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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I really don’t have anything to offer that hasn’t already been said about the Redblacks Grey Cup win. So instead of rehashing/celebrating what happened, I’m going to look ahead a bit. The Redblacks have a pile of pending free agents as do most other teams in the CFL. There are quarterback and management questions in other cities, and a team or two will be using the next few weeks to begin their march on Ottawa and the 2017 Grey Cup. I won’t get too deep into Redblacks 2017 roster projects – there are too many moving parts at this point. But here’s a look at the current situation as well as my view of some other situations in other cities.
The CFL’s Big List of Free Agents now out, we can certainly look at the team’s offseason challenges.
This means there is much work to be done, but it’s the best kind of work – keeping a champion together and making it better. Not everyone will get to stay, however.
Sadly, Chris Williams is likely in the “won’t be back” category. He’ll be rehabbing his knee well into next summer and may be back just before his 30th birthday. That isn’t a great combo, especially considering that his last contract was likely in the $200k+ neighbourhood. Williams has his detractors, but his world-class speed kept defenders on their heels and opened up the field for his teammates. Losing him for 2017 will be doubly unfortunate because Trevor Harris has the arm to take full advantage of Williams’ talents.
The list of must-sign players is fairly long. Ernest Jackson, Mitchell White, Abdul Kanneh and Nolan MacMillan would be hard to replace. Tank Reed is the LB the Redblacks need – his presence boosted Damaso Muñoz. And #RNation needs to be concerned about John Boyett’s return – we never really heard much about his knee injury and now he’s looking at free agency. There are rumblings that Abdul Kanneh will be looking south, and now we hear that the team has released Cleyon Laing so he can look south as well. If I could, I would bring them both back. Laing proved his worth, collapsing pockets from the inside and making lots of room. As I hoped, he even played some DE and it proved an experiment worth continuing.
I somehow doubt we’ll see Aston Whiteside back. He never really recovered from his knee injury. Its hard to see from here whether the Redblacks rushed him back or whether the knee didn’t respond to treatment or whether he actually got reinjured. The Redblacks so-far fruitless search for its next speed rushing DE continues. But…given the way the Redblacks DLine performed in the Grey Cup, I’m inclined to think the team should stop trying to slot in an unproven speed DE and go with muscle. I saw some devastating power rushes from Laing and Connor Williams from the DE position, showing that Clydesdales can get the same result as a racehorse.
Meanwhile, fan favourite Antoine Pruneau is also a pending free agent. Without knowing enough about Montreal’s FS situation, must think that he’s a guy they’d love to sign. Pruneau gave an interview following the Grey Cup parade that made me think he is thinking about options other than returning to Ottawa. I have no quote that signals this, its was just a feeling. Jeff Richards (rumoured to have several opportunities in the NFL) may be a more consistent FS, but it is hard to deny that even without his passport, Pruneau is a big contributor and the Redblacks would be well-served to try to get him back.
Lots of potential for moving parts on the offensive line. J’Michael Deane and Nolan MacMillan are each pending free agents. MacMillan is a very good veteran presence. Deane had a lot of penalty issues this season. Jason Lauzon-Séguin is a legit starter at G and showed he can play OT. Backup Matthew Albright absolutely seems ready to start at G. Jake Silas has proven to be a solid RT, SirV is locked in for another 2 seasons as one of the league’s premier LTs. Tommie Draheim got better into the playoffs and the Grey Cup but is not a strong starter. The long-range plan was for John Gott to switch to G and have Alex Mateas take his place at centre. I don’t see that happening, possibly ever.
The makeup of the 2017 OL hinges on whether MacMillan can be signed and whether management wants to keep Deane. I have my thoughts on how this should play out, but will save them for another column. I will say that Deane is possibly expendable which is unfortunate for a guy who may want to stay (he owns a house here).
It’s hard to say whether we’ll see FA RB William Powell back – if he’s willing to sign for not a ton of money upfront, then he’d certainly be worth bringing into camp and let him compete with Mossis Madu. Travon Van, who was a good insurance policy in 2016, likely isn’t a priority to re-sign.
Just a couple of special teams observations at this point. First, I spent a lot of Twitter characters questioning the removal of Kevin Malcolm from long snapper duties – he’s exceptionally good at delivering hard clean spirals to the punter. The team replaced him mid-season with Tanner Doll, who was immediately visible in ways that long snappers aren’t supposed to be. He improved as he went along, but most importantly, he showed why the team made the switch in the first place. Doll is a special teams coverage demon, not easy to do coming out of the snap.
