Ticats free agency primer: what they have done so far and what they could do

Photo courtesy: Ticats.ca

It has been a busy couple of weeks for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as they have finalized deals with returning players and made deals with a couple new ones, all while trying to improve upon a team that has lost the last two Grey Cup games.

Some of these moves were no brainers, while others left me scratching my head. Regardless, the fact the team isn’t resting on their laurels should give fans confidence that the Ticats will be in the thick of the Grey Cup race once again in 2022.

Let us take a look at each individual signing so far and what it means for the team going forward.

Dylan Wynn

Hamilton went into the off-season with three-quarters of their starting defensive line from a year ago eligible for free agency. With Ja’Gared Davis about to engage in the most unforgivable of betrayals, the Ticats needed to move heaven and earth to make sure they locked up at least one of their impact linemen. They did just that when they inked Wynn to a new two-year deal.

Wynn has been an absolute monster since joining the Ticats in 2019. The stats — 74 tackles and 16 sacks in 30 games in black and gold — are excellent for an interior defensive lineman, and even they don’t tell the whole story. Wynn is a great pass rusher, but might be even better as a run defender, and his presence frees up space for the team’s linebackers to make plays. Losing Davis is going to hurt, there is no denying that, but the pain is slightly lessened after getting Wynn to come back.

Lemar Durant

The Ticats have not had an impact Canadian receiver since Andy Fantuz retired, and no, I don’t count Mike Jones’ 800-plus-yard season in 2018, but that could change with the signing of Durant.

Durant hasn’t been a disappointment, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to the incredible potential many thought he had entering the 2015 CFL Draft. It looked like he was poised for a breakout after a great first season in B.C. in 2019, but injuries derailed him in 2021. Just 10 days after his cap-related release from the Lions, the Ticats scooped up the former second round pick to add him to what is shaping up to be a pretty decent receiving corps.

Durant can play multiple receiver positions and gives the team the big body — he is listed at six-foot-two and 231 pounds — that they have lacked at points in the last few seasons. Durant may never turn into the all-star calibre player many thought he would be, but he can provide solid production and gives the Ticats their first real Canadian weapon at receiver in nearly half-a-decade.

Cariel Brooks

I have said it multiple times, but I think Brooks is the most underrated and under appreciated player in the CFL. He is a two-time East all-star and was a league all-star in 2021 after tying for the league lead in interceptions with five.

Brooks has been manning the boundary halfback spot since his arrival in Hamilton and has done it just as good as anyone in the game. With the not-yet-official return of Ciante Evans and the official return of Tunde Adeleke, the Ticats have a solid foundation for their secondary.

Frankie Williams, Jumal Rolle and the unretiring Delvin Breaux are still in the mix to return, but Hamilton’s backline could be seeing some changes in 2022. Bringing Brooks back was a necessary signing to ensure the secondary wasn’t completely overhauled, but the last line of defence could still have some question marks heading into training camp if the Ticats don’t address their needs in free agency.

Jovan Santos-Knox

If I am being honest, the first three signings I listed I thought we home-run acquisitions; with Santos-Knox I’m a little less enthused.

I thought he was fine in 2021, but I think he often got beat when playing the run or over-pursued and got lost when trying to cover in the middle of the field. I thought the team might be able to upgrade, but when you look at who is available an upgrade wasn’t really there.

Henoc Muamba wasn’t leaving Toronto; Larry Dean, as good as he has been in the past, will turn 34 during the season and is coming off a torn achilles; Darnell Sankey would have been an upgrade, but I suspect after a stellar 2021 season he will be getting a large payday. It is not like Santos-Knox was bad in 2021, but would you classify him as one of the league’s best middle linebackers? I wouldn’t, but with no appreciable upgrade available at what the Ticats were likely willing to pay, sticking with Santos-Knox does make sense.

Steven Dunbar Jr.

One of the reasons Brandon Banks is no longer a Tiger-Cats, and why DeVier Posey never saw the field with the team before being released last year, was the emergence of a couple of young receivers.

Dunbar Jr. was one of those receivers. He burst onto the scene with a six-catch, 95-yard, one-touchdown debut performance against the Montreal Alouettes last year and never looked back. His season had ups and downs, but a 44-catch, 630-yard, five-touchdown rookie season — while adding another 10 catches, 94 yards and a touchdown in three playoff games — is nothing to scoff at.

Dunbar’s return probably made it easier for the Ticats to let Jaelon Acklin leave for Ottawa since I think Dunbar can easily slide right into Acklin’s old spot as the team’s boundary receiver. With both Banks and Acklin leaving, Dunbar should have a larger role and could be poised for a breakout campaign in 2022.

Kay Okafor and Jesse Gibbon

Depth Canadians are always important, so don’t take me lumping them all together as a slight on either of these two players. That said, I think we can all agree that Okafor was a disaster at left tackle last year. However, if he is being brought back as a possible down-the-line replacement for Chris Van Zeyl at right tackle or perhaps being moved to guard, this signing takes on a different meaning. With Darius Ciraco still unsigned, the Ticats might be making some changes along the offensive line. If the plan is to try Okafor out at left tackle once again, that plan needs to be re-evaluated.

