When Rico Murray announced his retirement this past week it took many by surprise.
The 33-year-old, seven-year CFL veteran looked to still have a lot left in the tank in the 2019 season when he played in all 18 regular season games and both of Hamilton’s playoff contests, including the Grey Cup.
However, Murray quietly told the Ticats well in advance of free agency that he had decided to hang up the cleats, and he goes out as one of the most underrated and under appreciated players over the last decade. Murray leaves the league as a three-time divisional all-star and one-time Grey Cup champion. He also competed in an astounding five Grey Cups over his seven seasons, an incredible achievement for any player.
Murray was also one of the league’s most versatile defenders, playing every position in the secondary and at strong-side linebacker over his career. He came to the CFL in 2013 with Hamilton, who under the stewardship of head coach Kent Austin at the time valued positional versatility highly. That hasn’t changed with Orlondo Steinauer taking over, who served as Austin’s defensive coordinator from 2013-2016. Murray’s ability to play wherever he was needed made him a valuable piece to any defence he played on.
It is that positional flexibility that the Ticats will miss the most in 2021. While the secondary looks set with the addition of Ciante Evans to a group that currently contains Delvin Breaux, Cariel Brooks, Tunde Adeleke and Frankie Williams, it is the one glaring hole left in Hamilton’s defence where Murray’s absence will be felt the most: SAM linebacker.
The Ticats were set at the SAM position when they signed Patrick Levels in free agency in 2020, but Levels opted to go back to the Alouettes this year when his contract with the Ticats expired following the cancellation of the 2020 season. With Levels gone and Murray now retired, the Ticats have a big question to answer about who will play one of the most important spots on a CFL defence.
The in-house options aren’t plentiful, but they are there. Tyrice Beverette, a rookie in 2019 who played mostly on special teams, is a name to keep an eye on. He has ideal size to play SAM at six-foot, 206 pounds, but obviously lacks experience. The Ticats have also signed a number of American rookie linebackers and defensive backs, any one of which could be given a chance to take over for Murray.
Some Ticats fans have openly discussed whether the team might consider moving safety Tunde Adeleke to SAM and putting Mike Daly, who was the starting safety prior to Adeleke’s arrival in Hamilton in 2019, or Courtney Stephen, who was the starter prior to Daly taking over in 2018, in Adeleke’s spot. This doesn’t seem like the ideal move, but they have the personnel to do it if they choose.
Adeleke was an all-star in his first season in Hamilton, and I don’t think the team will want to mess with what works, but they could. I think it is more likely they try someone new at SAM before moving Adeleke, but this can’t be dismissed outright due to how the Ticats’ roster is constructed.
The other option is to scour the free agency pool for a veteran CFL player. The league’s annual signing spree has slowed to a crawl two weeks after its opening, but Otha Foster is still unsigned. Foster has played SAM in the CFL before and would be a good addition to the Ticats defence.
With the Ticats prioritizing signing their own free agents and staying relatively quiet during free agency, seeing Foster in black and gold feels like a long shot, but if they are going to try to fill the vacancy left by Murray’s retirement with a player who has SAM experience in the CFL, Foster is their best bet.
If I had to place betting odds on what the Ticats’ plans are for Murray’s old position, I would say the Ticats are likely going into training camp with a host of bodies ready to fill the spot, but none of the names are ones we are familiar with.
While that might cause some panic among the die hard Ticats faithful, remember that at one time we didn’t know who Rico Murray was and he became one of the team’s most valuable pieces during the 2010s.
Expecting someone new to become the next Rico Murray is foolhardy, but someone knew will emerge and might end up being just as good as the man whose immense shoes they are trying to fill.