Eight pending free agents Ottawa needs to re-sign

Lorenzo Mauldin-Ottawa RedBlacks-19aug2022-Photo: Scott Grant

When the final whistle blew on October 29, ending yet another season with the Redblacks finishing out of the playoffs, general manager Shawn Burke was staring down a roster that boasted 40 potential free agents.

It didn’t take long for re-signings to begin, with Burke trimming that list by bringing back punter Richie Leone, kicker Lewis Ward, offensive lineman Dino Boyd, defensive back Ty Cranston, receivers Marco Dubois and Nate Behar, defensive linemen Nigel Romick, Kene Onyeka and Cleyon Laing, defensive back Justin Howell and running back Jackson Bennett before the end of the year. 2023 saw DeVonte Dedmon — one of the league’s most dangerous returners — ink a new two-year deal.

Even with the dozen players who have already been brought back, Burke still finds himself facing a list of 27 players set to hit the open market (starting left tackle Ucambre Williams is believed to have announced his retirement).

Keeping in mind that R-Nation should expect plenty of roster turnover, here are eight guys Burke would do well to prioritize locking up before Feb. 14th.

* (N) denotes Canadian players, (A) American

QB Caleb Evans (A)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

In theory, Evans’ sophomore year should have seen him backing up and learning from veteran Jeremiah Masoli, spelling him in blowouts and handling short-yardage duties.

The latter part did happen — Evans actually set a new record for quarterback rushing touchdowns in a single season with 16 — but he also wound up starting six games, going 1-5 as a starter.

Through 18 games, the 24-year-old showed some growth from his rookie season, but perhaps not as much as many were expecting. Evans completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,301 yards, four touchdowns and seven interceptions. On the ground, he turned 88 carries into 354 yards and the above-mentioned 16 touchdowns.

The tricky part about evaluating Evans’ play in 2022 is that, for much of the year, he was hampered by an offensive system which failed to lend itself to his strengths. Case in point, Evans completed 70 percent of the passes he attempted which went for ten yards or less but completed only 38 percent of the deep shots he attempted. Yet he only threw the ball deep (20+ yards) 21 times. Is that a reflection of a lack of arm strength and accuracy or was he being coached to keep things short?

Depending on the answer to that question, it would be wise for the Redblacks to hedge their bets and bring back a young quarterback who flashed moments of brilliance and who already has significant playing time under his belt.

REC Shaq Johnson (N)

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Johnson was criminally underused in 2022. The 29-year-old averaged 16.5 yards per catch yet only saw 38 balls thrown his way — roughly two a game. Of the 22 catches Johnson did make last year, ten moved the chains on second down and four were gains of 30+ yards.

Johnson is a dual threat, capable of using his speed to stretch the field deep or turn a short hitch into a long gain. That’s demonstrated by the fact that 82 of his 363 yards came after the catch.

The fact that he’s Canadian is a plus, as it brings ratio flexibility to the receiving corps.

DL Lorenzo Mauldin IV (A)

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If Burke and the Redblacks want to keep the best free agent they added last February in red and black, it’s going to cost them. Mauldin exploded in 2022, finishing with 17 sacks — the second most in Ottawa history — 43 tackles and two forced fumbles. To put that into context, the fourth-year pro’s previous career-high single-season sack total was three.

The 30-year was a force coming off the edge even on plays where he failed to register a sack, frequently disrupting things by forcing quarterbacks to throw before they were ready. Mauldin was rightly chosen as last season’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player and that kind of production commands top dollar. Whether he gets it from Ottawa or on the open market remains to be seen, but retaining his services would go a long way toward ensuring Barron Miles’ defence is competitive.

DL Kwaku Boateng (N)

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Despite not playing a snap for the Redblacks in 2022, Ottawa would be smart to bring back the 27-year-old.

When healthy, Boateng is a disruptive force coming off the edge. Opposing offensive lines would have their hands full having to deal with Mauldin on one edge, Boateng on the other and Cleyon Laing collapsing the pocket from the middle.

Prior to his injury in training camp last May, Boateng had suited up for 64 of a possible 72 games in his career, making 83 tackles, 25 sacks and forcing two fumbles.

With Onyeka already in the fold, Boateng and the Carleton product could split starting reps to ease him back slowly from his knee injury.

LB Shaheed Salmon (A)

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Salmon is a thumper in the purest sense of the word. When he arrives at the ball carrier, he does so with the intent to leave a mark. The types of hits he frequently delivers are the kind that make you cringe in your seat when you hear them.

Through 18 games, the 26-year-old featured mainly on special teams, making 15 tackles there and adding 23 defensive tackles, an interception and two forced fumbles while rotating in on limited reps.

For a guy who wasn’t on the field every play, Salmon was still a tone-setter.

LB Avery Williams (A)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

At 28 years old and coming off a career-high 94 tackles in 2022, the Baltimore native is in the prime of his career.

Through 59 career games with Ottawa, it’s become evident that the ball gravitates toward Williams. Over the span of four seasons, Williams has made 302 tackles, six sacks, two interceptions, forced six fumbles and scored a defensive touchdown.

Williams is the kind of impact player teams covet at the middle linebacker position; big enough to take on blocks and stuff the run, while still being mobile enough to not be exposed on passing downs.

DB Antoine Pruneau (N)

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Although Pruneau failed to start a single game for the first time in his career last season, the 33-year-old still has gas in the tank. Through 18 games, he made 18 defensive tackles while playing limited snaps and added 13 special teams tackles, including a safety.

One of two remaining original Redblacks — the other being Nigel Romick — Pruneau is at a stage in his career where he likely won’t be starting on defence, but he will continue to play all special teams while subbing in on specific defensive packages.

A fan favourite and an active member of the community, Pruneau’s eight years of experience could be an invaluable asset in mentoring young Canadian defensive backs like Justin Howell, Alonzo Addae and Daniel Valente.

LS Louis-Philippe Bourassa (N)

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Bourassa has been flawless at long snapper for the Redblacks since being selected 36th overall in the 2017 CFL Draft. The 31-year-old Montreal native is a massive reason for Lewis Ward owning the pro football record for most consecutive field goals — one bad snap would’ve ended it.

Coming off another season in which he played all 18 games, Bourassa has consistently proven himself to be amongst the best in the league at what he does.

With Burke having already locked up both of his kickers, all that’s missing to complete Ottawa’s Holy Trinity on special teams is a new contract for the guy charged with getting the ball to them in a perfectly precise manner.

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).