Five down, four to go, as we embark on another CFL offseason review!
Today, we tackle the offseason of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats!
Coming off their best regular season finish in team history at 15-3, many expected the Tiger-Cats and their high-flying offense to finally end the franchise’s now-20-year Grey Cup drought. Unfortunately for Hamilton, the team ran into the machine of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup, where they were dominated in all three phases in a 33-12 rout. To make matters worse for the Cats, the franchise now holds the CFL’s longest Grey Cup drought as a result.
Suffice to say, the Tiger-Cats have the burden of immense pressure going into the 2020 season. But can they overcome their past playoff struggles? We take a look at their offseason moves and how it impacts their outlook.
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- DB Cariel Brooks
- OL Chris Van Zeyl*
- LB Simoni Lawrence
- WR Brandon Banks
- OL Jesse Gibbon*
- DL Koron Crump
- WR Brian Jones*
- DL Dylan Wynn
- DL Ja’Gared Davis
- DB Frankie Williams
- DB Rico Murray
- OL Mike Filer*
- DB Jumal Rolle
- QB David Watford
- OL Kay Okafor*
- DB Tunde Adeleke*
- LB Curtis Newton*
- DL Julian Howsare
- DL Ted Laurent*
- QB Dane Evans
- QB Jeremiah Masoli
*Denotes National Player
Hamilton entered the offseason with several pending free agents and came away retaining a good chunk of them. There were some no-brainers that were never thought of as threats to go elsewhere, like reigning MOP Brandon Banks, so we won’t spend too much time on those players.
Instead, let’s talk about players like national offensive-linemen Chris Van Zeyl and Mike Filer. Van Zeyl, a long-time Argonaut that left for Hamilton in 2019’s free agency, anchored the Tiger-Cats at his typical right-tackle position, facilitating the CFL’s most prolific offense. The same can be said about Filer, who held the fort at center.
On defense, the team retained two Canadian starters in defensive-lineman Ted Laurent and defensive-back Tunde Adeleke. Laurent, a Tiger-Cat since 2014, was never thought of as potential departure, but nevertheless, he is essential for Hamilton’s run-defense at defensive-tackle. Adeleke, who is coming off his first All-Star season in 2019, emerged as the team’s center-fielder at the safety position after coming over from Calgary.
While many of the American players re-signed this offseason by the Tiger-Cats were no-brainers, one interesting case that is worth talking about is defensive-lineman Ja’Gared Davis. Coming to Hamilton in 2019 after three seasons with Calgary, Davis provided an elite pass-rush presence to round-out Hamilton’s defense, finishing the season with 13 sacks, which was good for 2nd in the league. Pass-rushers of his quality are in high-demand, and he likely had multiple offers elsewhere. Huge get for Cats in bringing him back.
Departures (2020 team)
- DB Tevin Mitchell (FA)
- WR Anthony Coombs* (OTT)
- DL Connor McGough* (CAL)
- DB Richard Leonard (CAL)
- DL Jamaal Westerman* (FA)
- LB Justin Tuggle (EDM)
- DL Adrian Tracy (MTL)
- WR Luke Tasker (FA)
- RB Tyrell Sutton (MTL)
- LB Nick Shortill* (TOR)
- RB Cameron Marshall (FA)
- OL Ryker Matthews (BC)
- DB Jonathan Langa* (FA)
While Hamilton was able to re-sign several starters, there are a few key contributors from 2019 that won’t be back.
One of these players is Leonard, who was an important starter in the team’s secondary over the past three seasons. He became one of the most versatile players on the team during that span, capable of playing physically (178 career tackles) while baiting opposing quarterbacks (12 career interceptions).
Tuggle, another player highlighted above, left for the Eskimos after spending last season in the Hammer. A good tackler with the quickness to play outside or inside linebacker on the CFL’s wide-field, he will likely play a big role in Edmonton.
I wasn’t sure where to place Tasker, as the long-time Tiger-Cat remains a free agent. There is a decent chance he returns, as the team and him are reportedly in constant communication. If that’s the case, it would do wonders to a Hamilton receiving core that is looking shaky on depth.
