What will the Ticats do in free agency?

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - DREW ED­WARDS

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.

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