Enter expectations, exit excuses: analyzing the Redblacks’ retool

Photo courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks

In less than a week, general manager Shawn Burke has completely overhauled the Ottawa Redblacks’ roster.

In addition to signing 17 free agents, the rookie GM also managed to retain a few of his own key players, bringing back receiver R.J Harris, defensive lineman Davon Coleman and original Redblack Antoine Pruneau.

Before diving into the signings and breaking down where they fit, it’s worth mentioning that Burke’s job was facilitated by two big things. First, although OSEG claims to typically spend to the cap, it was quite evident in 2021 that they did no such thing.

This became clear when fellow 3DownNation contributor John Hodge categorically broke down the ten highest paid players at each position. The Redblacks had three players total on the list: Cleyon Laing, Nolan MacMillan and Antoine Pruneau. Of the trio, one is back at his 2021 salary, the other is on the market and the latter just re-signed, presumably at a lower rate.

The point being, Ottawa was nowhere near the cap limit last season — be it a result of a tightening of purse strings coming out of the pandemic, the slew of retirements on the eve of training camp, or a combination of the two.

Clearly though, after a couple of basement dwelling seasons, ownership now has no qualms about spending.

Additionally, interim general manager and assistant general manager Jeremy Snyder and Jean-Marc Edmé did well to extend Richie Leone, Lewis Ward, DeVonte Dedmon, Nigel Romick, Justin Howell, Brendan Gillanders, Avery Williams, Brandin Dandridge, Sherrod Baltimore, Anthony Gosselin, Marco Dubois and defensive lineman Kene Onyeka as soon as last season ended. Doing so meant all of their bonuses used leftover 2021 cap space, providing even further flexibility now.

Regardless of the how, Burke deserves full credit for recognizing the numerous deficiencies on his roster and attacking them head on. As much as some bemoan the prevalence of one-year deals, it means one big off-season is all any team needs to completely change their fortunes.

The Redblacks’ offence in 2021 scored 13 touchdowns in 14 games, making them just one of three teams in CFL history to average less than a touchdown a game. Scoring should not be a problem for the 2022 squad.

Although I continue to believe in Caleb Evans, the addition of veteran quarterback Jeremiah Masoli gives Ottawa an experienced pivot. Masoli has literally seen it all during his eight years in the league. Furthermore, R-Nation should not ignore the fact that adding the 33-year-old likely enticed other free agents to follow him to the nation’s capital.

Photo courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks (@REDBLACKS)

But Ottawa needed so much more than just an experienced player under centre. Hell, Doug Flutie in his prime wouldn’t be able to function behind the 14 different offensive line combinations used by the Redblacks in 2021. More than any other position group, Ottawa’s offensive line needed to be rebuilt from scratch.

Landing a premiere left tackle in Ucambre Williams, a starting centre in Darius Ciraco and a right guard in Hunter Steward means what was a position of weakness, should now be a strength. Especially when you factor in last month’s signing of Jacob Ruby. Suddenly, Ottawa boasts four new, experienced, high-level starters. Given the infusion of talent, it’s fair to assume Ottawa won’t lead the league in sacks conceded for a second consecutive season.

The other thing to infer from these signings is that the Redblacks will go with an all-Canadian interior — they already possess significant depth in Kétel Assé, Jakub Szott, Connor Berglof and Andrew Pickett — and use Americans at the tackle positions.

Sticking with the offensive side of the ball, a season after choosing to roll with a group of young, inexperienced receivers, Burke has completely revamped Ottawa’s receiving corps. Jaelon Acklin is a rising star. Darvin Adams is reunited with Paul LaPolice and despite a mediocre regular season, shone in the playoffs as the Bombers repeated as Grey Cup champions. B.J. Cunningham is a big body with good hands. Llevi Noel is a versatile tool for Bob Dyce’s special teams units and Shaq Johnson has elite speed.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Finally, Burke added a pair of running backs in Jackson Bennett and William Powell. Bennett is intriguing due to his similarities to Brendan Gillanders. Both are local products that played their U Sports careers with the Gee-Gees. The pair will contribute mainly on special teams, but can produce yardage when given carries. It’s unlikely that the Redblacks go Canadian at running back, but they at least have the depth to consider it.

Adding Powell back into the fold will pay dividends in the marketing department. R-Nation is already flush with nostalgia, but it remains to be seen how much the 34-year-old has left in the tank. Was his career low 4.4 yards per carry in 2021 a result of age catching up, or was it due to Saskatchewan’s poor offensive line?

Flipping to the other side of the ball, Burke has given defensive coordinator Mike Benevides plenty of new toys. Defensive ends Lorenzo Mauldin and Kwaku Boateng instantly boost Ottawa’s pass rush — only Toronto and B.C. notched less than Ottawa’s 30 sacks in 2021 — and should make it more difficult for teams to double-team Cleyon Laing.

More one-on-one opportunities for Laing is a good thing for the defence as a whole. Don’t overlook the fact that Boateng had his best statistical season under Benevides when they were together in Edmonton.

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

Bringing in Patrick Levels to play strong-side linebacker is an excellent move. The 27-year-old has great cover skills but isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the run game, as evidenced by the 42 tackles he made last season. He also managed three sacks, and a pick six. R-Nation might remember Levels as the guy who guaranteed an Alouettes’ victory over Hamilton in the playoffs. Although Montreal went on to lose, Levels’ confidence and belief in his abilities will inspire his teammates.

Speaking of swagger, mixing Monshadrik ‘Money’ Hunter and Trumaine Washington — who tied for the CFL lead in interceptions in 2021 — into a secondary that already featured Abdul Kanneh and Sherrod Baltimore means opposing receivers are going to hear relentless chatter next year. Every single single dropped ball, whiffed block and tackle for a loss will be closely noted.

Signing national Ty Cranston sets up a spirited training camp battle between Canadians for the free safety position. Cranston will be looking to earn a starting role over fan favourite Antoine Pruneau, the emerging Justin Howell, 2020 fifth-round pick Treshaun Abrahams-Webster and 2021 second-round pick Alonzo Addae — should he fail to catch on with an NFL team.

So what do all these really additions mean? Even if the nature of the CFL’s one-year contracts means things can turn around quickly, the reality is it’s rare for any free agency winner — aka the best team on paper in the second week of February — to find themselves doused in champagne and beer come the end of November.

That’s because it takes time for a team to gel, grow and develop the necessary chemistry required to achieve the immortality that comes with earning a plate on the Grey Cup trophy.

With all that said, by snatching up so much talent off the market, Burke has delivered everything his coaching staff could have asked for, and then some.

Following a dismal inaugural campaign as Ottawa’s head coach, there is zero excuse for Paul LaPolice as he heads into year two. He has again been given the quarterback he most coveted. His offensive line and receivers are upgraded and experienced. The defence should be even better and as long as Dyce is in charge of them, special teams will be rock solid yet again.

Given what Burke has assembled, the Ottawa Redblacks should be a competitive team. In fact, R-Nation can start to dream big. Entertaining home wins might finally be on the horizon!

In all seriousness, although the off-season has only just begun and the draft is still yet to occur, Burke has done a stellar job addressing every glaring issue on his roster. Things will be tweaked between now and training camp, but most of the main pieces have now been assembled.

What remains to be seen is how the coaching staff puts everything together and if that translates into more wins on the field. If it doesn’t, it certainly won’t be because there wasn’t enough talent on the roster.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).