When it comes to re-signing players, all model CFL franchises do two things well: they lock up their nationals and hang on to their difference-making Americans.
With a new (and deeply experienced) coaching staff now in place, general manager Marcel Desjardins can fully turn his attention to revamping his roster.
Given that the Ottawa Redblacks were the worst team in the CFL by a long shot last season, the roster clearly needs a lot of work. But with free agency quickly approaching, it’s an undertaking that’s already begun.
Desjardins has wasted no time in identifying players he thinks can be part of the solution going forward, inking 13 players (nine nationals and four Americans) to extensions.
Canadians Brad Sinopoli, Alex Mateas, Nolan MacMillan Brendan Gillanders, Anthony Gosselin, Nigel Romick, J.P. Bolduc, Justin Howell and Louis-Philippe Bourassa will all be sticking around. A trio of American defensive linemen in Avery Ellis, Michael Wakefield, and Danny Mason have also re-signed alongside defensive back Sherrod Baltimore.
That still leaves 25 pending free agents for Desjardins to sort through before free agency kicks off on February 11.
Here are some suggestions on who the Redblacks should focus on retaining:
*Denotes a National player
QB Nick Arbuckle
Topping the list of Ottawa’s potential free agents is Arbuckle. Any time a team trades for the rights to a player who is on an expiring contract, it’s with the obvious intention of re-signing him before he hits the market.
Trading for Arbuckle’s rights was an aggressive move by Desjardins but it’s a gamble that will pay off in spades if the Redblacks are able to secure their franchise quarterback for the next few seasons. An Arbuckle-LaPolice combination would result in a lot of wood cookies chopped at TD Place in 2020.
REC Dominique Rhymes
As for Rhymes, despite being a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time in his career, his 2019 campaign left a lot to be desired. Although he put up solid numbers, Rhymes simply wasn’t a consistent threat for the Redblacks and left too many plays on the field. Whether it was caused by drops or poorly run routes, Rhymes only caught 58 percent of his targets in last season.
All that said, Rhymes has the tools to be a dominant receiver in the CFL. And under the tutelage of a coach like LaPolice — known for always maximizing offensive production — Rhymes could be poised for a huge 2020 season.
LB Avery Williams
In a season when Ottawa’s defence spent way too much time on the field, a handful of players stood out for their production and high motors. Williams was one of them as, despite missing more than a third of the season, he still led the team with 69 tackles. He also generated one sack, one forced fumble and recovered three fumbles.
DL J.R. Tavai
Tavai is another player who quietly put together a solid season. He finished the year with 49 tackles, seven sacks, six tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. Tavai ended the year strong, notching five sacks in Ottawa’s last seven games.
DL Ettore Lattanzio*
LB Kevin Brown
As for Lattanzio and Brown, despite both spending the bulk of the 2019 season as rotational and special teams players, they found ways to contribute as non-starters. Brown had 42 defensive tackles, 13 special teams tackles, one interception and one forced fumble. Lattanzio, a fifth-year Canadian pro, made 25 tackles and two sacks.
P Richie Leone
K Lewis Ward*
Perhaps the lone bright spot for the Redblacks in 2019 was their special teams unit. That group consisted of a near-perfect trinity of kicker Lewis Ward, punter Richie Leone and long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa. With Bourassa already extended, Desjardins needs to find a way to bring Ward and Leone back into the fold.
Although his stats dipped slightly in 2019, Ward remains one of the most dependable kickers in the league. Through two seasons in the nation’s capital, Ward has made 92 percent of his kicks while putting 307 points on the board.
Leone was easily the busiest Redblack in 2019, as his services were called upon early and often seemingly every week. Leone punted 132 times for 5,179 yards, equaling an average field position flip of nearly 40 yards per punt.
Both Ward and Leone have generated NFL interest but if either fails to stick down south, Desjardins should do everything in his power to ensure they remain in Ottawa.