Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

Free agency opened on Tuesday and the Ticats wasted little time in vastly upgrading a team that was already pretty darn good.

Over the first two days of free agency Hamilton added or retained nine players, many of which are of the impact variety.

Let’s take a look at what they did.

All they do is Wynn

Over on the Podskee Wee Wee Twitter account I asked Ticats fans what the team’s No. 1 priority should be and the overwhelming majority chose re-signing Dylan Wynn.

Wish fulfilled, and in one of the most entertaining ways possible.

Wynn never even hit the market, re-upping with the Tabbies about a half hour before the free agency officially began (aka “doing a Ted Laurent”).

Wynn was an absolute stud for the Ticats a year ago, finishing with 11 sacks and wreaking havoc whenever he was on the field. The Wynn-Laurent duo in the middle is the league’s best and, with Ja’Gared Davis and Julian Howsare also returning, the Ticats have brought back their entire starting defensive line from last year’s Grey Cup.

If you are a Ticats’ fan, you have to be over-the-moon ecstatic to see the team bring Wynn back.

Level-ing up

The Ticats had one of the best and most versatile strong-side linebackers in Rico Murray and yet they went out and found a way to get even better with the signing of Patrick Levels.

Levels was an East Division all-star in 2019 after moving from Calgary to Montreal in free agency. His play at SAM linebacker was a major reason for the resurgence of the Als last season. Now he brings those skills to an already elite defence in Hamilton and the Ticats, who had the best defensive unit in the CFL in 2019, are poised to have the best defence in the CFL in 2020.

Pocketful of Posey

One of the biggest signings on the offensive side of the ball was inking 2017 Grey Cup MVP DeVier Posey. I will be honest — I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Posey’s game. I think he is a good receiver, but not a guy you want as your primary target. I think he is an excellent secondary option, which is what he will be in Hamilton with the Ticats employing 2019 M.O.P. Brandon Banks.

The Ticats have some questions at receiver after watching Bralon Addison leave for the NFL and likely watching Luke Tasker walk as well, but adding Posey gives the Ticats another veteran that the quarterback, whoever that may be, can trust. I expect Posey to have the best year of his career as Robin to Banks’ Batman in Tommy Condell’s offence. The Ticats’ receiving corps is still a little thin, but I don’t think they will make any more big signings in that department.

Action Jackson

The second biggest signing on the offensive side of the ball was the Ticats scooping up Don Jackson from the Calgary Stampeders. Ticats dealt with a lot of attrition at the running back spot last year, with six backs seeing significant time and Bralon Addison getting his fair share of carries as well. Jackson could provide some much needed stability as the team waits to see if Sean Thomas Erlington can get back to the level he was at before a serious knee injury cut short his 2019 season.

Jackson spent two years in Calgary, amassing nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage in 20 games, including an impressive 924 yards on the ground in 13 games in his rookie season in 2018. Jackson can produce in both the run and the pass game, and being a multi-purpose weapon is key in Tommy Condell’s offence. Jackson and Erlington could form quite the formidable one-two punch in Hamilton’s backfield.

Pre-agency

The Ticats weren’t just busy on Tuesday; they got the ball rolling last weekend with the signings of Jumal Rolle, Frankie Williams and Ja’Gared Davis.

Davis is obviously the largest catch here, and the Ticats tried their best to pair him with Willie Jefferson to no avail. But losing out on Jefferson shouldn’t be what Ticats fans are thinking right now; they should be thinking about how fearsome this defence is going to be in 2020, led by Davis, who will be in the running for the sack title all season.

Rolle, who led the team in interceptions in 2019 despite playing mostly a backup roll, could see his playing time increase with the departure of Richard Leonard to Calgary, though that spot looks to be getting filled by Rico Murray after the signing of Patrick Levels. Rolle could be a contender to start at field corner if the team wants to use Frankie Williams less on defence to keep him fresh for returns. Whatever roll Rolle is given we know he will excel in it.

Speaking of Williams, the team brought back last year’s top special teams player for another year. Williams had some sniffs from the NFL, most recently with the Jacksonville Jaguars just days before re-signing with the Ticats, and his ability to start in the secondary and provide league-best return numbers makes him a huge piece of the puzzle.

Look who’s back

Don’t tell Larry Dean and Courtney Stephen you can’t go home again, as both former Ticats became current Ticats once again after spending last year with a pair of Alberta teams. Edmonton, in the case of Dean and Calgary for Stephen.

Dean’s return gives the Ticats one of the best, nay the best, linebacking trios in the CFL. Dean reunites with former running mate Simoni Lawrence, who were teammates with the Cats in 2017 and 2018. This now brings the top defensive player from the East in 2018 back into the fold with the East’s top defensive player from 2019.

Dean and Lawrence were one of the best one-two punches at linebacker in the league, and when you add Patrick Levels to the equation, the man many thought was the best SAM linebacker in the CFL in 2019, you have the makings of an all-time great linebacking group.

Stephen’s return is interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which is wondering what his role will be in 2020. Stephen started his CFL career as Hamilton’s field corner in 2013, but was moved to safety after the retirement of Craig Butler.

Stephen spent his most recent season in Hamilton as a solid special teams contributor, being named the team’s top special teams player in 2018. Stephen won’t go back to safety — that is Tunde Adeleke’s job once again — but if he was to become the team’s new starting field corner that would give the Ticats some incredible ratio flexibility.

