The Social: Chatting with the man behind @Redblacks, Tyler Rabb

As has become pretty much an annual affair, we sat down with the man behind @Redblacks recently for a chat. Tyler Rabb is OSEG’s “Growth Hacker” (his official title), taking over from Mat Smith, who moved on following last year’s Grey Cup. Tyler shared a bit about himself, his road to a communications/social media career in sports and experiences behind the scenes with the Redblacks. 

Enjoy.

@DefendTheR: Let’s start with your background. From Ottawa originally?

@tylerjrabb: My younger years were somewhat divided between a few small towns around Ottawa. My family eventually moved into the “big city” just in time for me to start high school. Looking back it was nice to have the opportunity to experience both lifestyles.

Once in Ottawa, I played football with the Canterbury Mustangs (NCAFA) and rugby at Hillcrest High School.

After high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I decided to travel and took some random jobs along the way, including: tree planter in northern Ontario, cook at an oil sands camp in Alberta, and bartender at various establishments around Ottawa.

At 25, I finally found something that caught my attention: Advertising. I was intrigued by the creative side of the industry, as writing had always been a strength of mine.

I graduated from Algonquin College with an advanced diploma in Advertising and Marketing Communications Management. 

“”

When and how did you end up with OSEG?

Throughout my time at Algonquin, I realized I wanted to become a content creator in the sports world. The final part of completing my program was a six-week internship, and it was sports or nothing for me. Little did my professors know, I only applied to two organizations; the Ottawa Senators and OSEG. The internship at OSEG turned out to be the perfect opportunity, as it’s main role was to create content for all our teams’ (Ottawa Fury FC, Ottawa 67’s, and REDBLACKS) websites.

My six-week internship turned into a six-month contract, which turned into a full-time career in October 2015. 

I owe a lot to Will Renaud and Mat Smith. The latter you know very well. The former, OSEG’s web guru (unofficial title), gave me the internship and was instrumental in my contract and full-time hire. They’ve both taught me many valuable skills that continue to serve me well. Just before Mat left OSEG in December, he handed me the keys to the REDBLACKS social channels. They were and continue to be huge shoes to fill, though Mat’s creativity and work ethic inspire me to get better everyday.

“”

Not only am I entrusted with our social channels, but I also manage web content and contribute to email communications for all of OSEG’s properties.

What is your history as a CFL fan? Any favourite moments?

I wasn’t a big CFL fan growing up, though I remember attending an Ottawa Renegades game with my dad in the early 2000s. The rowdy crowd and exciting game action was infectious and created an interest in football and the league. I still have trading cards of Kerry Joseph, Josh Ranek and Pat Woodcock.

Biggest surprise working for a professional sports franchise?

The athletes. Don’t want to sound like a “fanboy”, but growing up you idolize them. You play them in video games, hang their posters on your wall, memorize their stats. Working with them every day though, you realize they really are just people like you and me.

Give us a couple of highlights from your tenure so far at OSEG – on-field or off.

Winning the Grey Cup last November has to top the list. I was right alongside Mat on the bench at BMO Field when we took down the Stamps in OT. Being on the field and in that locker room afterwards with the champagne and cigars still seems so surreal. That entire week in Toronto, from flying in to flying out with the team is a time I won’t ever forget.

Traveling to Edmonton this July was another great experience. I had dinner with the team and everyone had to introduce themselves and divulge one fun fact. Ryan Lindley revealed he was taking French lessons from JP Bolduc and after a quick demonstration of his surprising skill, the entire room filled with laughter.

Any lowlights you want to mention?

The ties. I always thought draws were a rarity in pro football, though I’ve experienced two in my two years with the team. Both versus Calgary and both at home openers (2016, 2017). They leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I guess they have been an integral part of building a rivalry with the Stampeders.

Tell us about the OSEG social media strategy. 


The five key principles at the heart of our social media strategy are:

  • Being human
  • Engaging
  • Accessible
  • Establishing relationships
  • Being timely

Mat crafted these pillars to create a strong sense of community on our social channels and we as a team continue to live by them. We know RNation is the reason we’re so successful and we want them to feel appreciated, involved and excited to be a part of this community.

How do you personally approach it?

My outlook has always been that content is king. Without great content who cares? It needs to be in context, engaging and timely.

I’m also not afraid to be edgy. I like to banter with other teams, sometimes in other leagues. If I see an opportunity to create a conversation I usually pounce.

“”

Engaging with RNation and showing them the appreciation they deserve is another focus of mine. Their continued support through the good times and the bad make my job the best in the league.

QB Clubs and player Q&As seem to be very prevalent this year. What are some of your favourite initiatives? Anything fun on the horizon?

I’m always looking to create more genuine fan experiences. Our players love interacting with fans in person and through different social media. Bringing those two sides together is an amazing feeling and creates lasting memories for both fans and players.

I love impromptu content. The team is filled with characters and I want the fans to see that side of every player in our locker room. Stay tuned for the story of Bud Ball…

Biggest surprise being around the players and/or on the sidelines?

How much trash talk actually happens. Even some of the league’s biggest stars participate and it can get nasty.

Your favourite element/area of TD Place?

Has to be the field. Walking across it after a game still gives me chills, whether it be with all the fans under the lights or pitch black with no one else in sight.

Adidas took over as uniform manufacturer last year. Should we expect to see any 3rd/retro/heritage stuff this season?

Not that I’ve heard, unfortunately. I was a big fan of the proposed plaid helmets though. Fingers crossed something like that comes along again.

“”

Oh, what might have been. Lol. 

Favourite visiting stadium you’ve been to?

This one’s tough, as I haven’t visited Calgary, Saskatchewan, or BC yet. So my choice would have to be Investors Group Field in Winnipeg. My first and only visit was for the 2015 Grey Cup. I volunteered to be Big Joe’s handler at the game and that turned out to be quite the experience.

Love the new #RNation Twitter emoji. How did that come about? Who decided on the wood cookie?

The #RNation emoji came about as a league-wide initiative. I was a part of the team that chose the wood cookie for the Redblacks. We thought it would be the perfect addition to the RNation hashtag, as we wanted to bring this essential part of our game day experience to the Twitterverse.

“”

Had a chance to play the new CFL Frenzy game? How do you like it? How do you think it benefits the league?

I really like the CFL Frenzy game. I think from a marketing standpoint it’s a great endeavour by the league. It allows our fans to experience the game via a completely different medium. Instead of a passively watching the on-field action, they get to control the show. 

“”

Making it mobile-only is another brilliant move. If it becomes extremely successful, maybe it can make to the jump to home gaming systems. It also attracts football fans that may not be familiar with the CFL. The average gamer has most likely only played NFL or NCAA football in the past. And I haven’t heard anything but positivity from the players. Who wouldn’t love becoming part of video game? I know I would!

Advice to anyone wanting to get into pro sports?

Find a way in and don’t stop working. Volunteer, intern, whatever you have to do. Just keep knockin’ at that door. No job is too small. From putting up posters in the restrooms to sorting through our photo archives, I’ve had many responsibilities at OSEG and every one is just as important as the next.

Anything else you want to share with Redblacks fans?

First off I’d like to thank RNation. Working with such a great fan base every day makes my job one of the best in sports. If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, please feel free to let us know at @REDBLACKS or @tylerjrabb.

