The Hamilton Tiger-Cats entered free agency back in February with a plan to supplement a roster that had been to the last two Grey Cups but had failed to win either one.
This was a team that was viewed as being on the cusp, needing only a few minor tweaks to get over the hump — not one that needed massive overhauls to become a contender.
The club used free agency to bring back fan favourite defensive back Richard Leonard after a year away in Calgary, while adding veterans as Lemar Durant, Alex Fontana, Micah Johnson, and Alden Darby Jr.
Unfortunately for the Ticats, most of these moves have not panned out.
Durant has been a complete bust and easily one of the least impactful free agent signings this team has made in the last decade. The veteran slotback was injured to start the season and has caught just eight passes for 85 yards and one touchdown in the seven games he has been able to play this season.
The Simon Fraser product has been an afterthought in the offence with the Ticats recently getting more production out of their backup fullback than the former second-round pick. It’s clear that bringing Durant to Steeltown was a mistake, especially considering that, per source, it cost well over $100,000 to do so.
Fontana has also dealt with the injury bug but he has not been the player the Tabbies thought they were getting when they tabbed him to replace Darius Ciraco at centre, who left for Ottawa. Fontana’s most memorable moment of the season came when he caused his own quarterback to fumble against his old team, the Ottawa Redbacks, back in Week 5.
Johnson and Leonard have played relatively well but neither were entirely needed. Hamilton’s secondary didn’t lose any pieces from a unit that was pretty good in 2021, making Leonard’s return ultimately a luxury the team did not require.
The same argument can be made about Johnson. The three-time CFL all-star has been solid during his first season in black and gold but the Ticats already had a great defensive tackle duo in Dylan Wynn and Ted Laurent. Laurent is slowing down with age, sure, but Johnson’s addition seems somewhat superfluous.
It also seems fair to question whether or not the Ticats chose to bring back the right veterans from previous seasons. Dane Evans has not lived up to being the face of the franchise and, though his play has improved over the last couple of weeks, the start of the season was a mess. He turned the ball over at an alarming rate and there are legitimate questions about whether he can be the long-term answer for this team at quarterback.
Key starters in Chris Van Zeyl and Simoni Lawrence have spent more time in the medical room than on the field. This isn’t a new issue for Van Zeyl either as he has played just 13 games over the last two seasons. Considering he will turn 40 before the start of next season, perhaps the team might be better off moving on from the three-time CFL all-star.
But it is the trade of defensive back Alden Darby Jr. that really hammers home just how badly Hamilton misfired over the winter.
Darby was brought over with much fanfare and spent a good chunk of his off-season in Hamilton cultivating a relationship with the team’s fans. He was active on social media and in the community and was promoted as one of the players this team was going to feature. Once the pads went on, however, those plans seemed to go out the window.
It began in training camp, where Darby spent a good portion of the early days running with the team’s second unit. It was not until perennial all-star halfback Cariel Brooks suffered an injury that Darby saw time with the starting defence. Darby was a placeholder, however, as he ceded the spot right back to Brooks upon his return from injury in July.
It became obvious that the Ticats had no plans to make the two-time Grey Cup champion a featured part of the team’s defence and it makes you then wonder why they even bothered signing the guy in the first place.
Darby tentatively agreed to sign with the Ottawa Redblacks in February before Hamilton convinced him to change his mind. Their persistence in recruiting Darby made fans think they had big plans for him, yet he was shipped out of town having played only 10 games.
The 30-year-old may not have lived up to the lofty expectations that were heaped upon him after he signed but his failure to make a significant impact does not fall on him. The team deserves the brunt of the blame for Darby not reaching his full potential in black and gold. The team failed the player, not the other way around.
The decision to add pieces where additions weren’t needed while neglecting areas of need — left tackle and receiver, for example — is one of the reasons why Hamilton is fighting for their playoff lives with four games left in the regular season.
The club has tried to address their shortcomings during the season, trading for Colin Kelly and David Beard, but neither move has changed the team’s trajectory. Had those types of moves been made in the off-season, perhaps the Ticats would be in a better position to make the playoffs.
Many lauded these signings this past off-season, myself included, but the lack of production by many of the signees makes it obvious that the Ticats did not make the right moves this past winter. The team opted for vanity signings in lieu of making the substantive changes the team desperately needed and, because of that, don’t expect the team’s long Grey Cup drought to end next month.