Plenty of uncertainty swirls around a 2021 CFL season.
Will it be a full eighteen-game schedule or a delayed started? Will American players be exempted and allowed to cross the border? Will fans be permitted in the stadiums? Will enough people be vaccinated to fill venues?
Despite these lingering issues at the league level, the football side of the business goes on. With free agency around the corner, general managers have been working hard since November to retain their own pending free agents.
In Ottawa, Marcel Desjardins has done new deals for 36 of the 46 players who were set to hit the market. With a mandate from ownership to cut costs and budget player salaries towards the lower end of the salary cap, it’s clear Ottawa has prioritized hanging on to its own.
Although most of the Redblacks’ key roster pieces are set, some holes remain and certain position groups are in need of shoring up. Over the years, a few clear trends have emerged as to how Desjardins approaches free agency.
Unafraid to target big fish, Ottawa’s general manager consistently adds veteran competition to the mix and Canadians capable of contributing on special teams behind projected national starters. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some areas where Desjardins might bring in competition or add depth.
After swapping Nick Arbuckle for Matt Nichols, it’s clear No. 16 will be the man under centre once the season opens, but further down the depth chart, it gets interesting.
Dominique Davis has been brought back and will look to put his disastrous 2019 campaign behind him. In theory, his time in Winnipeg in Paul LaPolice’s system should help cement a roster spot, but that’s not a guarantee.
The Redblacks also have a trio of American rookies — Kevin Anderson, Taryn Christion, and Ross Comis — on the roster, but none have thrown a pass in the CFL.
One name for R-Nation to watch on February 9 is Michael O’Connor. Obviously the Canadian quarterback thing gets a lot of play, but O’Connor has local ties — born in Orleans, Ont. — is a Vanier Cup winner and a legitimate quarterback prospect.
In limited snaps with the Argos, the 2019 third-round pick completed 15-of-25 passes for 173 yards and one touchdown. Given LaPolice’s ability to get the most of out his quarterbacks, O’Connor would be an intriguing name for Ottawa to add to the mix.
With John Crockett released, a new feature back will need to emerge from a group that currently consists of Timothy Flanders, Jarvion Franklin, Akeem Hunt, Kenny Young III and Canadian Brendan Gillanders.
Gillanders is an interesting name because despite being rarely called upon, he’s always produced, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 8.5 yards per reception. LaPolice has shown he isn’t afraid to use Canadians in “skill” positions — think Andrew Harris and Nic Demski — and although Gillanders isn’t on Harris’ level, they would need to add depth behind him if Gillanders is the guy.
Alex Taylor, a Winnipeg native who went to school at Western University, could have been an option but was just re-signed by Edmonton.
The Redblacks are also carrying two Canadian fullbacks — Anthony Gosselin and Gabriel Polan — who mainly feature on special teams. If the Redblacks want to provide competition for them, Simon Gingras-Gagnon, Étienne Moisan and Regis Cibasu are three experienced, French-Canadian fullbacks capable of contributing on special teams.
While I don’t expect the Redblacks to add a top-tier American receiver — most are off the market anyways — it would make a lot of sense for the team to add a Canadian pass-catcher or two.
Brad Sinopoli will be back and is a lock to start. How the team decides to use Anthony Coombs will go a long way towards determining the rest of the ratio.
If Ottawa uses a combination of Coombs and/or Marco Dubois to start two Canadians in their receiving corps, they will simply have to add more depth. Malcolm Williams alone isn’t sufficient protection. Thankfully, there are a number of good options available.
Natey Adjei not only has a great podcast, but the Toronto native is coming off a career-high 58 catches for 534 yards and two touchdowns. His ability to play special teams, showcased by his 33 career special teams tackles, is an added bonus.
Devon Bailey has something coaches love but can’t teach — size. The six-foot-five, 202-pounder is a former first-round pick with 58 career games under his belt, averaging 13.7 yards per reception.
Daniel Petermann is another receiver who plays special teams, has a decent amount of experience under his belt, 36 games, and averages a healthy 10.9 yards per catch. His familiarity with LaPolice and his offensive system wouldn’t hurt, either.
Per the ratio, each CFL team must allocate seven starting roster spots to Canadians. In Ottawa, one of those spots belongs to last off-season’s marquee signing, Cleyon Laing.
The 30-year old is widely acknowledged as one of the best defensive tackles in the league, capable of stuffing the run while also able to notch sacks from the interior of the trenches.
With that said, Laing isn’t superman — he can’t play every down. As such, Desjardins will need to add national depth behind him, especially with it looking like Ettore Lattanzio won’t be back.
Zack Evans, who previously spent four seasons in the nation’s capital and was a member of the 2016 Grey Cup-winning squad, fits the bill. The 30-year-old was limited to 11 games in 2019 and posted career-lows in all statistical categories, but may have enough left in the tank to contribute on a rotational basis.
In 2019 one of the main issues that plagued Ottawa’s defence was an inability for edge rushers to consistently collapse the pocket and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Adding a veteran pass rusher to defensive coordinator Mike Benevides’ toolbox would help rectify that.
Nick Usher could fit the bill. The 26-year-old had a stint with the Las Vegas Raiders last season, but played a year with Benevides in Edmonton. He had six sacks and three forced fumbles in 2019.
Two of 2019’s starting linebackers are set to return in Jerod Fernandez and Avery Williams. The versatile Kevin Brown seems destined to depart, along with 2019 off-season signing Don Unamba.
Although there are a number of promising young players currently on the roster such as Shaheed Salmon, if Desjardins opts to add a veteran, there are a number of intriguing possibilities.
Chris Ackie is Canadian, familiar with the organization — after a short stint in Ottawa in 2018 — and boasts speed and the ability to play multiple positions. In terms of Americans, Justin Tuggle is coming off a breakout 2019 season in which he amassed 80 tackles, a sack and interception.
If Deon Lacey is done pursuing NFL opportunities — he last played in Canada in 2016 — he would be another versatile veteran worth considering. Lacey oozes production: in 54 career games he’s made 114 tackles, 68 special teams tackles, seven sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown.
If the Redblacks choose not to add a veteran American and instead choose to focus on bolstering national special teams depth, Paul Kozachuk and Pierre-Luc Caron would bring plenty of experience to the table.