Secondly, I’ve talked a lot about myself here, but obviously I get to work with a very talented group of people behind the scenes. Other members of our marketing team, our video production team, and our content and communications team all contribute to our social media in incredible ways. 

Thanks for your time and all the work you do to bring #RNation closer to the team, Tyler!

Thanks for reading!

Follow us on Twitter at @DefendTheR

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The Social: Checking in with Mat Smith

Over the first three years of the Ottawa Redblacks existence, the man behind Redblacks social media – Mat Smith – was always generous with his time for us (2014 interview here, 2016 here) and the #RNation fanbase. Mat moved on from OSEG following the 2016 season to start Harbourfront Media. We caught up to reminisce and look at what’s ahead.

@DefendTheR: Suffice to say it has been a big year for you since last we spoke. Catch us up on what went on with you since last summer – both professionally and personally.

@smith_mat: It’s been a big year, and a bit of whirlwind, to be honest. In my professional life I was lucky enough to win a Grey Cup, launch a business, and take a dive into politics. The real highlight of the past year, however, was getting to marry my best friend, Kadie Smith. We had a small, intimate ceremony on the beach in Victoria, BC. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget. 

Being part of a Grey Cup champion has got to be something special. Can you share a personal story or two from Grey Cup Week that stood out for you?

Knowing this would be my last year with the team, I definitely made an effort to stop and take it all in more than I did in 2015.

Besides the obvious – the locker room celebrations, seeing Hank run out onto the field after being hurt in warmup, Grey Cup parade in Ottawa, etc., there are a few other moments that stand out to me.

Call me crazy, but I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew we were going to win the Grey Cup. It was our last full practice and Juron Criner made the best catch I’ve ever seen in person. The mood to that point had been positive and upbeat, but it went to another level after that catch. The catch seemed to spark everyone on the team and eliminated any doubts that may have been lingering. I left the practice facility with chills running down my spine after seeing the players so hyped. The high stayed with the team until after we had won. It was special.

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Another memorable moment was post-game following Henry’s media availability. I was heading out with Kadie to take our photo at midfield (something we never got to do in 2015). The stadium was completely empty – we were the only ones on the field – until I noticed Hank, followed by a scrum of photographers, walking out from the other side. He was still in his uniform and was wearing the biggest smile I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying something). He broke the silence (like only Hank can) by yelling “I see y’all holding hands!”. As he got closer, we all paused and gave each other the “did that just really happen” look. Then he gave us a big hug, said “we did it!” and headed back into the locker room to join his family. Having that kind of quiet moment amidst the crazy post-game celebrations is something I’ll never forget.

Finally, after we finally left the stadium at about midnight, before heading to the team party, Kadie and I went to Earl’s for a celebratory glass of Lagavulin. She bought me one after we lost in 2015 and it’s become our go-to drink for important occasions ever since. Sharing that moment with her was pretty special.

Winning a championship in just three short years is something pretty darn special. Other than making sure you captured as much great #content as possible, what were you feeling as the game ended?

Haha, you know it’s always about #content. As the game ended I felt happiness, relief, excitement, a massive rush of adrenaline, and probably a million other emotions. Luckily I had my co-worker Tyler with me on the sidelines, as well as a video crew, so we all alternated celebrating and capturing content. It worked out well and everyone got to enjoy the moment. 

Did you get a ring?

Yes, I did! I actually just got it a couple days ago! OSEG was very generous and I can’t thank them enough for making the staff feel valued and part of the team. It’s something I’ll cherish forever.


Beauty!

Obviously the decision to move on from OSEG had to be a tough one. What would you say is your biggest takeaway (other than the ring) from working with the Redblacks?

The decision to leave was very bittersweet, but it was time to move on. My biggest takeaway? That’s easy. It was the opportunity to travel the country, work with players, visit stadiums, and experience what the CFL truly means to Canada. The league, the players, the fans, the stadiums – they’re all sewn into the Canadian fabric. To me, the best stories are those that transcend sport, and I got to witness/be part of a lot of them in my three years in the league.

Looking back at your three years, is there something you were able to capture or an initiative you spearheaded that you’re most proud of?

I can’t pick one thing, but I’m most proud to see what the #RNation community has become. The return of football to Ottawa was an incredible story and I just wanted to capture every moment the best I could – from the name and logo unveil, all the way to the Grey Cup parade down Bank Street. I consider myself very lucky to have been part of it. 

What’s your hope/outlook for the Redblacks organization over the next 3-5 years?

Obviously I hope they have continued success both on and off the field. I think the organization has set themselves up to do just that (despite their current record). The fan base is young and engaged, the stadium is beautiful, and both the business and football ops staff see the bigger picture. I’m really excited to see the Grey Cup here in November. It’s going to be awesome. 

Now that you’re experiencing the Redblacks as a fan, have you made it to the Brewer Park tailgate yet?

I haven’t yet, but will definitely make an effort to before the season ends. My parents have been and say it’s a lot of fun.

What was the impetus for your new venture? What is the hole in the marketplace that you are filling?

The timing was right and Kadie and I had a mutual desire to start something of our own. From there, Harbourfront Media was born! We both love telling stories and have a good understanding and feel for the social media space. Our focus is on using strong engagement and meaningful content to produce brand strategies that help tell a story and create a connection between the brand and their audience. 

At the moment we’re working with various-sized clients, but I think our real end-goal is to work with small and medium-sized businesses to create and implement social/content strategies, then help set up their internal team for success down the road. 

Harbourfront Media is looking after the CFL’s official Grey Cup Festival account, @GreyCupFestival. What is the goal/plan for this year?

Our goal to to make this year’s Festival account the most accessible, fun, engaging, and content-focused it has ever been. We really want to highlight the festival themes of inclusiveness, Canadiana, grassroots, Canada 150, and #OurNation. We basically want to act as a virtual concierge that also produces meaningful content to tell the story of the Grey Cup Festival. The idea is to take the key learnings from our combined time at the Redblacks, Argos and Lions, and apply them to the Festival accounts. 

What’s the next big thing in social media? 

Live video. Location marketing. Influencer marketing. Also keep an eye out for brands utilizing messaging services like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. 

Who is looking after @Redblacks these days? What were your parting words of wisdom for him/her?

It’s a combination of very talented folks, but Tyler Rabb is mostly running point on Redblacks social this season. 

I left the team a “Guide to the Galaxy’ type legacy document with all the nerdy social media stuff, but really I just stressed the importance of the following things:

  • Humanize the players
  • Eliminate barriers between fans and players
  • Be accessible and engaging
  • Take risks
  • Capture the moment
  • Tell a meaningful story

I also said to have fun and enjoy the ride. There’s only eight other people in Canada who have this job, so consider yourself lucky. 

On behalf of Redblacks fans everywhere, I want to thank you for all your work and dedication to bringing us closer to our team. You really understand what #RNation means and made sure every fan felt included. Great job.

That means a lot to me. I really appreciate the kind words. I’m glad I could play a small part in bringing football back to the nation’s capital. I loved every moment of it.

Follow Mat on Twitter at @smith_mat.

Check out Harbourfront Media on Twitter at @HBFMedia.

Thanks for reading!

Follow us on Twitter at @DefendTheR

Enough leadership on Redblacks roster to defend Grey Cup?

