The Ticats have created the CFL version of a superteam — on paper, at least.
Hamilton retained a number of key pending free agents this winter, including: quarterback Jeremiah Masoli; offensive lineman Mike Filer; defensive linemen Ted Laurent, Ja’Gared Davis, Dylan Wynn, and Julian Howsare; defensive backs Tunde Adeleke, Jumal Rolle, Rico Murray and Frankie Williams.
That group doesn’t include a number of talented veterans who were already under contract for 2020, including: quarterback Dane Evans; CFL Most Outstanding Player Brandon Banks; CFL Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Chris Van Zeyl; CFL all-star guard Brandon Revenberg; CFL all-star linebacker Simoni Lawrence; and lock-down cover men Delvin Breaux and Cariel Brooks.
The Tabbies set a single-season franchise record by winning 15 games in 2019, but suffered an upset 33-12 loss to Winnipeg in the Grey Cup. Head coach Orlondo Steinauer and the front office staff planned to improve the roster during free agency in the quest for a CFL title.
“We worked throughout the last couple weeks putting our board together and targets. With the new free agency this year, leading up to it you were allowed to talk to some guys beforehand, so that took some of the pressure off the craziness of the first couple hours,” co-general manager Shawn Burke said.
“There was a couple guys we talked to at that point that we had made contact with in that week. It is busy, you’re constantly on your phone, you’re working relationships. The biggest thing you have to do is communicate and you have to follow through.”
Running back Don Jackson was coveted by the Ticats from early on. The former NFL rusher nearly broke the 1,000-yard mark in 13 games during his rookie year up north — 924 yards in 13 games. Jackson was also a productive receiver out of the backfield in two seasons in Calgary, catching 44 balls for 300 yards.
“Don Jackson was one of the first ones. He’s a guy that we thought brought something to our club that we didn’t have before in terms of a home run hitter at running back. A guy who is looking for a bit of a redemption year — he lost his job last year while he was hurt. He’s very motivated,” Burke said.
From Burke’s perspective, sometimes in free agency the best course of action is to be patient and let it unfold while ready to take advantage of an unexpected situation which presents itself. That’s what happened with linebacker Larry Dean who had previously played three seasons in black and gold.
“Sometimes there is some surprises and there is some market shifts, especially this year with the minimum going up and the salary cap only going up $50,000 it changed some things and some markets were reset,” Burke said.
“We didn’t think we’d be in the ballpark at first. We let the day come to us. We had the opportunity to get somebody back like Larry who when he was with our club was a captain — on field, off field brings a ton of intangibles. That’s what you want in your organization is great people.”
Dean was an unexpected addition to the linebacker position and Patrick Levels was the same way. Levels was viewed by personnel men around the CFL as the most athletic back-end player in the 2020 free agent class. The East Division all-star made 86 tackles, five sacks and forced two fumbles for Montreal a year ago.
“Since coach O [Steinauer] came on board with the Ticats all the way back in 2013, he’s talked about especially in the back end multi-position players and Pat brings that to the table,” Burke said.
“And the other thing coach always drills is competitiveness and Pat Levels’ competitiveness is off the charts, he plays the game hard and can play multiple positions for us.”
Levels signed a one-year contract for below market value just like all-star calibre receiver DeVier Posey — both less than $100,000. The opportunity to play for a Grey Cup contender drew the game-breaking free agents to Hamilton. Posey had familiarity with current Ticats’ offensive coordinator Tommy Condell from their championship together in Toronto in 2017.
“First of all we have a lot of confidence in our young guys from last year, when you talk about guys like [Jaelon] Acklin, [Marcus] Tucker, Jalin Marshall came on at the end of the year, Justin Sumpter was with us all year. We do have a lot of confidence in them,” Burke said.
“But when you looked at someone like Posey on the market and having a history with coach Condell, it meant a lot. Worked through conversation, talking to the agent, talking to the player, and he kept coming back to the Ticats making the most sense for him.”
Hamilton followed the NBA-style approach to free agency started when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, creating a superteam with the Miami Heat. The superteam moniker inspires hype, but all that matters is the Grey Cup.