Picture becoming clearer for 2021 Ticats after first week of free agency

Photo courtesy: Montreal Alouettes, Dominick Gravel

In my free agency preview for the Ticats I said that we could expect them to do the unexpected, but the unexpected thing I didn’t expect them to do was barely make a splash.

The Ticats have been known to more than just dip their toe into the free agency water, but they stayed relatively quiet throughout most of the week, signing just two new players and retaining one.

The first player they brought in came before free agency even opened when they signed former Edmonton Football Team and Winnipeg Blue Bomber linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox.

The 26-year-old UMass alum played in just three games with the Green and Gold in 2019, missing most of the season with a foot injury suffered the year prior while with the Bombers.

The signing is a curious one given that Santos-Knox has spent the majority of his career as at weak-side linebacker, where the Ticats currently employ the division’s top defensive player from 2019, Simoni Lawrence. It makes you wonder if the Ticats might give Santos-Knox a look at middle linebacker, potentially seeing him as a replacement for the departed Larry Dean, who took his talents west to Saskatchewan.

We have seen teams try to convert guys from one linebacking spot to another — Ticats fans will remember the ill-fated attempt to move Markeith Knowlton from SAM to WILL and Jamall Johnson from WILL to MIKE — and it seems as if the Ticats will attempt such an experiment with Santos-Knox. We will have to wait and see if it proves successful. I have my doubts.

The prized jewel of Hamilton’s free agent signings was plucking Ciante Evans away from the Montreal Alouettes. Throughout most of Tuesday it seemed as if Evans was heading back to La Bell Province but at the last minute he opted to instead join the reigning East Division champions.

Evans is a dynamic player who can play all over the secondary, as he has done in his time with the Als and before that with the Calgary Stampeders. Locking up Evans gives the Ticats a potential starting secondary of Delvin Breaux, Frankie Williams, Cariel Brooks, Tunde Adeleke, and Evans. That is as frightening a secondary as you will find in the CFL.

The Ticats also chose to bring back former first-round pick Brian Jones. Jones has never lived up to his draft spot, catching just two passes since his rookie season, which is not good for a top-five pick in the draft. Even so, Jones has carved out a decent role as a special teams player, one he will continue to fill for the Ticats in 2021.

Hamilton also lost some players. Dean was joined in his departure for Saskatchewan by Justin Herdman-Reed, and Patrick Levels returned to Montreal. Neither Herdman-Reed nor Levels ever suited up for the Ticats, but that still doesn’t mean their departures won’t be felt.

Herdman-Reed had starter’s potential as a Canadian and would have provided great special teams play while he continued to develop into an every-down player. Levels is a big blow as he was set to man the always-difficult-to-fill SAM linebacker position.

With Rico Murray still unsigned, the Ticats have very little veteran experience at a crucial defensive position. If Murray is retained, all will be fine, but if the Ticats do nothing to address their only hole on defence, expect this to be a major topic of conversation in Hamilton over the next couple of months.

Lastly, the Ticats said farewell to their longest-serving player when they announced Mike Filer would not be offered a new contract. Filer had been with the Ticats since 2012, was the last Ticat remaining who played at Ivor Wynne Stadium, and had the unenviable task of replacing fan favourite Marwan Hage following the 2013 season.

Filer was popular with fans and, growing up in nearby Brantford, was a local kid who played for his hometown team. Sentimentally, this is a big loss, but the Ticats have a number of young Canadian lineman in the pipeline — they have drafted an offensive lineman in the first round in four of the last five drafts — and at some point those players need to start seeing the field.

A few years ago we saw Brandon Revenberg replace a fan favourite in Peter Dyakowski, and much like Filer replaced Hage, so too will someone replace Filer. The Ticats were better for the switch to Revenberg and I am sure the same will happen with whomever replaces Filer.

It is a shame Filer never got the chance to lift the Grey Cup with the Ticats, but at some point teams need to move on, and given what the Ticats have in reserves along the offensive line, that time was now.

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.