By Matt Macmillan

With nine games down in the 2017 Canadian Football League season, the Ottawa Redblacks have been less than spectacular, to put it nicely, sitting third in the East with a 2-6-1 record. Hopes were high for the Grey Cup champs coming into the season, with the return of stand-out running back William Powell (who missed all of 2016), heaps of talent coming in via free agency (including LB Khalil Bass, DB A.J. Jefferson and receivers Diontae Spencer & Kenny Shaw), and of course the chance to defend the Grey Cup at home. Yet, here we are, nine games in and only a measly pair of victories. 

In spite of last week’s convincing win in Hamilton, there’s no doubt fans and players alike are frustrated with the team’s half-season performance. While these struggles may have something to do with the team’s coaching or play-calling, at the end of the day, the players are paid to execute and win games. I think former QB Henry Burris said it best:

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Without a doubt, Burris’ leadership and experience are a massive loss. Even at 41 last season, he was effectively reading blitzes and able to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Burris was the face of the Redblacks for the first three years, put the team on his back when necessary and the rest of the team rallied around him. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: Trevor Harris is a leader, and appears to be a damn good one. But Harris is only one of several players needed to fill the holes left following the Grey Cup victory. So far, it appears Ottawa just lost too many veterans in the off-season to be able to play like they did in 2015 and the first and last thirds of 2016. With half a season still to play, they need guys to step up, fast.

So, who will step up?

The Buds – Greg Ellingson & Brad Sinopoli (photo Scott Grant Photography)

Right now, The Buds® look to be filling the void. At #1 and #3 in CFL receiving yards and huge fan favourites, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli lead by example. Still to be seen whether they develop into more vocal leaders. Could be a big factor in a Redblacks turnaround this year and beyond.

The loss of Moton Hopkins cannot be understated. Yes, he is still with the team as an assistant coach, but impact on the field and in the locker room matters. A fan favourite and team captain, Hopkins was there to get his team fired up. That attitude/swagger/confidence is not the easiest to replace, but a couple guys that look like naturals to step in are Zack Evans and Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. Both are veterans with championships under their belts.

#27 Sherrod Baltimore (photo Scott Grant Photography)

No single group was hit harder this offseason than the secondary. #DBlock lost a lot of talent and valuable leadership in Abdul Kanneh (HAM), Forrest Hightower (NFL, now with EDM) and Mitchell White (NFL). All were all-star-calibre players who could get people fired up – both teammates and fans. With all three gone, someone in the secondary needs to step up and continue their legacy. I believe Sherrod Baltimore could be that guy. Since getting in the lineup, Baltimore hasn’t stopped playing hard, with both passion and heart! As veterans, Jerrell Gavins and Jonathan Rose are also being asked to do more in leading an inexperienced group. If these first three years have shown us anything it’s that when #DBlock plays well, the Redblacks play well.

The Redblacks are at the halfway point in the regular season, with nine games left. Not saying they’ll win them all, but taking a quick peek at the schedule you can see some favourable opponents, with Ottawa facing Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Montreal twice each. If the Redblacks can win at least five of their remaining nine games, that may well be enough to make the playoffs and get a chance to defend the title at home. This can only be achieved from within, however, and the Redblacks need to find ways to turn those last-second losses into victories. That will take more complete team efforts like last week in Hamilton, supported by confidence and execution from a young leadership group. Only then can we start to get serious about a third straight Grey Cup appearance.

Follow me on Twitter at @mattmthekid1.

Thanks for reading! Follow us on Twitter at @DefendTheR

All photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive.

Your 2017 Ottawa Redblacks

With training camp in the books and the 2017 Canadian Football League season on the horizon, general manager Marcel Desjardins, head coach Rick Campbell and the Ottawa Redblacks had the difficult task of paring down the roster to the league-mandated maximum of 46 (not including injuries, plus 10 practise roster spots) over the weekend. 

Here’s the team that will storm the field at TD Place on Friday, June 23rd:

DB – Defensive Back

A.J. Jefferson (photo Scott Grant Photography)

21 Berger, Adam 🇨🇦
20 Bolduc, Jean-Philippe 🇨🇦
46 Carrington, Lloyd
19 Claiborne, Imoan
4 Gavins, Jerrell
24 Jefferson, A.J.
15 Johnson, Keelan
6 Pruneau, Antoine 🇨🇦
9 Rose, Jonathan
32 Taylor, Nicholas
33 West, Dan 🇨🇦

Definitely the biggest question mark coming into the 2017 season. While there are a few returning vets (Gavins, Pruneau) and the addition of former Toronto Argonaut standout Jefferson, the fact is this is an inexperienced group. And while that may be a fairly regular occurrence in the CFL, it nonetheless means dealing with the uncertainty that comes with young players and CFL rookies. That said, D-Block 2017 looks to be a very talented and athletic group, led by coach (and DB guru) Ike Charlton.

DL – Defensive Line

41 Gascon-Nadon, Arnaud 🇨🇦
99 Williams, Connor 🇨🇦
96 Ankrah, Jason
93 Ceresna, Jake
92 Evans, Zack 🇨🇦
49 Lattanzio, Ettore 🇨🇦
90 Marshall, Andrew 🇨🇦
97 Miller, Steven
47 Romick, Nigel 🇨🇦

After defensive backs, the defensive line is probably the next biggest question mark for the Grey Cup champs. The group remains a strong one, with high-end Canadian talent in Gascon-Nadon, Williams and Evans, but the fact remains Ottawa had difficulty getting to the opposing quarterback for most of the 2016 season. It appears the plan is to rotate seven or eight of these big boys with regularity, at least for the first few weeks of the season.

K – Kicker

3 Maher, Brett
39 Medeiros, Zack 🇨🇦

Maher returns to Ottawa following a strong 2016 season in Hamilton and a brief stint on the Cleveland Browns roster. Medeiros has had a strong camp by all accounts and has performed well in preseason games. Dare we say the kicking positions seem (knock on wood) somewhat solidified?

LB – Linebacker

22 Bass, Khalil
10 Bryant, Serderius
42 Omara, Ron 🇨🇦
44 Reed, Taylor

The Redblacks had some challenges at LB in 2016, with a fair amount of turnover, including adding ‘Tank’ Reed at mid-season and having Gavins (admirably) jump into the position from his normal DB spot(s). Bass was one of the most sought-after free agents available this offseason. This group looks strong.

LS – Long Snapper

52 Doll, Tanner 🇨🇦
50 Bourassa, Louis-Philippe 🇨🇦

Doll was solid in 2016, and 2017 draft pick Bourassa looks to be a versatile back-up that can contribute on special teams.

OL – Offensive Line

SirVincent Rogers (photo Scott Grant Photography)

53 Albright, Matthew 🇨🇦
68 Draheim, Tommie
63 Gott, Jon 🇨🇦
64 Johnson, Evan 🇨🇦
58 Lauzon-Séguin, Jason 🇨🇦
66 MacMillan, Nolan 🇨🇦
56 Mateas, Alex 🇨🇦
55 Rogers, SirVincent
59 Silas, Jake

With the return of Jake Silas this week, the Redblacks offensive line is essentially the same strong group from 2016. While J’Michael Deane is gone, 2017 first-round pick Evan Johnson will look to make his way into the rotation. Most importantly, guard SirVincent Rogers looks fully recovered from season-ending ankle injury. 

