Defensive boost, o-line concerns highlight opening of free agency for Ticats

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Ticats did a lot of their heavy lifting in pre-agency, so it didn’t feel like they would be very active once the market opened. Unlike teams like Ottawa and Edmonton, the Ticats didn’t need a massive roster overhaul. This is, remember, a team that has won the East Division the last two years.

But the Ticats couldn’t stand pat, not after a 2021 season that started with so much promise ended like every season has for the last two-plus decades.

Thanks to the legal tampering period, we knew the Ticats had already signed Micah Johnson away from the Roughriders and were going to lose Ja’Gared Davis to the Argos. But what else could be up the new front office’s sleeve? We found out Tuesday.

The focus, at least for now, seems to be on improving what is already a pretty good defence. In addition to bringing a monster in the middle like Johnson into the fold, the Ticats incredibly re-upped with Ted Laurent. To say I was floored when this was announced was an understatement.

With Dylan Wynn re-signing and the team adding Johnson, I simply did not believe there was any room, and really any purpose, in retaining Laurent’s services. I also feel Laurent has lost a step, but I do see the value in keeping him if the plan is to rotate all three men to keep everyone fresh.

The knock on Laurent, somewhat unfairly, is that he can’t stay healthy. While he has only played in 18 games in a season twice and never since joining the Ticats in 2014, he played in 13 games last year and played in 16 or more in five of the six full seasons the Ticats have played since his arrival.

The Ticats also added a nice pass rushing piece in J.R. Tavai. He won’t be able to solely replace someone like Davis in the starting lineup, but he has value as a rotational element opposite Julian Howsare.

The secondary also saw some reinforcements added, with Richard Leonard returning from his one year sabbatical in Calgary, Jumal Rolle signing on for another year after testing the market and Alden Darby doing an about-face on the Redblacks and signing with the Ticats.

Darby agreed to terms with Ottawa, but had a change of heart and signed with Hamilton, adding a versatile player that Mark Washington can deploy in multiple areas. He spent last year in Winnipeg as the team’s strong-side linebacker, and while Hamilton already has a pretty good one of those in last year’s starter Kameron Kelly, it never hurts to have multiple players who have SAM experience.

Darby can also play in the secondary, having spent time at halfback during his three seasons in Toronto prior to joining the Bombers. With Delvin Breaux leaving for B.C. and Frankie Williams likely not to return, the Ticats now have a number of options to fill out their secondary.

Offensively, the team has not done much, re-signing a pair of Canadian tailbacks in Maleek Irons and Sean Thomas-Erlington, while addressing their need at centre by signing Alex Fontana away from Ottawa.

I thought the two Canadian backs would attract some suitors in free agency looking to make either of them their lead back. Irons to the Lions made a lot of sense to me, as re-teaming with his former college QB in Nathan Rourke could have been very attractive. The return of Don Jackson made me believe the two Canadians with starting capabilities might head elsewhere, but having solid options should Jackson suffer an injury again makes the pair of signings smart.

The Ticats are in need of help along the offensive line after last year’s starting centre, Darius Ciraco, joined a bevy of players league-wide who took their talents to the nation’s capital. Fontana was drafted seventh overall in the 2019 CFL Draft and played in 18 games his rookie year, but sat out the shortened 2021 season.

Hamilton currently does not have an incumbent at centre and could make a switch at right guard — 2020 draft pick Coulter Woodmansey finished the season at that spot but could be moved to centre. Fontana will possibly fill one of those spots, as could former first-round pick Jesse Gibbon.

Despite fan consternation, the Ticats have yet to address their left tackle position, which needs replenishing after last year’s starter Jordan Murray left to sign a futures contract with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. The Ticats currently have just one American offensive lineman under contract, 2021 rookie Travis Vornkahl. He started three games at left tackle last season.

I don’t expect the Ticats to head to training camp with just one American offensive lineman signed, so whether they go get someone like Justin Renfrow — sadly, it looks like the Ryker Matthews return many of us hoped for won’t be happening — or are going to have another season of question marks at one of the most important offensive positions remains to be seen.

Free agency isn’t just about who came in but who left to go elsewhere and the Ticats saw a number of veteran players leave for what they hope will be greener pastures. Some we knew were happening before they happened, like Jeremiah Masoli finding a new home (it ended up being Ottawa in what I am sure was a shocker to all).

Masoli was one of five, yes five, Ticats who left Hamilton to head to the Redblacks. Joining Masoli was the aforementioned Darius Ciraco, receiver Jaelon Acklin, running back Jackson Bennett, and defensive lineman Lorenzo Mauldin. Some fans will bemoan the losses of Acklin and Ciraco in particular, and while I think both pickups were good for Ottawa, I don’t think losing either is remotely close to a deathblow for Hamilton.

Acklin was a good receiver, but he never cracked 1,000 yards in either of his seasons in Hamilton. While he was the team’s leading receiver in 2021, he finished just 38 yards ahead of Steven Dunbar Jr. despite playing in two more games. The team re-upped with Dunbar a couple of weeks ago, and I think he could easily slide into Acklin’s old spot at boundary receiver without the Ticats losing any production.

Losing Ciraco was lessened by the team signing Fontana, but even if they hadn’t I didn’t think this loss was all that bad. I think Ciraco is going to do well in Ottawa, just as he did in Hamilton, but despite being a first-round pick in 2018 and starting since day one of training camp his rookie year, Ciraco has not even come close to being named a divisional all-star.

He is a player you would like to keep but not one to panic about losing, especially a team like Hamilton who drafts Canadian offensive lineman with almost the same frequency that Ottawa does.

A lot of fans were upset over the loss of Delvin Breaux, but this wasn’t even really a loss. Breaux didn’t play last year, so the Ticats had already sort of dealt with his departure. The secondary flourished last season even without the future hall of famer, and Jumal Rolle admirably filled in for Breaux during the 2021 season.

Breaux will always be a fan favourite in Hamilton and that status is likely fuelling a lot of the anger over his move to the Lions. He might come back and play at an all-star level once more, but it will be almost 30 months between games for Breaux, and at 32 years of age I think it is reasonable to wonder how much he has left.

Lastly, we have to touch on the loss of Ja’Gared Davis. I can spin almost any move as being good, but this isn’t one of them. Losing Davis stings, and not even the addition of Micah Johnson can lessen that blow. Davis is one of the league’s premier pass rushers and watching him walk to not only a division rival but that division rival has got to sting.

Davis can say all the nice things about Hamilton that he wants, but that won’t stop nearly 24,000 people from booing his ass out of the stadium on Labour Day. Anger aside, replacing him will be damn-near impossible, and unless they decide to go after a veteran like Cordarro Law or Frank Beltre, it looks like the Ticats will be looking for an unknown to emerge during training camp to unenviably fill some very big shoes.

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.