Ticats take ‘slow and steady’ approach to 2023 CFL Draft

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats usually like to swing for the fences on draft night. Over the past decade, the team has shown a penchant for making massive moves to acquire proven talent or take outside-the-box players with top picks.

In 2015, the team traded multiple picks, including their first-rounder, for offensive lineman Ryan Bomben. They swung a similar deal a year ago when they dealt first and third-round picks to Edmonton for offensive lineman Kyle Saxelid and linebacker Grant McDonald.

The Ticats have also made a few trades to move up in the draft, as they did in 2016 when they went from fifth to third overall to surprisingly select offensive lineman Brandon Revenberg, and when they dealt for the top pick in 2018 to select receiver Mark Chapman.

Making these types of moves has generated mixed results. Revenberg became a four-time CFL all-star and three-time East Division Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman and Bomben was an East Division all-star in all three seasons with the team. The Saxelid trade is still too fresh to truly grade but trading up to select Chapman was an abject disaster as the Central Michigan product never played a professional game for the Tiger-Cats or any other team.

It was with ravenous anticipation that many wondered what the franchise might have up its sleeve on draft night in 2023, but Hamilton took a much more conventional approach this year. They stayed put with their selections, drafting players that fit what the team needs now and what they will likely need in the future.

The team started by bringing in some desperately needed youth along the offensive line when they selected the University of Saskatchewan’s Dayton Black with their first-round pick.

Nabbing one of the draft’s top linemen is always a good policy and maybe this year more than most. The Tabbies currently have none of their Canadian offensive linemen under contract beyond this season and have just two offensive linemen currently on the roster under the age of 26.

After dealing away Jesse Gibbon last year to acquire David Beard, the pipeline of young Canadian linemen on the Tiger-Cats is all but dried up. The team needed an infusion of youth to combat the possible attrition they will suffer next offseason, so taking a player of Black’s quality was a must.

The other area that needed some Canadian reinforcements was the secondary. The Ticats did just that, spending fourth and fifth-round picks on Wilfrid Laurier University’s Patrick Burke Jr. and Western University’s Robert Panabaker.

Hamilton has perhaps the best one-two Canadian punch at safety with Tunde Adeleke and Stavros Katsantonis, but both are entering the final year of their respective deals and it is unlikely the team will be able to retain both players going forward. Katsantonis will cash in with a big-money contract to become some team’s starting safety next year and Adeleke will likely stay on top as the highest-paid player at his position when he signs a new deal for next season.

With the Ticats likely needing to make a decision on which one to keep, it was imperative that the team plan ahead and find their next No. 2 safety. Possibly getting that person into the system this year was a shrewd move.

Of the two, Burke Jr. looks more likely to find himself as the primary backup safety in 2024. At six-foot, 200 pounds, he is of similar size to Adeleke and slightly bigger than Katsantonis. The Etobicoke, Ont. native was recruited to Laurier as a linebacker before switching to defensive back during his time with the Golden Hawks. This gives him the type of flexibility that has been a core tenet of the Tiger-Cats for over a decade.

The Tiger-Cats spent their other three picks on a pair of defensive linemen, Mount Allison’s Reece Martin and Calgary’s Josh Hyer in the fourth and eighth rounds respectively, and receiver Caleb Morin out of Saskatchewan in the eighth.

The Martin pick in particular stands out, as the team could possibly be preparing for 2023 to be the swan song for veteran Canadian defensive lineman Ted Laurent. The two-time CFL all-star and five-time divisional all-star will turn 36 before the start of next season and has seen both his production and playing time dip.

Laurent became a part of a defensive line rotation the last year with Dylan Wynn and Micah Johnson and it looks like the team will be deploying No. 97 in a rotational role again this season with Wynn and free-agent signee Casey Sayles. He posted the fewest tackles of his career in 2022 and has registered just two sacks over the last two seasons, after averaging six per season between 2014 and 2019. It certainly seems like the team is keying up to make this Laurent’s last dance and getting his replacement ready a year in advance is the smart move.

Morin and Hyer were eighth-round picks and while the Ticats have had some success with turning last-rounders into valuable contributors — namely running back Sean Thomas Erlington — the likelihood that either of them contributes anything meaningful this season is slim.

Hyer is considered undersized and Morin will be buried on the depth chart behind a plethora of Canadian receiving talent, including Tyler Ternowski, Kiondre Smith, Llevi Noel, Chris Osei-Kusi and the recently signed Richie Sindani. The University of Saskatchewan product could provide useful depth if the team decides to go with two Canadians in the receiving corps but should either player see the field in 2023 for any significant amount of time, it will likely not be for positive reasons.

The 2023 draft haul brings the old Aesop fable The Tortoise and the Hare to mind, with the Tiger-Cats playing the role of the tortoise. “Slow and steady wins the race” is the classic line from that children’s book and that is what this year’s draft signified for the black and gold.

The franchise could have made big splashes but instead opted for a more measured approach. With limited draft capital, they saw what they needed for this year and the future and made their picks accordingly.

It was a divergence from recent drafts but one that was likely needed and warranted. Now they just have to win the race.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.