QB – Quarterback

Trevor Harris (photo Scott Grant Photography)

7 Harris, Trevor
14 Lindley, Ryan
5 Tate, Drew

For the first time in his pro career, Harris will be the undisputed starting QB. And while he has put up excellent numbers the last two seasons with extended time as fill-in starter, being “the guy” is a different kind of pressure. How Harris responds will be a – if not the – major storyline of the Redblacks season.

RB/FB – Running Back/Fullback

William Powell (photo Scott Grant Photography)

25 Gillanders, Brendan 🇨🇦
45 Gosselin, Anthony 🇨🇦
81 Lavoie, Patrick 🇨🇦
23 Madu Jr., Mossis
29 Powell, William

Powell was a force for Ottawa in the back-half of 2015, including a team-best performance in the Grey Cup loss. After missing all of 2016 with an Achilles injury, WiPo is healthy and looked strong in his limited preseason reps. Lavoie is the incumbent FB and should continue to be that 6th/7th receiving option for Harris.

WR – Wide Receiver

Diontae Spencer (photo Scott Grant Photography)

86 Criner, Juron
82 Ellingson, Greg
8 Harty, Jake 🇨🇦
2 Shaw, Kenny
88 Sinopoli, Brad 🇨🇦
85 Spencer, Diontae
87 Stangby, Joshua

The Redblacks got a lot younger at receiver this offseason, and many believe they have a chance to be even better than the 2016 crew. Lofty, considering they are coming off a second straight year where four receivers topped 1,000 yards. Shaw (1,004 yards for Toronto last year) & Spencer (706 yards in just 12 games with the Argos) are the big free agent additions, while Criner put up 446 yards in the final eight games of the year, including playoffs, once Chris Williams was lost for the year. Add these three to what we’ve come to expect from The Buds (Ellingson & Sinopoli), and the 2017 Redblacks receiving corps is setting up to challenge the league’s best. Is FIVE 1,000-yard receivers a possibility?

While there are always question marks, there’s little question the Redblacks have improved depth at most positions. Barring significant injury, a healthy Redblacks squad should contend for first in the East Division.

By the way, here’s the Redblacks practise roster for Week 1:

27 Baltimore, Sherrod (DB)
31 Brown, Kevin (LB)
17 Collins, Danny (QB)
98 Ellis, Avery (DL)
80 Hartley, Austen (WR) 🇨🇦
35 Jackson, Kevin (LB) 🇨🇦
57 Lofton, Eric (OL)
89 Rhymes, Dominique (WR)
69 Schmidt, Ryan (OL)
28 Tindal, Corey (DB)

PR UPDATE (6/22): Preseason standout WR Daje Johnson has been added to the practise roster, replacing OL Ryan Schmidt. Johnson will wear number 13.

It all starts Friday. Can’t wait.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

All photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

Redblacks Training Camp battles – It’s Trev’s offence now

By Cranky Frank Clair

Hope you had a chance to read my defensive preview. Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the Redblacks offence.

QB Trevor Harris – photo Scott Grant Photography
Quarterback

Hank is gone, but the team’s QB corps is solid thanks to GM Marcel Desjardins’ timely acquisitions of Trevor Harris prior to the 2016 season and Drew Tate this past winter.  

Key Returning Players: Trevor Harris

Departed: Henry Burris (retired), Danny O’Brien

Notable Newcomers: Drew Tate (trade – CGY), Ryan Lindley (free agent – 3 seasons in NFL) 

After spending 2016 as the most loyal of soldiers alternately backing up and replacing Henry Burris, this is now Harris’ football team. The offence is being molded to his strengths and we’ll get a good sense this year if Harris is as good as good over 18 games as he’s been as a part-timer. 

Beneath the optimism about Harris, there is an undercurrent of chatter that he has never delivered for an entire season. I can’t comment on his 2015 experience with the Argos other than to know he dissected the very strong Redblacks defence twice later in the season. As for last year, he was injured at some point after he took over for the injured Henry Burris, and it is difficult to pin the team’s mid-season struggles on Harris. This having been said, this is his first opportunity to lead a pro team from the beginning – his performance one way or another will speak for itself. I expect Harris will deliver, particularly with Ottawa opening up deep threats (despite the departure of Chris Williams). 

I’m assuming that former Calgary back-up QB Tate is now the defacto #2 in Ottawa, although it may depend on how Ryan Lindley adapts to the Canadian game. Lindley’s NFL record isn’t stellar – he’s had 6 starts over three seasons and he is no longer in the NFL for a reason. This is a fresh chance for the San Diego State product and he’ll be able to compete. 

Brock Jensen, the incumbent #2/3 in Ottawa, is also back. It remains to be seen whether he gets a chance to prove his smattering of supporters correct that he is proving worthy of the #2 spot and is a future starter. Attentive readers will know I’m more than a little dubious. 

RB Shakir Bell – photo Scott Grant Photography

Running Back

There are two things the Redblacks have been able to count on through their short history – sellouts at TD Place and the need for lots of running backs. Fortunately, Desjardins has been able to keep the RB pipeline full despite a string of injuries. This year he has delivered the team’s deepest RB corps yet. 

Key returning players: Mossis Madu, William Powell, Patrick Lavoie (FB)

Departed: Kienan Lafrance, Travon Van

Notable Newcomers: Shakir Bell (free agent, previously EDM), Anthony Gosselin (2017 2nd round draft pick

With Mossis Madu returning after a solid championship season and William Powell returning following his early season injury, it would appear that the Redblacks were already loaded at RB prior to the signing of Shakir Bell. Now they are uber-loaded, but two things to remember: Injuries come fast, and both Madu and Powell are now 29 years old. We could be looking at a training camp battle between Madu and Powell to hang on to one spot alongside Bell, who is younger and has shown explosive ability to gain yardage. Bell was CFL Player of the Week in week 10 last season, and certainly turned heads, but with only four starts so far he’ll have to prove in camp that he isn’t a flash in the pan. He was a talented big time back in college, however, so all signs point to Bell being the real deal. 

A wild card this year is Anthony Gosselin, a physical specimen drafted in the second round by the Redblacks in March. Gosselin will certainly contribute almost immediately on special teams, but it must be wondered if the team thinks it might have another big Canadian back on its hands in the mold of Jerome Messam – Gosselin is almost 250lbs, has defensive lineman strength and running back speed. He’ll be a player to watch. 

Running back is the number one position to watch during training camp as the Madu-Powell-Bell hierarchy gets sorted out over the next month.

WR Kenny Shaw – photo Scott Grant Photography

Receiver

We simply have to get over the departed players. They’ve earned a lifetime of respect, love and glory, but they are Redblacks no more. Hail the new Redblacks. The 2017 version of the Redblacks offence should remain strong thanks to depth – just like the previous two seasons, opposition defences cannot shut down the Ottawa air game by focusing on one or two receivers. It is entirely possible the Redblacks will have another season with four 1000+ yard receivers. 

