One would think that a 4-14 season and a third consecutive year out of the playoffs would lead to sweeping changes, but Shawn Burke and the Ottawa Redblacks tried that last off-season without much success.
One year after going on a spending spree in an attempt to overhaul the roster he inherited — signing more than 17 players within the opening week of free agency — Ottawa’s general manager was much more selective in his second attempt at shaping his roster.
Burke allowed middle linebacker Avery Williams to walk and brought in Jovan Santos-Knox from Hamilton, giving the linebacking corps a new flavour. Santos-Knox is a five-year veteran coming off a year in which he made a career-high 105 tackles en route to being named an East Division all-star. Although not as much of a thumper as Williams, Santos-Knox brings a bit more to the table in terms of athleticism and coverage skills.
Adding defensive back Cariel Brooks gives Ottawa another veteran capable of playing multiple positions in the secondary. The soon-to-be 32-year-old has made 207 tackles, two sacks, 12 interceptions, and four forced fumbles over 70 career games with Hamilton. He played exclusively at boundary halfback in 2022, a position that was occupied by Money Hunter, Hakeem Bailey, Ranthony Texada, and Brandin Dandridge in Ottawa last season.
Terran Vaughn, who was signed from Saskatchewan, should replace the retired Ucambre Williams at left tackle. The 28-year-old made ten starts at left tackle for Saskatchewan last season as he battled injuries, which he’s done through most of his CFL career. Vaughn will be looking to hold off Uzoma Osuji, a promising 24-year-old who started the final five games of 2022 — his rookie season.
Shaq Evans was the big name added to the receiving corps, providing quarterback Jeremiah Masoli with a potentially explosive weapon. He’s dealt with injuries over the past two seasons but was sensational with the Riders in 2019, catching 72 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns en route to being named a CFL all-star.
Lemar Durant was added to provide valuable Canadian depth in the receiving corps, joining a group that already includes Nate Behar, Keaton Bruggeling, and Tevaun Smith. Though he’s coming off a down year, Durant has averaged 12.6 yards per catch over the course of his career and 738 of his 2,465 yards have come after the catch. With Durant in the mix, Ottawa will have enough depth to be flexible with their ratio and start two Canadian pass-catchers should they so desire.
The addition of Canadian running back Ante Milanovic-Litre was presumably made to account for the retirement of Brendan Gillanders. Though he figures to feature heavily on special teams, Milanovic-Litre is a powerful runner with soft hands. Should the team choose to work him in on offence, he could prove to be a nice complement to Canadian running back Jackson Bennett.
Michael Wakefield returns to the nation’s capital and will likely replace Davon Coleman, who remains unsigned, at defensive tackle. Wakefield’s career began with the Redblacks in 2017 and he played 39 games for Ottawa before departing for Montreal in free agency. In 65 career games, the 29-year-old has notched 97 tackles, 14 sacks, and an interception and he will be expected to help collapse the interior of the pocket with Cleyon Laing.
The signing of American linebacker Gary Johnson Jr. checks a couple of boxes. Despite the fact that the 27-year-old is heading into his fourth season, he simply hasn’t had many opportunities to be on the field — be it due to injury or other circumstances beyond his control.
When he has suited up, the six-foot, 230-pounder has shown flashes of serious aggression and kick coverage skills. In 2021, he made ten special teams tackles in just six games. With the departure of Shaheed Salmon to the USFL, the Redblacks gain a similar body type in Johnson Jr.
Although he’ll mainly feature on special teams, the Douglas native provides depth behind Frankie Griffin and Patrick Nelson at the weak-side linebacker position.
As for the suspension he was given by Saskatchewan last season, the fact that Johnson Jr. went to the team to alert them of his transgression as opposed to waiting for the organization to learn of it on their own, speaks to his character.
Though it came two weeks before free agency got underway, the biggest addition Ottawa made this off-season was Drew Desjarlais, who was signed following a stint in the NFL. The 25-year-old already has two Grey Cup rings from his time in Winnipeg and should be a key piece along the interior of Ottawa’s offensive line. With sophomores Zack Pelehos and Cyrille Hogan-Saindon pushing for starting roles and veterans Jacob Ruby and Hunter Stewart returning, the Redblacks boast plenty of depth at one of the game’s most important position groups.
It’s important to note how Burke’s approach changed regarding his own pending free agents this year. With nearly 40 players set to hit the market, Burke could have wiped the slate clean for a second consecutive off-season. Instead, he chose to double down on many of those who were with the team in 2022, bringing back 24 pending free agents.
There’s value in continuity but fans won’t accept another bad year in the nation’s capital. Although, it seems like the Redblacks could take a meaningful step forward in 2023.