The final departure we will mention is offensive-lineman Ryker Matthews, who left for the BC Lions. It cannot be understated how important it is for right-hand quarterbacks to have reliable, blindside protection from their left-tackle, and that’s exactly what Matthews brought to the Tiger-Cats in 2019. His loss brings up a major roster question going into this season.
Free Agent Signings (2019 team)
- LB Larry Dean (EDM)
- WR DeVier Posey (MTL)
- LB Patrick Levels (MTL)
- LB Justin Herdman-Reed* (TOR)
- DB Qadarius Ford (TOR)
- RB Don Jackson (CAL)
- DB Courtney Stephen* (CAL)
Just going to point out a few of the signings here.
Dean returns to Hamilton after one year in Edmonton. He will plug right back into his usual spot in the middle of Hamilton’s defense, playing the role of tackling-machine.
Posey, who comes over from Montreal, will likely be asked to play a significant role behind leading receiver Brandon Banks as one of the few American players in this receiving core with CFL experience.
Many think it is a foregone conclusion that Hamilton intends to use running-back as one of their national starting positions, but Jackson will have something to say about it. He has been a very productive runner during his time in CFL, averaging 5.4 yards per carry over his first two seasons in Calgary.
New CFL Arrivals
- DB Channing Stribling
- LB Kyle Wilson
- DL Ronheen Bingham
- DB Tyree Robinson
- LB Brandon Bryant
- WR Dontez Byrd
- RB Branden Oliver
- LB Joe Powell
- WR Papi White
- WR Jamire Jordan
- K Matthew White
- WR Damoun Petterson
- RB Jordan Ellis
- LB Jeff Allison
- WR Steven Dunbar Jr.
- WR Isaiah Burse
- DB Jomon Dotson
With a pretty deep roster, Hamilton likely doesn’t have many positions up for grabs in 2020. To that end, many of these listed names likely won’t make the final cut, but here I’ve listed a few newcomers that are intriguing.
Oliver is a name some die-hard NFL fans might recognize from his time with the San Diego Chargers (2014-2017), as he briefly became a fan-favourite as a diminutive, shifty-back. He played his college football at the University of Buffalo, and was most recently in the AAF after his NFL opportunities dried-up. In Hamilton’s wide-open backfield where there is no clear-cut starter, he is a name to watch.
White played his college football at Monmouth University, where he displayed all-around kicking ability, handling punting, kick-offs and place-kicking. That versatility is something that is generally valued in Canadian football where many teams deploy a player that handles all three. Accounting for the fact that Hamilton is dealing with a void at kicker, and he is probably considered the favourite at this point.
Burse, at 28, is the oldest player on this list but is also one with plenty of experience being in a professional football environment, having spent time in the NFL (2014-2017) and AAF (2019) before joining the Tiger-Cats. If someone is going to surprise us in Hamilton’s receiving-core this season, it might just be Burse.
2020 Tiger-Cats’ Draft Class
- 1st: OL Coulter Woodmansey, Guelph (#5); DL Mason Bennett, North Dakota (#8)
- 2nd: LB Bailey Feltmate, Acadia (#17)
- 3rd: WR Tyler Ternowski, Waterloo (#27)
- 4th: DB Stavros Katsantonis, UBC (#36)
- 5th: OL Joseph Bencze, McMaster (#45)
- 6th: DB Jean Ventose, UBC (#54)
- 7th: K J.J Molson, UCLA (#63)
- 8th: LS/DL Tom Schnitzler, UBC (#72)
The Tiger-Cats focused on the trenches with their first couple picks of the 2020 Draft, selecting Guelph lineman Woodmansey and North Dakota defensive-lineman Bennett. Both players will likely see rotational snaps as rookies.
In rounds 2-3, Hamilton opted for a little more quickness, taking a rangy linebacker in Feltmate, while picking up a productive slot receiver in Ternowski. Ternowski in particular should be an interesting player to watch as Hamilton hasn’t had much of an established national presence at receiver since the retirement of Andy Fantuz in 2017.
The last player I want to mention is Molson, a kicker out of UCLA that will likely be the primary competition to CFL newcomer Matthew White for the team’s vacant position.