Key returning players: Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, Juron Criner

Departed: Ernest Jackson, Chris Williams

Notable Newcomers: Diontae Spencer (free agent – TOR), Kenny Shaw (free agent – TOR), Tori Gurley (free agent – WPG)

As hard as it may be to accept, this is a time of out with the old, in with the new. Expect 2016 late season standout Juron Criner to ably step into the role previously occupied by Ernest Jackson. The big converted TE has proven to have good hands and the ability to get open. He will never be EJack, but the Redblacks will be well served by Criner. 

With Chris Williams leaving just as Harris’ ability to throw deep with accuracy comes to the fore, I was concerned about the Redblacks not having legit deep threats. I worry no more. Diontae Spencer and Kenny Shaw provide that deep threat. As long as the Redblacks receiving corps continues to take downfield blocking as seriously as catching and running, the team’s air game will remain very strong. YAC has been a big plus for the Redblacks offence over the past two seasons, and that needs to continue. 

The one concern is lack of Canadian depth behind Brad Sinopoli. We’ll see if Scott McDonnell can step up when asked in his third year with the club. Greg Ellingson is now making big time money and should continue delivering big time results. And snow angels. Lots more snow angels.

Alex Mateas & the Offensive Line – photo Scott Grant Photography

Offensive Line

The continuity largely continues

Key returning players: SirVincent Rogers, Jason Lauzon-Séguin, John Gott, Nolan MacMillan, Jake Silas

Departed: J’Michael Deane

Notable newcomer: Evan Johnson (9th pick overall, 2017 CFL draft)

With everyone returning except starting LG J’Michael Deane, the Redblacks OL is basically set. Deane’s departure was virtually inevitable given the team’s depth inside. Here is how I expect the 2017 line to shake out:

LT – SirVincent Rogers

LG – Jason Lauzon-Seguin

C – John Gott

RG – Nolan MacMillan

RT – Jake Silas

The real training camp battle will be for the depth roles – ie, who will be the “first man up”. Matt Albright and Alex Mateas will be fighting to be that guy, with Mateas having a lot to prove. The 2015 first overall draft pick is proving to be an expensive backup. This is a make or break year for the Ottawa native, and indeed, anything could happen if a camp prospect such as Lene Maiava proves to be a beast worth keeping, despite his International status. Look for Albright to be the go-to depth guy, and remember that versatile standout MacMillan only signed for one season. The team will have to be thinking about next year as well. 

Tommie Draheim filled in last season when RT Jake Silas was injured. Tackles need very strong first contact and the mobility/balance to stay with the defender. The Redblacks will be taking a long look at camp invitees at tackle to see who might deliver those qualities and be the depth player at OT. 

Don’t look for first round draft pick Evan Johnson to make an impact this season. He has lauded athleticism and coach Bryan Chiu will be able to coach him up, but there likely won’t be a regular season role for him until 2018, at least.

Looking forward to Saturday’s mock game and Thursday’s preseason opener. Come say hi – and don’t forget to rub my shoe for good luck!

Follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

Thanks for reading! @DefendTheR

Photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

Redblacks Training Camp battles – De-fence!

By Cranky Frank Clair

I hope #RNation has enjoyed its post-championship glow, because life moves fast and the win-loss columns are all about to be set to zero. While some familiar Redblacks have left (or not been asked back), the team is looking strong. Starting with the defence, today is the first of two position-by-position breakdowns of who is gone, notable newcomers and what to watch for through the balance of training camp and the pre-season. 

DE Avery Ellis (Temple) – photo Scott Grant Photography

Defensive line

Key returning players: Zack Evans, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Connor Williams

Departed: Moton Hopkins (retired), Cleyon Laing (was here for the end of regular season + playoffs)

Notable newcomers: Jason Ankrah (free agent)

I’m not happy to see Moton Hopkins gone, partly because I had to re-write this section. The Redblacks depth inside is blown up – for now, and DL becomes a bigger question mark than it was just a couple of days ago. Expect the Redblacks to do some shuffling to figure out where people are going to settle. Landon Cohen likely has an inside track on the 0 tech NT slot with Hopkins gone. Jake Ceresna who was at Redblacks camp in 2016 until breaking his leg is back. He has impressive size, we’ll see how he does in his second shot at the pro game after coming out of a very small school/division where play appears on par with CJFL. Ettore Lattanzio should continue making more than his share of plays as depth DT.

Before Hopkins’ retirement, the big question was at DE. The Redblacks have brought a lot of guys in since Aston Whiteside’s injury, and none have really stuck. Jason Ankrah has caught my eye, we’ll see how he does over the next few days. Another possibility at speed rush DE is Avery Ellis out of Temple. Both will need to be evaluated closely in contact drills and live action.

One wild card inside is Eli Ankou. The UCLA DT was snapped up by the Redblacks in the 4th round. He would have been an early first round CFL pick, but was signed to a priority free agent contract by the Houston Texans following the NFL draft. However, we now know his rather low signing bonus/guaranteed money ($20k) means the Texans perhaps aren’t that high on him. We might see him in Ottawa by September.

NOTE: I’m going to follow up on the DL situation once I get a longer look at practice, Saturday’s scrimmage and the first pre-season game.

LB Khalil Bass – photo Scott Grant Photography

Linebackers

Key returning players: Tank Reed

Departed: Damaso Muñoz (released, since retired)

Notable newcomers: Khalil Bass (free agent – WPG)

There was a fair bit of shuffling of the LB corps in 2016, and each step was an improvement. The Grey Cup starting trio of Muñoz, Reed and Jerrell Gavins have been split up, with Muñoz released and Gavins now shuffled back to his more natural DB position. Joining Reed is Bass, who made an impact in two seasons with the Blue Bombers. He is a legit CFL rising star and gives the Redblacks one of the strongest 1-2 LB punches in the league. The question is at the hybrid LB/DB position of SAM or strongside LB. Largely a pass coverage role, it was Antoine Pruneau’s job until he was moved back to his more natural FS position. Gavins slid into the role where he was a big contributor through the team’s Grey Cup run. Departures in the secondary during the offseason have pushed Gavins back, however, and the SAM spot is open – it will be an interesting competition that may not be settled until later in camp. I’ll report more on this later.

DB Jerrell Gavins- photo Scott Grant Photography

Secondary

Key returning players: Jerrell Gavins, Jonathan Rose, Antoine Pruneau

Departed: Forrest Hightower, Abdul Kanneh, Jeff Richards, Mitchell White

Notable newcomers: AJ Jefferson (free agent – TOR), Javier Arenas (free agent – 2010 NFL 2nd Round draft pick, multiple NFL stints)

I’m not as concerned about this group as I was a few weeks ago. The outlook was grim over the winter, however. Since its first season, the Redblacks have fielded a very strong secondary. And every season, the team has had to face the loss of key players. To its credit, the team has been able to keep the shelves stocked. The secondary was looking pretty bare after Hightower and Kanneh left, but its quite possible that Marcel Desjardins and team have successfully managed to re-load the secondary.

The leader this year is Gavins (wearing #4 this year, by the way), now a team veteran who has grown in his time with the Redblacks. He played SAM LB last year and did it well, but this season there are too many gaping holes in the secondary to keep him in that role. Rose is one of the players who came in to replace the original group of departees, and he has been a strong CB for the past 1.5 seasons. Pruneau is back at his natural Free Safety slot, which he took on last season. Pruneau should continue to thrive there. Jefferson, who was signed as a free agent from the Argos, will start and it sounds like returning depth player Imoan Claiborne has an inside shot at starting, while it may be hard to keep NFL veteran Arenas from the open cornerback position. This is assuming he can adapt to the motion and “hands off” CFL rules. A depth player or two with upside will also emerge at camp – they always do. 