Elsewhere across the CFL
Have to question what Chris Jones thinks he’s doing in Saskatchewan with the Darian Durant negotiations. Durant is a fan favourite, a very solid performer and there really isn’t a better QB on the market. Maybe Chris Jones is the genius he was supposed to be and he’s trying to save the team some needed cap space, or maybe he has a strong-armed rabbit to pull out of the proverbial hat. Or maybe he’s unnecessarily playing hardball with a QB who isn’t his guy. We’ll see.
Then there’s Toronto. Word is that co-owner Larry Tanenbaum wants to appoint a football management layer between ownership and the team GM. It makes sense, and it’s an approach he sees working (I guess) with the Maple Leafs. Who will it be? A lot of the CFL’s grownups are either locked into great jobs or on the verge of taking on fewer responsibilities rather than more. I saw a suggestion that Eric Tillman could be the guy, and that makes sense. I’m not convinced of Tillman’s football genius, but I’m convinced that he’s the type of person who will be hired for that job.
In Winnipeg, a team that seems on the cusp of greatness just let its fans breathe a sigh of relief by re-signing Coach Michael O’Shea. Now, the team may be doing some serious soul-searching on whether they have a QB whose trajectory matches the rest of the team. If Saskatchewan loses Durant, he could be enough to propel Winnipeg to true contention in 2017.
The potential for stability on the Alouettes in 2017 should scare the rest of the East and help re-ignite fan interest in Montreal. Hamilton and Ottawa had it pretty easy in 2016 sharing a division with two teams in a bad downward spiral. A Montreal comeback will make the East much more of a horserace, although whether it would be enough to avoid a western crossover in 2017 remains to be seen. Look for Montreal’s new GM and the coaching staff to assemble and ready an offence that can take advantage of its young QBs. Either Rakeem Cato or Vernon Adams could emerge out of training camp as a legit dynamic playmaking QB and make the Als offence a nice complement to the team’s already good defence.
That’s it for now, I’ve tried to avoid talking about teams or situations where I don’t have information or a decent opinion, though I guess that’s really up to you to judge. I’ll check in again as teams sign more of their pending free agents. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.
All the best, and Merry Christmas.
Cranky Frank Clair
Most photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive.
It has been pure joy to read the many articles, blog entries, Facebook posts and Tweets capturing Ottawa’s first Grey Cup victory in 40 years. Nearly two weeks have passed and it still feels a bit dream-like. For a city and fanbase not used to having nice things, it has definitely been an adjustment period.
Not often does a championship carry so much weight for a city and have such deep an impact on the families that support the team, with fans spanning two, three, even four generations. It is equal parts elation, relief and vindication for a city that too often gets a bad rap.
Thanks to all of you in #RNation for sharing your experiences, celebrations and memories. It’s been a real pleasure.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to try and capture my Grey Cup experience in photos rather than words (well, maybe just a few words). Hope you enjoy.
(Photos mostly courtesy my bro)
Grey Cup & poutine. #Canadianity
Sigh of relief. And now, gametime. Time to put the phones away…
…until late in the 4th quarter.
An onside kick away from sealing it and… oh crap.
Put the phones away again!!!
After an emotional night, the after-party was subdued but delicious!
After midnight on the walk back downtown to catch a cab. All’s quiet, but a final reminder of what this team just accomplished.
Best day ever.
Two days later, celebrating with the rest of Ottawa:
Paolo & Footloose give their perspective on the Ottawa Redblacks victory in Grey Cup 104, including what it means to the long-suffering fans of Ottawa football. News Talk 770 and Calgary Stampeders radio host Dave Rowe returns to provide a post-mortem from the Stampeders perspective.
The guys discuss the CFL’s East and West Finals – two very different contests – and preview the 104th Grey Cup match-up between the Ottawa Redblacks and the Calgary Stampeders. Footloose shares some Grey Cup memories, looking back at the CFL’s first Grey Cup festival in 1948. This week’s guest interview is News Talk 770 and Calgary Stampeders radio host Dave Rowe. Dave and Footloose have a fun chat about what we can look forward to on Grey Cup Sunday.
The guys discuss the tragic shooting death of Calgary Stampeders (and form Michigan State Spartan) Mylan Hicks, the death of former Ottawa Rough Rider Rod Woodward, Kent Austin’s ‘suspension’ and more.
The guys discuss Jim Popp stepping down in Montreal and Jacques Chapdelaine’s selection as interim head coach, CFLers who went on to have great NFL careers, and more. This week’s interview features former Ottawa Rough Rider and Carleton Raven Pat Stoqua. Stoqua, now Senior Development Officer for football at Carleton, discusses the upcoming Panda Game CIS grudge match between Carleton and the University of Ottawa.
The guys discuss not one but two QB trades in the CFL, with Drew Willy heading to the Argos and Kevin Glenn returning to Winnipeg. They also discuss the mess in Montreal, the CFL’s best defense so far in 2016, kickers who can tackle and much more!