Expect surprises from Ticats when free agency opens

Screenshot courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

After a franchise-best regular season, a Grey Cup appearance and retaining most of their core before free agency started, you wouldn’t think the Hamilton Tiger-Cats would have been active in free agency in 2020.

Over the course of two days they brought running back Don Jackson, string-side linebacker Patrick Levels and receiver DeVier Posey to Hamilton, while repatriating linebacker Larry Dean after a year in Edmonton.

They were four big moves that had rival fans wondering how the club could afford the additions given how much money they already had tied up in franchise stalwarts like Jeremiah Masoli, Brandon Banks and Simoni Lawrence. Yet there were the Ticats, the league’s best team from the previous season, looking even more formidable after nailing their free agent pickups.

While we don’t exactly know how that team would have looked, it showed that the Ticats tend to zig when everyone thinks they will zag. No one had receiver or running back on Hamilton’s shopping list, and they nabbed two of the best available ones once the market opened.

When it comes to what the Ticats will do when the 2021 free agent market opens on Tuesday, we should expect the unexpected.

But that doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have needs.

One big loss they suffered — both literally and figuratively — was watching man-mountain left tackle Ryker Mathews head to B.C. last February. The Ticats never addressed that loss with a veteran CFL player, choosing instead to give younger American prospect Trevon Tate first crack at taking Mathews’ spot.

There aren’t a lot of options on the free agent market to replace Mathews, but American Justin Renfrow and Canadian Matt O’Donnell could be targets.

O’Donnell has spent the majority of his CFL career at guard, but the beheamoth six-foot-eleven, 350-pounder played well in spot duty at tackle last season in Edmonton. Renfrow has mostly played right tackle, but so did Mathews before being asked to switch to the left side in 2019. Either would make the Ticats’ line a very stout unit.

The Ticats also have holes at two of their three linebacking spots, with both Dean’s and Levels’ deals from a year ago expiring on Tuesday. The Ticats could look to bring both back or they could look to upgrade.

I’m not sure there is an upgrade over Levels, but perhaps a reunion with Don Unamba could be in the cards. Unamba had his best professional season with the Ticats in 2018. He was a divisional and league all-star following that season, and if the Ticats can’t find a way to bring Levels back, Unamba wouldn’t be a horrible consolation prize.

But the middle linebacker market is a robust one, with future hall of famer Solomon Elimimian topping the list. Elimimian has been linked to the Ticats over the last couple of days and his familiarity with Ticats’ defensive coordinator Mark Washington’s system — Elimimian played for Washington in B.C. from 2014-18 — would give him a leg up on any other potential target.

Also worth noting is Elimimian’s historical M.O.P. campaign in 2014 came in Washington’s first year as B.C.’s defensive coordinator. Elimimian was a star before Washington got the gig, but his scheme allowed the linebacker to reach unprecedented heights.

The fit is obviously natural and I wouldn’t be surprised if Eliminan is a Tiger-Cat sometime next week. There are other options aside from Elimimian as Montreal’s Henoc Muamba and former Ticat Justin Tuggle could also be potential targets.

Hamilton also has a potential void in the secondary that could need filling if Rico Murray isn’t brought back. Murray has spent the majority of his CFL career with the Ticats, but spent a year with Toronto in 2017 and Ottawa in 2018 before coming back to the Tiger-Cats in 2019.

Murray is a versatile player who can play anywhere in the secondary as well as at SAM. He is a valuable piece that the Ticats should look to bring back. He isn’t someone you would call a star, but he is a valuable glue guy that makes others around him better.

If Murray leaves for greener pastures, they likely won’t go the veteran route here either, choosing instead to find an internal candidate to become their new field halfback.

The Tabbies also need a kicker, but I don’t foresee them dipping their toes into free agency to address that need unless they try to lure Justin Medlock back for a third stint with the franchise.

Hamilton has cycled through three kickers in the four seasons since Medlock left for Winnipeg, and while all three performed very well, the steady leg of Medlock has been missed. I don’t think we see the twice ex-Ticat back in Black and Gold, but that won’t stop the fan base from trying to will it to happen, and he would make a wonderful replacement for the NFL-signed Lirim Hajrullahu.

If the Ticats make no moves when free agency opens, they will still likely enter the 2021 season as Grey Cup favourites based solely on their current roster. But we know that co-GMs Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang won’t sit idly by and not try to improve the team, and they will likely do it in ways none of us ever saw coming.

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.