Look for an offensive preview tomorrow and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

Photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

Redblacks 2017 #CFLDraft preview

With mini-camps wrapping up across the continent, the next big event in the 2017 CFL calendar is the Draft. On May 7th, (most of) the best and brightest Canadian football talent will be snapped up by the league’s nine teams over eight rounds.

As Grey Cup champions (woo hoo!!!), the Ottawa Redblacks are set to draft last in each round, barring any trades in the lead-up to Sunday night. 2017 will mark the Redblacks fifth CFL Draft, as the team participated on a limited basis (four picks) in the 2013 Draft – a full year prior to their inaugural season in 2014. General manager Marcel Desjardins and his staff have done a commendable job at the Draft through the first four years, adding a number of significant contributors to the Redblacks roster. First round picks each year include:

2013: OL Nolan MacMillan (9th overall); 43 games played, 42 starts

2014: DB Antoine Pruneau (4th overall); 53 games played, 45 starts

2015: OL Alex Mateas (1st overall); 35 games played, 10 starts

2016: OL Jason Lauzon-Séguin (7th overall); 14 games played, 12 starts

Here’s a summary of each Redblacks draft pick’s impact on the Ottawa lineup to date (courtesy @jonathanwhudson): 

FRANK – Final Scouting Bureau Rank; DRANK – December Scouting Bureau Rank; SRANK – September Scouting Bureau Rank; GP – Games Played; GS – Games Started; TGP – Total Games Played (with other teams, if applicable); TGS – Total Games Started (with other teams, if applicable)
2017 Outlook

Opinions are pretty varied as far as the position or player the Redblacks should be targeting in the first round. Common sense says the first round should be reserved for key Canadian positions on the offensive and defensive lines, but there are always exceptions. Here’s how some in the CFL media see things shaking out for the Redblacks at #9:

Eric M of bomberbuzz.com – Mock Draft #1:

1:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: WR Nathaniel Behar, Carleton

Although the Redblacks could go many different routes with the last pick in the first round, selecting Behar makes a lot of sense. It fills a need – Ottawa has suspect depth behind Brad Sinopoli – and adds another local product to the team’s receiving corps. Behar is a London, Ontario native but, of course, played college ball in Ottawa. The Redblacks could use another offensive lineman – McGill’s Qadr Spooner will be considered – as well as a defensive tackle, however a DT such as Idaho’s Faith Ekakitie or Montreal’s Junior Luke would be a reach in the first round. Behar’s local ties edge out Spooner.

Mock Draft #2:

1:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: LB Jordan Herdman, Simon Fraser

Herdman’s fall to the bottom of the first round has much to do with both his NFL interest and his testing results. Although NFL teams will be grossly turned off by his 5.16 40-yard dash, the combination of his Senior Bowl performance and his game tape – that of which suggests no issues with his testing numbers – should result in Herdman getting an opportunity down south as an undrafted free agent.

For Ottawa, while a plethora of defensive tackles and offensive linemen remain available, they saw strong seasons from Connor Williams and Ettore Lattanzio in 2016, while Zack Evans has became a menace in the middle. Based on the players still available versus Ottawa’s team needs, they’re in a position to invest in a player like Herdman. Regardless of his testing numbers, Herdman will one day be a starting inside linebacker in this league.

Herdman has subsequently been invited to Kansas City Chiefs rookie mini-camp. 

Scott Mitchell of the Toronto Sun:

1:9 Ottawa RedBlacks — DT Eli Ankou, UCLA

NFL interest isn’t the only thing muddying Ankou’s stock. At 6-foot-3, 325 pounds, the worry is he’s a bit oversized for a typical CFL interior lineman, but on the plus side, he’s not viewed as strictly a one-dimensional run-stuffer.

The RedBlacks would likely love an offensive lineman, but this Ottawa native might be the best talent on the board.

Note that Ankou was subsequently signed to a priority free agent contract by the Houston Texans immediately following the NFL Draft. This will likely make him a late round CFL selection, given the likelihood he wouldn’t come to the CFL for a minimum of 1-2 years, if at all.

John Hodge of Blue Bomber Talk & 3 Down Nation:

9. Ottawa Redblacks — OL Jean-Simon Roy, Laval

Roy put up an outstanding 39 bench press reps at the combine at just 287 pounds — an outstanding feat for a guy who could afford to add weight to his 6’3 frame. Roy’s also bilingual, an added bonus for a bilingual market.

Marshall Ferguson of TSN 1150 & CFL.ca:

9. OTTAWA | FAITH EKAKITIE | DL | IOWA

Of all my picks in the first round, this is the one I’m most hesitant about. Last year, Marcel Desjardins and his REDBLACKS staff took an NCAA defensive lineman in Boston College alum and Montreal native Mehdi Abdesmad in hopes he would come to the CFL sooner rather than later.

Abdesmad has not yet come back north which could interest Ottawa in stretching for another big name quarterback hunter in Iowa Hawkeyes Faith Ekakitie — OR could push the REDBLACKS towards taking a USPORTS player ready to commit himself to the organization immediately. Maybe even a Kwaku Boateng or Kay Okafor if they last to the end of the first round.

Barry Britto of cflhorsemen.ca:

9. Ottawa – Nate Behar, WR, Carleton

There is a chance the Bombers make this pick at #6 but if they don’t, Ottawa will add the solid route runner who will add depth to the receiving corps.

TheRatioBreaker.com:

9. OTT: Mitch Picton, SB, Regina

Mitch Picton isn’t ready to start yet but the Redblacks don’t need him to. Picton is a tremendous receiving talent who can learn behind Brad Sinopoli and eventually replace him, providing currently absent depth in the slot.

Like I said, pretty varied. 

For reference, here’s the CFL Scouting Bureau’s final ranking:

Note that Justin Senior (1) was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 6th round of the NFL Draft, while Ankou (Houston), Geoff Gray (Green Bay) and Antony Auclair (Tampa Bay) were all signed to priority free agent deals immediately after the draft. All four will likely drop to mid-round picks, given the risk of them ever playing in the CFL.

Also worth noting that LB Cameron Judge (UCLA) and DL Randy Colling (Gannon University) have been ruled eligible for the 2017 CFL Draft. Both could very well be selected in the first 2-3 rounds.

Local flavour

2017 is a big year for the Carleton Ravens football program, as it will be the first time a Raven is selected in the CFL Draft since 1999 and could see a handful of players chosen. In fact, there are a number of Ottawa connections in the crop of players available this year, including:

  • DB Tunde Adeleke (Carleton)
  • #2-ranked DL Eli Ankou (UCLA) – born in Ottawa
  • OL Kwabena Asare (Carleton)
  • #9-ranked WR Nathaniel Behar (Carleton)
  • WR Malcolm Carter (Ottawa Sooners)
  • DB Nathaniel Hamlin (Carleton)

The 2017 CFL Draft is Sunday, May 7th @ 7:00PM ET. The first two hours will be broadcast live on TSN.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

Player safety greatest concern in Redblacks 2017 schedule

By Andrea Vandette

When I heard the 2017 CFL schedule was coming out on Tuesday, I vowed not to be yet another fan griping about a schedule that is less than perfect. There is no perfect schedule (except maybe the one on your PVR). Yes, there will be mid-week games that make road trips difficult. Yes, there will be tight clusters of games with frankly not enough rest for the players. Yes, there are aspects of the schedule that will not appeal to every Redblacks fan. For better or worse, these things are more or less par for the course. 

