With 33 players set to hit free agency, Ottawa Redblacks’ general manager Shawn Burke once again has the opportunity to significantly alter his roster.
Last off-season, Burke opted for continuity over change, bringing back 24 of the 40 players that could have tested the open market. 12 months later and another year out of the playoffs, it stands to reason his approach will be different — read: more selective — this time around. Perhaps that type of judicious approach is exactly the kind of hard reset the Redblacks’ culture needs to return to winning ways.
With that said, here are ten players Burke should prioritize bringing back for the 2024 season. Please note that “N” denotes nationals (ie. Canadians), “A” denotes Americans, and “G” denotes Globals.
RB Devonte Williams (A)
The 26-year-old put the league on notice this past season, proving that he’s a legitimate feature back. He needed only 15 games to crack the 1000-yard rushing mark as he averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. Williams also made 37 catches for 327 yards, with 284 of those coming after the catch.
The native of Columbia, Ma. shouldn’t get a blank cheque as the running back position is one at which teams should be able to uncover fresh talent, though I do believe Williams is worth giving a second contract. He was one of Ottawa’s lone offensive bright spots in 2024 and the two sides should be able to hash out a deal that suits both parties.
REC Justin Hardy (A)
Hardy led the Redblacks in targets (128), catches (85), receiving yardage (1,009), touchdowns (three), first downs (22), and yards after the catch (391) in 2023. The rest of Ottawa’s receiving corps was a disappointment but the 31-year-old was the one target who could consistently be counted upon to make plays when the ball came his way.
Hardy doesn’t have the breakaway speed needed to take the top off of a defence but Hardy is reliable and quarterback-friendly, regardless of who is under centre. He brings enough value to keep around, even as a transitional player.
DL Bryce Carter (A)
DL Lorenzo Mauldin IV (A)
DL Michael Wakefield (A)
These three are grouped together because if there was one position that flourished for the Redblacks in 2023, it was the defensive line. Much of that has to do with the excellent work done by position coach Mike Phair who squeezed production out of everyone. I’m firmly of the belief that when it comes to roster building, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In his second season in the CFL, Carter set career-highs in tackles (31), sacks (12), and forced fumbles (two). He was Ottawa’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player and deserves a significant raise to stick around in 2024.
Coming off an award-winning campaign in 2022, Mauldin’s regression to five sacks this season was undeniably disappointing, though the stats don’t tell the whole story. The 31-year-old battled through injuries for most of the campaign and frequently drew double-teams, which created opportunities for others on the defensive line.
As for Wakefield, his 35 tackles and six sacks were both career-highs working beside Cleyon Laing along the interior. He flies under the radar but consistently makes an impact.
LB Adam Auclair (N)
The versatile 27-year-old didn’t start every week but played in all 18 games in 2023, contributing in a number of ways. Auclair primarily plied his trade at weak-side linebacker, though he also played middle linebacker and contributed heavily on special teams.
The Laval product has excellent instincts, quick closing speed, and is a sure-tackler. He made 62 defensive tackles, 14 special teams tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, one interception, one fumble recovery, and two pass knockdowns. A player capable of starting at multiple positions, rotating in on specific packages, and making plays on special teams is someone worth retaining.
LB Kevin Francis (N)
The Redblacks swung a trade for Francis in early July when they sent a fourth-round pick to the Edmonton Elks for the 30-year-old Toronto native. Despite playing only 14 games in the nation’s capital, Francis led all Redblacks with 17 special teams tackles.
Having players capable of consistently making open-field tackles while covering kicks is essential. It’s not a sexy job but it’s an important one, especially in the CFL where special teams actually matter. Francis should be retained.
DB Brandin Dandridge (A)
When healthy, the four-year veteran is one of Ottawa’s most electric players. Not only did he make five interceptions and return two for touchdowns this past season, but the 27-year-old consistently flipped the field as a returner. After DeVonte Dedmon went down with a season-ending injury, Dandridge averaged 12.3 yards per punt return and 21.9 yards per kickoff return.
Handling the full-time return duties while also starting at defensive back seemed to wear Dandridge down, so he would optimally be brought back to focus solely on his responsibilities in the secondary. Even so, with the limited roster sizes in the CFL, having players with diverse skill sets is always a big plus.
DB Damon Webb (A)
Webb’s third year as a pro was his best. The 28-year-old made 64 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, and four pass knockdowns. The Redblacks’ secondary was porous as a whole this past season but Webb was rarely the one getting burnt on a blown assignment or missing an open-field tackle.
Something that stood out to me was that Webb never seemed to check out even after the club was eliminated from playoff contention. This was reflected by the fact that his best two games in terms of tackles came in Ottawa’s last two contests.
P Richie Leone (A)
This is the biggest no-brainer on the list. Leone is arguably the best in the league at what he does, which is crush punts and kickoffs to pin opposing teams deep. He was named a CFL all-star for the fifth time in his career for a reason.
Unfortunately, the 31-year-old was once again called upon too often this year, trotting out to punt 117 times. Leone’s ability to give his kicks plenty of hang time and direct the ball properly played a crucial role in allowing his coverage teams to be effective. Leone averaged 47.6 yards per punt in 2023, with an average field flip of 37.6 yards.
For a full list of all of Ottawa’s pending free agents, click here.