaelon Acklin and Marcus Tucker. Both are signed for next season at smaller salaries that Tasker will command, and it might be time for the Ticats to move on from No. 17.

There are a couple reasons Tasker might stay: one, he’s still very, very good at his job; two, he’s from nearby Buffalo with a young family, and he might put family above adding a few thousand dollars to his pay cheque. The Ticats have a lot of tough questions to answer this off-season, but none may be tougher than deciding what they should do with Jeremiah Masoli and Luke Tasker.

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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.