All that was old is new again: breaking down the Redblacks free agent moves

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

The opening 48 hours of free agency saw general manager Marcel Desjardins bring some familiar faces home and address certain areas of need, although perhaps not to the lengths some would have preferred.

Let’s take a look at the new additions before getting into some general observations.

Defensive tackle Cleyon Laing — three-year deal

It’s pretty uncommon to see a three-year deal doled out during free agency but the contract reflects the fact that the 29-year-old Canadian is one of the best defensive tackles in the league.

Laing, who joined the Redblacks near the tail end of the 2016 season and helped them win a Grey Cup, returns to the nation’s capital after three seasons with the Argos.

In 15 games in 2019, Laing racked up 27 tackles and seven tackles. While some might be underwhelmed by those numbers, Laing’s impact on a defence goes far beyond stats. The versatile lineman regularly commands double teams, freeing up teammates (specifically linebackers) to make plays.

Laing is one of the rare defensive tackles capable of not only single-handedly blowing up the opposing team’s run game but also collapsing the middle of the pocket and notching sacks.

The Edmonton native will instantly boost Ottawa’s front seven while also providing ratio flexibility.

Strong-side linebacker Don Unamba — one-year deal

The well-traveled Unamba — Ottawa will be his sixth team in seven seasons — is everything you want in a prototypical SAM (strong-side) linebacker. Excellent in coverage and a sneaky-good pass rusher, the 2018 CFL All-Star will be an integral part of Mike Benevides’ defence.

The 30-year old was limited to 12 games in 2019 but still notched 43 tackles, six sacks (a career-high), an interception and two forced fumbles.

Paired with Jerod Fernandez and Avery Williams, the Redblacks suddenly boast one of the league’s strongest linebacking corps.

Linebacker Chris Mulumba-Tshimanga — one-year deal

Heading into his fourth season, Mulumba-Tshimanga is a special teams ace who should thrive under the tutelage of special teams coordinator Bob Dyce.

In 43 career games, Mulumba-Tshimanga has made 53 defensive tackles, 34 special teams tackles, five sacks and forced four fumbles.

The Montreal native helps grow Ottawa’s French Mafia, adds depth to an already deep linebacking group (as evidenced by the stats he can produce in a rotational role) and will immediately find time on all special teams units.

As an added bonus, Mulumba-Tshimanga has some familiarity with defensive coordinator Mike Benevides from their time together in Edmonton.

Running back/receiver Anthony Coombs — one-year deal

The addition of Coombs is an interesting one because it seems as though he’ll be used primarily as a receiver. I wouldn’t read too heavily into that, though, because head coach Paul LaPolice is known for his creative offensive schemes and loves to use players in hybrid roles.

LaPolice should be able to take advantage of Coombs’ speed and route-running ability to get him into space, create mismatches and give opposing defences fits. For a preview of how Coombs may be used, R-Nation need look no further than how Nic Demski was deployed last season in Winnipeg.

As his time in Winnipeg has demonstrated, LaPolice isn’t afraid to use Canadians in skill positions. For that reason, having both Brad Sinopoli and Coombs as starting national receivers isn’t out of the question, though it may require Ottawa’s Canadian depth at the position to be bolstered.

Coombs, a six-year veteran, has spent his entire career in Ontario (five seasons in Toronto and one in Hamilton). In 16 games last season he carried the ball 37 times for 158 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and hauled in 20 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensive back Abdul Kanneh — one-year deal

Kanneh’s initial stint in the nation’s capital lasted 43 games and will forever be remembered for his Grey Cup-saving goal line tackle. Heading into his seventh year in the league, and back for another tour of duty, the 29-year-old will look to build on that legacy.

Since that championship 2016 season, Kanneh has split time between the Ticats and Argos. A dynamic playmaker when on the field, the two-time East Division all-star is a difference-maker capable of elevating the play of the entire secondary when healthy.

And that’s been the biggest issue with Kanneh’s career: staying healthy. Not only has he never played every game in a season, but over the past three years, Kanneh has missed 23 contests with an assortment of injuries. Desjardins and the Redblacks will hope 2019 was an indicator of things to come, as Kanneh played 16 games, amassing a career-high 70 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble.

A fan favourite due to his high-energy, reckless abandon style of play, Kanneh’s return will be welcomed by many in R-Nation.

Other thoughts

For an opening salvo in free agency, it’s hard to find fault with Ottawa’s additions. Desjardins has added a handful of disruptive playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, and significantly, those players provide ratio flexibility.

But while the defence is stronger, it could still use another pass rusher, especially with J.R. Tavai headed to the West Coast. Whether Desjardins adds another veteran or hopes to unearth a rookie American at an open tryout remains to be seen.

As for the offensive side of the ball, although Coombs is a dynamic addition who should flourish as a weapon for LaPolice, the receiving corps remains thin. Brad Sinopoli, R.J. Harris and Coombs won’t be enough and it’s risky to bet on DeVonte Dedmon, Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Jerminic Smith or Wesley Lewis stepping up as reliable outlets in their sophomore season.

That said, training camp is months away and undoubtedly someone will be added to Ottawa’s pass catching group before then; be it in the draft, via trade or a veteran from another team cut loose as a cap casualty.

Some in R-Nation may be dismayed that Desjardins chose not to surround new quarterback Nick Arbuckle with more weapons but that’s likely due to the fact that the Redblacks believe LaPolice can maximize the talent already on his roster.

Finally, the last minute extensions of linebacker Kevin Brown and defensive back Randall Evans shouldn’t be overlooked. Re-signed hours before they hit the market, Brown is a core special teams player who also rotates in on certain defensive packages and Evans is a physical defensive back capable of playing multiple positions in the secondary.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).