Although it may have not featured any of the flashy, big-name additions some in R-Nation were hoping for, GM Marcel Desjardins continued his steady approach to constructing his roster.
Leading up to free agency, the Redblacks had retained 36 of their 46 pending free agents, clearly choosing to believe in the team largely assembled last off-season. In a free agency preview, I predicted Ottawa would bolster its national depth and perhaps add a veteran presence on defence, which is exactly what the team did.
Canadian defensive lineman Stefan Charles is a sneaky-good signing. The 32-year-old spent 2019 with Edmonton, but also has 49 games of NFL experience under his belt. The six-foot-five, 323 pounder instantly provides depth behind Cleyon Laing and perhaps even allows the Redblacks to start an all-Canadian tandem at defensive tackle.
The retirement of Ettore Lattanzio might throw cold water on this theory, but Thomas Grant and Clement Lebreux remain on the roster and could work in as rotational players behind Charles and Laing.
By adding the speedy Daniel Petermann, the Redblacks give themselves further ratio flexibility. Brad Sinopoli is a lock to start and with Petermann in the fold, head coach Paul LaPolice has the national depth to start a second Canadian in his receiving corps.
If Ottawa chooses to go that route, one of Petermann, Anthony Coombs, Marco Dubois or Wesley Lewis must step up. Or perhaps they split snaps and series. Either way, Petermann will be a familiar face for new starting quarterback Matt Nichols, given their time together in LaPolice’s system in Winnipeg. The fact that the 25-year-old McMaster product plays special teams also helps.
Per the ratio, each CFL team must allocate seven starting roster spots to Canadians. In the past the Redblacks have started four and sometimes even five Canadians on their offensive line.
Given that Desjardins is already on the record saying they’ll only use three this season — Mark Korte at left guard, Alex Mateas at centre and Nolan MacMillan at right guard, barring injuries — that leaves four spots to be accounted for. As mentioned above, Laing and Sinopoli are locks to start. So is Antoine Pruneau at safety, which is why it was important that the team managed to sign 2020 first-round pick Adam Auclair. The Laval product will back-up Pruneau and cut his teeth on special teams.
As a result of Ottawa’s additions last week, the team now has the option to start another Canadian at defensive tackle (Charles) or receiver (Petermann).
An outside-the box scenario could see Brendan Gillanders build off a strong training camp and get carries at running back, with one of Petermann/Coombs/Dubois taking his spot on obvious passing downs. The risk in that is that Ottawa currently has no other pure Canadian running backs on its roster (although they do have a handful of fullbacks).
The signings of 2020 draft picks linebacker Dan Basambombo and offensive lineman Jakub Szott represent another pair of players who won’t start but who will develop over time. Basambombo could be a difference-maker on special teams.
Finally, Desjardins solidified his linebacking corps with a pair of veteran Americans, turning Ottawa’s group into one of the best in the league. Journeyman Don Unamba seemed destined to leave the nation’s capital after signing with the Redblacks last off-season, but at the eleventh hour signed an extension.
The soon-to-be 32-year-old is built like a prototypical SAM linebacker and should produce plenty of splash plays in Mike Benevides’ defence. As for Micah Awe, in three short seasons the Nigerian has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the game’s hardest hitters. Before missing time in 2019 to an injury, Awe had 44 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble in ten games.
Throwing Unamba and Awe into the mix with Avery Williams — Ottawa’s 2019 Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Defensive Player — and Jerod Fernandez means Ottawa’s linebacking corps boasts four starting-calibre players with plenty of versatility, production and experience.
Some may question if the Redblacks have added enough weapons on offence, but for now, it seems Desjardins is banking on LaPolice to maximize the talents of players like Jalen Saunders, R.J. Harris and DeVonte Dedmon. There’s still plenty of time before actual football is played, and there’s nothing stopping Ottawa from adding another offensive piece in the weeks to come, via the draft, or scooping a surprise cut from another team during training camp.
If anything, by having a relatively low-key opening to free agency, the Redblacks have left themselves some contingency money to use should they feel the need to tweak.
At this point in the off-season though, Ottawa’s national and defensive depth has been addressed, which are two big boxes to check off.