- WR Bralon Addison (Minnesota Vikings)
- K Lirim Hajrullahu (Los Angeles Rams)
Two NFL trials to watch for Hamilton, with Addison and Hajrullahu heading South.
Addison was undoubtedly one of Hamilton’s most important players in 2019, emerging to give Hamilton the best 1-2 punch at receiver in the CFL. With him gone at least through NFL camp, it will be a huge loss for the Tiger-Cats.
One situation with this roster that is flying below the radar is the kicking situation, and that has all to do with the departure of Hajrullahu, who will compete for a spot with the LA Rams. Reliable kicking is important in any kind of football, but especially the CFL, a game where kicking is essentially one-third of the action.
Looking at Hamilton’s offense, there is obvious potential that we saw from many of the returning players from last season, but that doesn’t mean this group comes without issues.
On the offensive-line, where the Tiger-Cats typically start four Canadians, it is a mostly-solid group. Van Zeyl and Revenberg are coming-off All-Star seasons at right-tackle and left-guard, respectively. In fact, Van Zeyl is probably the best right-tackle in the CFL right now. The center Filer, and right-guard Ciraco are also good starters. Where this unit comes into question is Tate at left-tackle, who is projected to man the important position in 2020 with only 1 game of CFL experience under his belt. 2019 starter Ryker Matthews was often a rock in pass-sets and had a bigger impact than many people realize. Tate has to bring some of that same consistency.
Under-center is perhaps the biggest mystery for this team, as the team could talk themselves into starting Masoli or 2019 injury-replacement Dane Evans. Neither is perfect, but both have been shown to be productive in this offense. The nod goes to Masoli here in this projection, due to his greater CFL experience and how Hamilton’s offense was performing with him at quarterback prior to his ACL tear midway through last season.
At running-back stems another debate. I touched on the discussion earlier on if the Tiger-Cats plan to use running-back as one of their national starting-slots given the buzz around Canadian Sean Thomas-Erlington as the lead-back. Much of this depends on how he recovers from a knee injury that forced him to miss the final 14 regular season games and the team’s playoff-run last season, but he was ripping-up defenses to the tune of 6.8 yards per carry in essentially 3 games. Jackson, a CFL veteran who comes over from Calgary, is slotted here mainly due to the fact that we don’t know how healthy Thomas-Erlington is, and because the players aren’t that different in terms of talent they have shown at the CFL level. I expect both runners to play a role in this offense in 2020, as this team should seek to be less one-dimensional than they were in 2019.
In the receiving core, the Tiger-Cats have reigning MOP Brandon Banks leading the charge. With 2019 breakout star Bralon Addison off to the NFL, some will look in the direction of Posey, who comes over from Montreal and brings with him a presence that includes a Grey Cup MVP. The projected slot-back group is rounded out by Tucker, who had a decent 2019 with nearly 500 yards on 38 receptions. On the perimeter, Acklin returns as a starter after having an excellent debut season that included some serious highlight-reel grabs. Opposite him is the lone Canadian in this group Ungerer, who was the Tiger-Cats’ 2nd-round pick in 2019. His emergence would give this group five competent options, as last year’s starter Mike Jones didn’t provide the offense much in this spot. As a whole, Banks is the only game-changer in this group, though Posey should be a productive replacement for Addison.
Overall, the offense for Hamilton should be an upper-level unit once again, but potential protection issues at left-tackle for such a pass-dependent team make me worry.
Hamilton’s defense might end up being the team’s strongest side of the ball in 2020, as they brought back many of their key performers from 2019.
Hamilton boasts a strong and balanced defensive-line, with Davis leading the way. The former Stampeder shined in Black and Gold last season, collecting 54 tackles and 13 sacks. Opposite him is Howshare, who racked up 6 sacks in his role last year. Wynn was one of the great re-signings we didn’t get a chance to talk about earlier, but he emerged as one of the best pass-rushing defensive-tackles in the league last season. He gives up a little size, so he gets pushed around in the run-game at times, but that also allows him the versatility to line-up from each-and-every defensive-line position in pass situations. Laurent is a veteran that rounds out the unit, and has long excelled as a run-stuffer for the Tiger-Cats, while still being able to push the pocket on passing-downs.