That being said, there is one concern for me that warrants more attention and outrage than it appears to be receiving and that is the Redblacks having to wait until week 18 for their first bye week. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve heard complaints. Mostly from the fan’s perspective of potentially having only one game in 37 days should the Redblacks clinch the East, motivated in part by having no football to watch, and by the concern that long breaks are momentum busters. However, my issue is less about the lack of football around the end of the season, and more about the risks that 17 straight weeks of football pose to the health and safety of the players. 

Putting aside the concussion debate, football is a grueling, physically demanding, full contact (on every play) sport. We already know some unlucky players will have season-ending (even career-ending) injuries each year, and very few players will make it through an entire season without a significant injury (requiring surgery, therapy, etc). Yes, they sign on to put their bodies and health at risk and they know and accept that any given play could be their last. But no athlete is a robot, no matter how much they’re paid. Bye weeks are essential for the physical and mental health recovery they provide, and denying the players that dearly needed rest while requiring more and more physical output is a recipe for serious injury. 

Photo: Scott Grant Photography

I recognize there are some weeks with long stretches between games, and that is fair enough. But would you consider working from home the equivalent to having a day off? Of course you wouldn’t, because even if you’re home wearing your PJs instead of your pumps (or suit and tie, as the case may be), you’re still doing your job. You’re not watching Netflix or running errands or spending quality time with your family and children (And let’s remember for most players their families are not with them in Ottawa). Likewise, having a couple extra days between practice does not a bye week make. 

As many have noted, the Redblacks are not the first CFL club to have to deal with such a schedule quirk. Calgary went 15 weeks between byes last season, for example. So it may be an unfortunate standard practise of a nine-team league. And not being a player myself, maybe I grossly overestimate the importance of bye weeks for the health and recovery of these athletes. However, if this is a valid concern I’d encourage CFL players and the CFL Players Association to do what it can to address player safety in future collective bargaining agreements, if not this current one. The league and TSN aren’t going to do it for you.

Or we can just ignore it and go back to worrying about who has the most inconvenient mid-week games.

Follow Andrea on Twitter -> @DustyFootDre

Photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography (@CFLPhotoArchive)

Free Agency looms for Grey Cup champs 

By Cranky Frank Clair

With roughly two weeks to go until CFL free agents can be signed by any club, the Redblacks situation is unsettled, to say the least. GM Marcel Desjardins and his football ops team could, of course, sign a key player or two anytime. This would chill the natural urge to panic. But given the sheer number and quality of the Redblacks’ free agents, panic seems a reasonable response for RNation. 

The Free Agency period begins February 14 and will most certainly see the Grey Cup champions lose some key players and fan favourites to other CFL teams. This doesn’t even include the three players – Mitchell White, Forrest Hightower and Cleyon Laing – already lost to the NFL. This is further fuelled by the fact that only two key players – Antoine Pruneau and Taylor Reed – have been re-signed so far. 

Conventional wisdom is that once February arrives, most players will simply wait to test the open market. Guys fit for shiny new Grey Cup rings will be hot commodities. 

On the upside, the Redblacks front office has proven to be very smart, creative and decisive. You can’t argue with their success. This is the first time in the Redblacks short history that RNation has witnessed any player-driven roster upheaval, however. The front office has earned the benefit of the doubt, but now a little panic is natural. 

Here is a position-by-position rundown of the Redblacks roster as we head into 2017 Free Agency. I’m going to limit my speculation on potential FA additions to the team, as there are simply too many moving parts to that discussion. This rundown will show where the holes will likely be, however.
 

Quarterback

We know Henry Burris won’t be back and that Trevor Harris is being offered an extension past 2017. Other than that, the QB situation is somewhat open. Brock Jensen, who can be lightly penciled in for the time being as #2 behind Harris, is already signed. Danny O’Brien is a FA, and I don’t see the Redblacks or another team aggressively pursuing him. We’ll soon see how comfortable the Redblacks are with Jensen as backup.

Jensen, Harris, Burris & O’Brien

My formula – Try to sign a contender for the #2 spot, but it doesn’t have to be a future hall of famer. Recently-released Saskatchewan QB Mitchell Gale fits that description and should challenge Jensen. The remaining QB spot will take care of itself, though finding a guy to develop into a legit potential starter for a contending team won’t be easy.

Running Back

The team that has been crushed by RB injuries has shown a remarkable ability to find very good replacements. That ability may soon be tested again. 2016 standout Mossis Madu is under contract for this season, but he is 29 years-old and coming off injury. The RB who emerged in 2015, William Powell, re-signed on Tuesday but is coming off a serious injury that saw him miss the entire 2016 season. Able depth RBs Travon Van (INT) and Kienen LaFrance (CDN) are both pending free agents. With two key players coming off injury and the status of the depth players uncertain, we have to look at RB as worrisome but not panic-inducing. We have other positions to panic over. 

Kienan LaFrance

My formula – Powell’s signing is welcome and likely not too expensive after missing a season. He and Madu will compete hard for the number one spot. Depth will be critical: it has been a Darwinian existence for Ottawa Redblacks running backs. 

This means signing LaFrance, if possible. He’s a nice Canadian option to have back there and he has upside. I’m torn on Van – I like his improvement through 2016 and he’s decent as a receiver coming out of the backfield, but I’ve never liked his upright running style and he doesn’t hit the line with a lot of certainty. Van may not be worth trying to re-sign and it is possible he’ll find starter’s money elsewhere. 

Receiver

There isn’t much point in waxing poetic about what Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Chris Williams mean to the Redblacks  and RNation. We know who they are and what they have done to secure two consecutive Grey Cup berths and earn Ottawa its first Grey Cup in forever. All three are pending free agents. In addition, depth receiver and fan-friendly Khalil Paden as well as Jamill Smith could enter the open market. Williams is scary-fast and gives the Redblacks an unmatched deep threat, but he is coming off knee surgery and won’t likely be available till mid-season. Worth a hefty signing? That is a complicated question with a multifaceted answer based on whether he recovers and how much demand there is for Williams. Without the injury, I would say re-signing him is a slam dunk “yes”, because of the dimension his speed adds to the entire offence. Sure, he drops balls, but with Harris throwing, Williams has proven to be the CFL’s most dangerous threat. 

Ellingson has been testing the NFL waters, but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of interest. And then there is Jackson, who could be in for a big payday as a money receiver who is at the absolute top of his game at the best possible time. He catches everything, is good for yards after the catch (YAC), and his commitment and effectiveness at blocking make the entire team better. 

So looking at the three of them together, this remains complicated. Harris has exceptional deep-ball accuracy, making him all the more effective when he has a true deep threat to play catch with. Without Williams, Harris doesn’t have a scary-fast deep threat. But does he need one, and will Williams be that guy again? There is no certain answer. Ellingson, while a fan fave, I hate to say it, is not worth a hefty raise. There are other Greg Ellingsons out there, and some of them might even make the CFL Hotties list.