Gibbon’s return also signals changes may be on the way. Since being drafted second overall in 2019, the Waterloo alum hasn’t seen the field much with Coulter Woodmansey, a 2020 first-round pick, leapfrogging Gibbon for a starting spot in 2021. But if Ciraco does leave, I could see the Ticats sliding Woodmansey to centre and having a camp battle between Gibbon and Okafor for the vacant right guard position.

That could be why both Gibbon and Okafor signed one-year deals, as the team doesn’t know which of the two will be here long term. 2022 could go a long way in deciding which one remains a Tiger-Cat into the future and which one is looking for a new home in 2023.

Matthew Shiltz

After Montreal inked a deal with Dominique Davis, who it now seems will now be the primary backup to entrenched starter Vernon Adams Jr., Shiltz was released a the Ticats wasted no time in scooping him up to fill their own void at backup QB.

Shiltz has started a handful of games over his four years in the CFL, and while I don’t think he will ever be a full-time starter, he is a more than serviceable backup and a huge upgrade over David Watford. We saw last year how limited Watford was in his two starts, and there was no way the Ticats could go into 2022 with him as the primary backup.

By adding Shiltz, the Ticats upgrade a key position and know that should anything happen to Dane Evans the playbook and play calling won’t have to be scaled back as considerably as it was a season ago.

Micah Johnson

There is a lot to like about the Ticats bringing in Johnson, but let’s get to the bad part first. Johnson’s signing all but officially brings an end to Ted Laurent’s time with the Ticats.

With Wynn and Johnson in town, Laurent becomes the odd-man out unless the Ticats plan to run some type of three-tackle front. Since that is unlikely, I think it is safe to say that Laurent will be playing elsewhere in 2022. If I had to guess at Laurent’s next home, Montreal, Edmonton and Saskatchewan stand out as possible landing spots that make a lot of sense.

I think by landing Johnson, and pairing him with the re-signed Wynn, the team has resigned itself to the fact that Davis will be leaving. He has a lucrative offer on the table from Toronto, and by all accounts he is going to take it. With Davis opting to leave, I believe the Ticats started look elsewhere for reinforcements and landed on Johnson.

Some won’t like the move because they will look at how Johnson’s numbers have plummeted from a high of 14 sacks with Calgary in 2018 to just six total over the last two seasons in Regina. But numbers don’t tell the whole story, and the former Kentucky Wildcat can still be an impact player with his presence helping to free up Wynn to wreak havoc like he did in 2019.

Hamilton’s defensive line might not be the indestructible force it was the last two seasons with Davis, Wynn, Laurent and Julian Howsare, but it will still be a formidable group anchored by two hosses in the middle.

What is still left to do?

Stop me if you have heard this one before: the Ticats need a left tackle. Lucky for them there are a couple of good ones potentially available, with Ryker Mathews and Justin Renfrow slated to hit the open market on Tuesday. Securing Dane Evans’ blindside should be Hamilton’s No. 1 priority. We saw the results of last year and a repeat of the cannot happen if the team wishes to have a successful 2022.

The Ticats will also need a defensive end if Davis does indeed walk as many expect. I thought the Ticats would be a great landing spot for former Elks star Kwaku Boateng, but he has agreed to terms with the Ottawa Redblacks. David Menard or Matthieu Betts could be replacements if Hamilton decides to go Canadian at the end spot, pairing either man with 2020 first-round pick Mason Bennett to give the Ticats the seventh national starter they currently seem to lack.

The Ticats could also be a good landing spot for Shawn Lemon if they choose to go with an all-American front four. Lemon is a polarizing player, but he has remained productive during all the many stops along his CFL career. Signing with the Ticats would also bring Lemon one step closer to achieving the “Kevin Glenn” tour.

Defensive back is also a spot the Ticats could use some reinforcements, especially if they lose both their starting corners from a year ago in Rolle and Williams, and if Breaux opts to continue his career in a new uniform. There isn’t a great crop of available free agents at this position, which makes the prospect of retaining their own players a little more enticing, but also means they will be hot commodities on the open market. This feels like the position where they may opt to wait to see who emerges in camp rather than sign a veteran or two. But if the Ticats do go the free agency route looking for a replacement, a player like DaShaun Amos could be a target.

Hamilton will also have to figure out its ratio for 2022, and what they do in free agency could tip their hand. The chatter is they might go with two receivers to go along with four offensive linemen and one defensive starter (Tunde Adeleke at safety). That means either retaining David Ungerer III, signing someone like Shaq Johnson or handing a starting spot over to second-year man Tyler Ternowski. Starting two Canadians in the receiving corps is rare these days, and while it wouldn’t be my preference, it is not an impossibility.

Adding a ratio-breaking defensive end would allow them to play just one Canadian receiver, but with Boateng already signed and Betts probably a long shot, they would really be relying on making someone like Menard a full-time starter. Save for that, the other option on defence is moving Adeleke to halfback or cornerback and starting second-year man Stavros Katsantonis at safety. Katsantonis proved in the latter half of the 2021 season that he can start in this league, so it is only a matter of time before someone gives him that shot, whether it be Hamilton or somewhere else after his rookie contract expires.

Last, but certainly not least, the Ticats need a reliable kicker. Rightful Grey Cup MVP, and one-time former Ticat, Sergio Castillo is available. Give Castillo what he wants and solve this problem for the foreseeable future.

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.