What will the Ticats do in free agency?
CFL free agency opens next Tuesday and to get a sense of what the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are going to do, it’s helpful to take a look at what they’ve already done.
In his four years at the helm, Kent Austin — vice-president of football operations, general manager and head coach — has developed some discernible patterns. And they may provide the best indication as to what he’s about to do next.
First and foremost, Austin has largely eschewed the splashy — and expensive — big-name American free-agent signing.
His highest-profile acquisitions, quarterback Zach Collaros in January 2014 and defensive end John Chick last season, were signed before the official free agency period began and the team has largely steered clear of adding an elite level international player from another team.
Instead, the team has chosen to spend its cash in three areas: Canadian starters, their own pending free agents and under-the-radar players with potential.
In 2014, the team added all-star safety Craig Butler in free agency and also inked former CFL Most Outstanding Canadian Ted Laurent when he came back from the NFL in June.
Last season, Austin signed safety Courtney Stephen right before free agency opened then re-upped Laurent — one of the premier players available — less than 24 hours after the market opened.
All-star linebacker Simoni Lawrence, running back C.J. Gable, receivers Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker, quarterbacks Collaros and Jeremiah Masoli are examples of players the Ticats re-signed before they ever got to market. Offensive lineman Xavier Fulton resigned this week and receiver Terrence Toliver reupped late Friday night.
“We are certainly more apt to spend money on guys that we know, guys that have shown production and performance, have sustainability with respect to being on the football field and that we can count on in their performance level,” Austin said this week.
“We are likely to be a bit more open to spending money on our own guys, keeping some of our own guys from getting to free agency.”
The Ticats have also chased value, looking for players who may have been underutilized by their previous team and available for a reasonable salary cap number.
Linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, signed last February, was an example of that philosophy, if not the execution: he had started 10 games
for B.C. the year before and was slated as a potential up-and-comer before getting beat out by Larry Dean in training camp and eventually traded. The other factor in free agency is, of course, need.
A quick look at the Ticats roster and depth chart exposes a few areas where the team could be looking to shore up. Here are five spots the team could be looking to address and players who might fit the bill come Tuesday.
1. Kicker. After allowing all-star Justin Medlock (and his high price tag) to walk last February, the Ticats held a casting call for kickers before ultimately settling on Brett Maher, who had decent season. But he’s set to hit the open market and the team may not be willing to give him a substantial raise on the approximately $65,000 he earned last season. The Ticats had interest in ex-Argo Swayze Waters — both this season and last — but were unwilling to meet his high asking price and he wound up in B.C. Anthony Fera, who spent some time with Montreal in 2016, is available but the team may elect to go through a similar process as last season, opening the doors to all comers in hopes of repeating Maher’s relative success.
2. Defensive tackle. American Drake Nevis started 14 games last season, losing playing time down the stretch as the team opted to go with two Canadians for ratio reasons. That scenario is still on the table, lessening the need for an expensive player and the team does have the recently re-signed Delano Johnson under contract. Repatriating Argo Bryan Hall would be popular with f ans but is unlikely to happen, though Montreal’s AlanMichael Cash or B.C.’s Mic’hael Brooks could make some sense if the price is right (which it probably won’t be.)
3. SAM linebacker. The Ticats ran through several players at this spot, in partly due to injury and partly due to performance, before turning to veteran Keon Raymond late in the season. Johnny Sears and Rico Murray are pending free agents and while both are unquestionably skilled, neither has been able to stay healthy. The issue is that quality SAMs are hard to come by and beyond Raymond, who’s 34, there aren’t a ton of veteran options.
4. Receiver. There are plenty of big-name pass catchers set to hit the market — Ernest Jackson and Terrell Sinkfield among them — but after re-signing Tolliver it’s unlikely Hamilton has either the cap space or the inclination to make a big investment in a position they’ve tradi- tionally filled internally. On the Canadian side, the late-season knee injury to Andy Fantuz severely diminishes his value but Austin has a long-standing relationship with the veteran dating back to their Saskatchewan days and will likely look to find a role for him. The other nationals set to become available aren’t appreciably better than current Ticats Giovanni Aprile and Matt Coates and so re-signing one or both would make some sense.
5. Defensive back. The team may have struggled in the secondary last season but the return of Butler and field corner Demond Washington from injury provides some options going forward. Resigning interception machine Emanuel Davis makes sense for both parties but he may need to test the market to determine his value.
Ottawa Redblacks’ Henry Burris (1), left, is sacked by Ticats’ Craig Butler (28) in Hamilton on Nov. 1, 2015. The team added Butler in 2014.