We know that Adeleke and Ted Laurent are going to start for the defence, and that Mike Filer, Chris Van Zeyl, Darius Ciraco and Brandon Revenberg are going to start on the offence. That’s six of your seven Canadians right there. Add in a possible Canadian receiver and Sean Thomas Erlington at running back, and the Ticats could conceivably start 10 Canadians in 2020 if they opt to use Stephen as the field corner. That is the type of Canadian talent that wins championships.

Canadian content and depth

Speaking of Canadians, the Ticats brought back receiver Brian Jones and signed former Argo Justin Herdman-Reed.

I don’t understand the Jones signing any more this year than I did last year. As a former first-round pick, Jones has never developed into any type of reliable receiving threat and was cut by the team in the first month of the season a year ago only to be brought back when injuries ravaged the team’s Canadian depth. The team must see something in Jones that I do not to bring him back once again.

Herdman-Reed is an interesting signing, especially in the wake of losing Nick Shortill to the Argos. The teams basically swapped the same player for one another, except Shortill probably has the bigger upside. Herdman-Reed will more than likely be a standout special teams player and see very little action on defence.

On the American front, the Ticats acquired a solid depth player in former Argo Qudarius Ford. Ford spent three years in double blue, but missed almost all of the 2018 season due to injury. Ford is versatile, having played all over the Argos secondary and even some SAM linebacker.

It will be interesting to see where he is deployed in Hamilton’s defence given that the Ticats seemingly do not have an open spot in the starting lineup for him. But he will be a valuable special teamer and provide veteran depth on defence.

This Ticats defence *drool emoji*

Ja’Gared Davis, Ted Laurent, Dylan Wynn, Julian Howsare, Simoni Lawrence, Larry Dean, Patrick Levels, Delvin Breaux, Cariel Brooks, Tunde Adeleke, Rico Murray and Frankie Williams. Have fun dealing with that, opposing offences of the CFL.

Thanks for the memories

With players arriving in Hamilton, it means that some players left to find employment elsewhere. Among the now former Ticats are LT Ryker Mathews (B.C.), DE Adrian Tracy (Montreal), LB Nick Shortill (Toronto), DB Richard Leonard (Calgary), DL Connor McGough (Calgary), LB Justin Tuggle (Edmonton) and RB/SB Anthony Coombs (Ottawa).

Losing Mathews was the biggest blow as he is, for my money, the best American tackle in the CFL. He will be hard to replace, but Derek Dennis and Justin Renfrow are two such players still available. It is also possible, and probably likely given how active the Ticats have been in free agency, that the Tabbies will go the rookie route to find Mathews’ replacement. Whoever will be the Ticats’ new starting left tackle will have big shoes to fill.

When the team signed Julian Howsare to an extension earlier this year and made a push to bring in Willie Jefferson, the writing was on the wall for Tracy. He was a solid player, but he could never stay healthy, so seeing him sign with the Alouettes wasn’t surprising. Tracy was great in the community, and that will be missed, but his inability to stay on the field made him expendable.

Shortill, McGough and Coombs were solid contributors, but they weren’t essential assets for the team. Coombs was a luxury player they acquired after the Argos inexplicably cut him, while McGough never developed as the team had hoped when they made him the fourth pick in the 2017 draft and seeing him go back to Calgary was not a shock at all.

Shortill showed he could be a starter when filling in for Simoni Lawrence last year, but with Lawrence not going anywhere, Shortill was never going to be given that chance in Hamilton. Perhaps he will be in Toronto.

Leonard had way more ups than downs in his three years with the Ticats, so it will be interesting to see how he does in Calgary, while Justin Tuggle was swapped out for Larry Dean and that’s a win for the Ticats.

BuT hOw CaN tHeY aFfOrD tHeM aLl

You are going to hear a lot about how the Ticats will have to cut this guy or that guy to be able to afford all these flashy new signings, and that might be true. But here are some other things that are true.

  1. The Ticats are not paying top of the market QB money like Calgary or B.C: Yes, they did sign Jeremiah Masoli to a lucrative contract extension, but a good chunk of that money was spent on the 2019 cap, not the 2020 one, meaning the Ticats had more money available that you thought they did.
  2. The GMs know what they are doing: Fans don’t really know what most CFL players. Numbers have gotten out a lot more recently, but all anyone is doing is playing the guessing game when it comes to what players are making. The Ticats have two of the best GMs in the game in Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang, so maybe before we start questioning how the team can afford this we accept that maybe the team’s GMs know more than we do.
  3. Going over the cap isn’t cheating: You’ll hear this a lot, but the CFL’s salary cap isn’t really a salary cap; it’s more of a luxury tax. The league sets a number — this year it will be $5.3 million — and team’s who go over that number are fine $1 for every dollar over up to $100,000 (there are harsher penalties for teams that exceed the cap by more that $100,000, including the loss of draft picks). But in any event, so long as the team’s owner is willing to pay the fine, there is no reason a team shouldn’t go over the cap. These types of luxury tax caps are common in sports. The NBA, for instance, operates like this. No one says the Golden State Warriors are cheating when they exceed the cap. They just pay the penalty and we move on. CFL fans need to look at the CFL’s salary cap similar to the NBA’s and less so than the NFL’s (which is a hard cap).

Legal tampering window is great

Last, but certainly not least, we all agree that the CFL’s new legal tampering window was a huge success, right? The whole Willie Jefferson saga was thrilling theatre over the weekend, and the ability for teams to talk to prospective free agents for a week leading up the opening of the market allowed for deals to be reached quickly and kept the news coming fast. I, for one, loved it and I don’t think I’m alone.

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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.