Greg Ellingson & Ernest Jackson

My formula – Sign Jackson. Figure out how to make it work with Williams, knowing that what he’s paid won’t be charged against the cap until he starts to play. If signing Ellingson means more than a five or ten percent raise or the inability to sign Jackson, let him go elsewhere. Juron Criner is signed and has proven his value. John Harris has spent a year on the practice roster and he has potential and pedigree. If Khalil Paden can find starter dollars elsewhere, he should take it. I would re-sign Jamill Smith. It won’t break the bank and he is reliable, if not spectacular, as a returner. 

Meanwhile, the Redblacks lack of Canadian depth at receiver is a little alarming. Brad Sinopoli is one of the best in the league, but there is no one behind him who is a potential starter. This should be the Redblacks biggest priority at the upcoming CFL draft, which is deep and rich in receiver talent.
 
Offensive Line

The Redblacks two starting guards are pending free agents. Normally this would be cause for alarm, and it only will be a concern if the team can’t re-sign Nolan MacMillan. J’Michael Deane doesn’t seem like a priority. He draws a ton of flags, and the Redblacks have OL depth that needs a place to play. Here is the Redblacks OL lineup if a game was being played tomorrow:

LT – SirVincent Rogers, American, one of the best in the league
LG – J’Michael Deane, pending FA
C – John Gott, East nominee for top lineman in 2016
RG – Nolan MacMillan, very good player, missed much of 2016 with injury
RT – Jake Silas, young, capable and improving American. Injured late in 2016.
Depth – Jason Lauzon-Séguin, can start at RT or at G
Depth – Matt Albright – ready to start at G
Depth – Alex Mateas – former 1st overall pick. Has not progressed as hoped
Depth – Tommie Draheim – American started last few games at RT. Buttressed by very good teamwork in backfield and by rest of OL.

SirVincent Rogers, Jon Gott and others wish Redblacks RB coach Beau Walker a happy birthday

My formula – I would let Deane go elsewhere and try to sign MacMillan, using a decent portion of Deane money if necessary. If this happens, I would let Lauzon-Seguin and Albright fight it out at camp for the vacant LG spot. 

However, losing MacMillan would not make signing Deane a priority, in my opinion. This is because of the ability of both Albright and Lauzon-Séguin to shine at Guard. Both are more than ready. Mateas is an able depth guy who could compete for a starting G spot in camp but would likely wind up as the depth guy at G/C. At some point, Mateas’ cap hit as a first overall pick may become an issue if he isn’t able to earn a starting position. The team has other depth players signed, although losing MacMillan would heighten the priority of finding OL options in the draft and during free agency. 

Defensive Line

The big name and 2016 contributor facing free agency is fan-favourite Moton Hopkins. He is a solid American defensive tackle who can collapse the interior with his exceptional strength – he has a lot of snaps where he puts the offensive lineman opposite onto roller skates, helplessly pushed into the backfield. He isn’t one of the league’s brand name elite DTs, but Moton holds his own, is an important part of the roster and helps the team win. 

Also notable is Aston Whiteside, who had a terrific few games in 2015 before a knee injury that seems to have never really healed. He came back for a time in 2016, but with little impact. I can’t imagine that Whiteside will be highly sought-after in free agency. 

My Formula – Sign Hopkins. He won’t likely break the budget, and he provides strength and explosiveness (alongside Zack Evans) inside on a DL where the key rotation DT is effective but undersized. The only way I would consider not bringing Moton back is if Cleyon Laing was brought back or if 2016 draft pick Mehdi Abedesmad was proving not ready for the NFL. Neither of those is happening, so Hopkins is a priority. 

Whiteside is low risk to re-sign and bring in to camp to see if that knee has finally healed. The Redblacks haven’t turned up another gem at DE, the price should be low to see if Whiteside can again shine. The team can’t rely on this, however, and the team’s long search for its next speed rush DE must continue. Mike Moore, another FA lineman, is worth bringing in at a low price. He has proven to be a decent depth player who will get a chance to compete at camp.

Linebacker

After some mid-season shuffling, this unit became a big part of the Redblacks success, and two-thirds of the Grey Cup starting trio is now under contract – Damaso Muñoz and Taylor “Tank” Reed, making Reed one of only two FA starters to be extended so far. 

The open position is SAM LB, the slot that is a hybrid LB/pass coverage role that was filled by Antoine Pruneau for much of his first three years with the team. Pruneau moved back to free safety partway through last season and he has been re-signed already, avoiding another free agency headache. However, Jerrell Gavins, an unlikely linebacker if there ever was one, performed very well through the end of last season and he is a pending FA.  

Signing Gavins won’t be a slam dunk, and it is very likely that his talents will be needed in the secondary anyway.

So where does that leave the LB corps? John Boyett has turned heads at free safety and weakside LB (WILL LB) for the Redblacks. Boyett’s skill set, aggressiveness and pedigree as a legit NFL strong safety make him an ideal candidate for SAM. However, Boyett is both a pending FA and coming off an unspecified knee injury.

John Boyett

My Formula – Sign Boyett. Regardless of when his knee heals, I want him on my football team. The price shouldn’t be too high. Then we really hope he returns to form. As for Gavins, the team needs him back, but as a defensive back due to offseason departures. If necessary, Pruneau can play SAM until Boyett returns. The Redblacks have a pile of FS on the depth chart, one of them could emerge as more than a special teams contributor during camp.

Secondary

There is no way to sugar coat this – the Redblacks defensive backfield has already been hit hard and it could get much worse. Mitchell White was one of the best cover cornerbacks in the CFL. He has now signed in the NFL (Philadelphia).

Forrest Hightower, one of the heroes of the Redblacks 2016 playoff run – also signed in the NFL (New Orleans). Abdul Kanneh, the king of the Grey Cup-saving shoestring tackle, is a pending free agent. Gavins, who has played most of his Redblacks career in the secondary and who will likely be needed there in 2017, is also a pending free agent.  

Pruneau and Jonathan Rose are all that’s left, and the depth in the secondary isn’t what it used to be. Tristan Jackson is a DB whose value to the team is as a return specialist. Hopefully he can be re-signed and return to the form we saw before a late season injury. In the team’s short history, Jackson has been the team’s best and most threatening return guy. He should not be viewed as part of the answer in the secondary, however.

Abdul Kanneh

My formula – The Redblacks front office has apparently viewed the defensive backfield as a position where league minimum is the norm. Can that really continue? I say find a way to pay Kanneh and Gavins.   

The team has seemingly had a DB tree in the back yard, with new outstanding players becoming ripe to start on a regular basis. But that’s not reality. The pipeline isn’t going to keep spitting out elite players forever. The team has exceptionally good coaching back there, and the team has proven to be very good at finding guys – but there are a finite number of players who can play the secondary under Canadian motion and contact rules.

Kanneh and Gavins are proven legit starters on a contending team, there is too much downside to let them walk over $10k in salary. Sign them. 

That’s all for now. I’ll be fretting on my pedestal in the southside stands, watching carefully as this plays out. 

Follow me on Twitter -> @CrankyClair

All photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive