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:
You can’t take the leadership of a team away and expect the same results. This is not the same Redblacks team from the last two years!!!
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?
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.
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.
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.