Spend any time on CFL Twitter and you will find fans irate over their favourite team’s lack of moves in the lead-up to the opening of free agency on February 14; none more so than fans of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Ticats have been extremely quiet since the 2022 season ended, save for the blockbuster signing of Bo Levi Mitchell. With the legal tampering window opening on Sunday, 20 pending free agents remain unsigned by Hamilton.
After a disappointing 2022 season, it’s unsurprising that the team would look to make some roster changes. However, not every baby needs to be thrown out with the bathwater.
As offers begin to be tendered around the league, I have placed each of the Ticats’ pending free agents into one of three categories: those I would bring back; those I would not; and a group I am calling the wild cards — those whose futures could be reliant on other factors.
(* denotes National player / ^ denotes Global player)
The Bring Backs
DB Ciante Evans, DL Julian Howsare, DL Micah Johnson, LB/DB Kam Kelly, LB Simoni Lawrence, DB Jumal Rolle, QB Matthew Shiltz, REC Tim White, RB Sean Thomas Erlington*
Keeping Kam Kelly in the fold should be priority No. 1 for the black and gold. Trying to find quality SAM linebackers, let alone all-star ones, has been a problem for this team for a long time. Kelly was arguably Hamilton’s best defensive player a year ago and he must be retained.
Bringing back receiver Tim White is next on the list. White had a slow start to his 2022 campaign but picked things up enough to finish first in the league in receptions, fourth in receiving yards and sixth in touchdowns. White is a true No. 1 option in the passing attack and with Bralon Addison hopefully returning to full health, the two could form a very potent one-two punch for the team’s new franchise pivot.
If the Tabbies are going all-in on winning a Grey Cup in 2023, bringing back Simoni Lawrence for one last chance to get that elusive championship ring is the right move. The future Wall of Honour member was slowed by injuries in 2022 but I still think No. 21 has a little left in the tank.
No one knows how valuable a good backup quarterback is more than Hamilton. The Tabbies have started multiple quarterbacks in each of the last three seasons, two of which ended with the team playing for a Grey Cup. That means having a reliable second pivot behind Mitchell is a must and Matthew Shiltz proved a year ago that he can be that guy.
Along the defensive line, Julian Howsare and Micah Johnson tied with the recently re-signed Malik Carney for the team lead in sacks with seven apiece. While bringing back all three might be a big ask, it should still be one the team attempts to make. After the Tabbies spent almost all of the 2022 season looking to replace the production lost when Ja’Gared Davis left for the Toronto Argonauts, they can’t afford to lose another piece.
Moving to the defensive backfield, the Tiger-Cats should also be doing whatever they can to retain both Ciante Evans and Jumal Rolle. Hamilton’s backend was one of the league’s best a season ago and keeping the band together for another year would be a wise move to make.
Finally, I think the team needs to keep Canadian running back Sean Thomas Erlington around. He is not that far removed from looking like a breakout star and he has proven to be hugely valuable on special teams, as a change-of-pace back and as a spot starter.
The Thank You For Your Services
PK/P Michael Domagala*, REC Lemar Durant*, OL Kay Okafor*, REC David Ungerer III*
Michael Domagala was worth the headaches when he was performing all three kicking duties but has since lost his placekicking job to Seth Small. With his punting efficiency decreasing as the season went on, I do not see any reason why he should be retained.
I faced some backlash last year when I said Lemar Durant was a disastrous acquisition. The Canadian receiver finished the year with just 12 catches for 112 yards and one touchdown after injuries forced him to miss seven games. That’s not the type of production that warrants a second contract.
Kay Okafor has been a developmental lineman with the team since 2017 but has yet to become a full-time player. The team has made several acquisitions over the last couple of seasons looking to shore up their Canadian offensive line depth, due in part to Okafor’s inability to make a starting spot his own. It is time to move on.
David Ungerer III is a fine player but has been leap-frogged on the depth chart by younger, cheaper prospects in Tyler Ternowski and Kiondre Smith. Keeping Ungerer around would be nice but it is not a necessary move to make.
REC Steven Dunbar Jr., DL Valentin Gnahoua^, RB Wes Hills, OL Colin Kelly, DL Ted Laurent*, LB Curtis Newton*, LB Jovan Santos-Knox
Steven Dunbar Jr. had a 1,000-yard season last year but the priority should be retaining Tim White. Dunbar could be brought back at the right price but only if the Ticats don’t plan to dip their toes into a crowded free-agent receiver market that includes several enticing marquee names.
Wes Hills became a popular player after he revitalized Hamilton’s stagnant rushing attack late last season. With Don Jackson seemingly announcing his retirement and subsequently being released by the team, the Tabbies have no running backs under contract after February 14 so bringing Hills back seems like a slam dunk. However, I question if he can be the guy for a full 18 games and if his physically bruising style of play fits what the Ticats will do on offence with Bo Levi Mitchell.
After being named the team’s top defensive player a year ago, Jovan Santos-Knox feels like an automatic re-sign but his statistics are somewhat inflated. From Larry Dean to Taylor Reed to Rey Williams to Otis Floyd to the likes of Zeke Moreno, the Tiger-Cats have seemingly always found a way to get production from whoever lines up at middle linebacker. That’s what makes giving Santos-Knox the money he’ll demand tough and I could see the team moving on as they did with Dean a few years ago.
I thought Ted Laurent was gone last year when the team signed Micah Johnson and that proved to be incredibly wrong. He is a true wild card as I could see him staying in the rotation at a discount rate, cashing in elsewhere one last time, or retiring altogether.
Colin Kelly’s future with the team is clouded due to his recent two-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs but I still expect him to find a home for 2023. The 33-year was decent enough playing left tackle after he was acquired in a trade from Edmonton last June, but the Ticats appear destined to enter the year with an unknown at left tackle forever.
Curtis Newton finished last year on the injured list and Valentin Gnahoua has been Hamilton’s designated Global player for most of the last three years. Both could be back, both could be gone. Your guess is as good as mine.