Hamilton’s linebacking core underwent a bit of a makeover during the offseason but two of our three projected starters remain the same. Lawrence, who led the CFL with 98 tackles last season, is a perennial candidate for Most Outstanding Defensive Player despite his many controversial hits over his career. Murray also returns this season as the strong-side linebacker, where he has been a great cover-guy. Dean, at middle-linebacker, is one of the offseason additions, but Tiger-Cats fans are well aware of him from the three seasons he spent with the team from 2016-2018. He’s an impact player for this unit. Finally, a bonus player that isn’t listed above is another offseason signing Patrick Levels, who had a productive last season with Montreal. He will surely play significant snaps in this defense, but I just didn’t know where to place him given that Murray plays the same position that Levels played with the Alouettes. I would imagine the Tiger-Cats will have play-packages with both Levels and Murray on the field to give the team more coverage help and range when they need it.
On the back-end, Hamilton returns four starters, and another player in Rolle that played in a heavy-rotation role last season (no pun-intended). Breaux, is the biggest name of the group having spent time in the NFL between two very successful stints with the Tiger-Cats. He was limited to 10 games last regular season, but when healthy, he is an impact player capable of shutting down receivers. Brooks, his partner on the weak-side of the field, has also been in Hamilton for a good chunk of time, and is another good starter on this defense. Adeleke, a Canadian safety, broke out in 2019 for his first All-Star appearance. While he does get burned in coverage at times by some of the more athletic receivers, he is a physical player who is a great tackler. On the strong-side of the formation, Williams, who we will discuss more in a minute, plays the half-back spot effectively. His partner at corner is Rolle, who started several games in the place of the injured Delvin Breaux last season and made the most of his chances, picking off 5 passes. This group is similar to the one Winnipeg had last season, with a high talent-level that exceeds at producing takeaways. I wouldn’t expect this group to be among the stringiest in terms of yards allowed but they’ll make up for it with playmaking.
When analyzing Hamilton’s defense as a whole, to me it feels more complete than on the offensive-side of the ball, with a good number of highly-proven players mixed in with good, general continuity.
On special-teams, Hamilton has a bit of a mystery when it comes to their kicking situation. Matthew White was brought in as a CFL newcomer, but the team also invested a draft-pick in UCLA kicker J.J Molson. The team could go either way with this, but football organizations in general don’t typically use a pick on a kicker unless they plan to use them.
At returner we have Williams, who is a comparable player to Saskatchewan’s Loucheiz Purifoy as a defensive-back who doubles as an excellent return player. Purifoy is more dynamic on the defensive-side but Williams got the All-Star nod in the kick-return position in 2019, after returning one punt and one kick-off for touchdowns.
In closing this analysis, Hamilton is facing incredible expectations going into 2020.
With a roster that top-to-bottom looks like the clear-cut best in the East Division, many will be selecting Hamilton as their pick to hoist the Grey Cup at season’s end. Yet, there are some ways in which this season could go wrong. Here are some of the potential fault-lines.
First, the team will have to sort out the situation under-center. While both Jeremiah Masoli and Dane Evans have excelled in this offense, now that both are healthy, this could create division in the locker-room if whoever wins the starting job struggles early on. In a best-case scenario, there is a good quarterback competition in training-camp, followed by a great beginning to the season by whoever emerges as the starter, putting to bed calls for the back-up.
Second, Trevon Tate or whoever slides into Ryker Matthews’ former spot at left-tackle, must play at a high-level for this offense to perform the way it did in 2019.
On defense there are less concerns, but health will be key with some players, such as Delvin Breaux and Ted Laurent, advancing in age.
Putting it all together, and yes, I would still select Hamilton to win the East next season and make it back to the Grey Cup. But, the West, and the whole league in general, should be healthier at quarterback than they were last season, giving Hamilton less “freebies” on the schedule and eventually, if they reach the Grey Cup.
Did we miss any offseason additions? Do you agree with our analysis? Be sure to let it all out in the comments below!
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