CFL Offseason Review: Ottawa Redblacks


In the CFL, things can change pretty fast. In a league where 6 of 9 teams qualify for the playoffs, the bounce-back potential for any of the league’s bottom-feeders is significant, as we have seen multiple examples throughout the years.

One team hoping to flip the script in 2020 are the Ottawa Redblacks, who finished 3-15 in a 2019 season that saw intense roster-turnover. With several offseason additions, the team is looking to compete in the East once again after one year of missing the playoffs.

Re-signings/Extensions

Credit: Calgary Herald. David Bloom / PostMedia

Per CFL.ca/transactions

  • DL Ettore Lattanzio*
  • QB Dominique Davis
  • LB Kevin Brown
  • DB Randall Evans
  • WR RJ Harris
  • K/P Richie Leone
  • K Lewis Ward*
  • LB Avery Williams
  • FB Anthony Gosselin*
  • DB Sherrod Baltimore
  • DL Michael Wakefield
  • DL Avery Ellis
  • DL Danny Mason
  • DB Justin Howell*

*Denotes National Player

The Redblacks had many important pending free agents, and did pretty well in bringing back much of their core.

I’m surprised the team bothered to bring back Davis, a quarterback that the team clearly likes enough to keep around despite his 2019 struggles (an abysmal 5-14 TD-INT ratio).

Harris returns to Ottawa for 2020 to lead an inexperienced group of American receivers for the team. He will be likely be tasked with playing an even-bigger role in 2020.

Canadian kicker Lewis Ward was a player that needed to be a priority to re-sign, as he has proven himself to be perhaps the best player at his position over his first two CFL seasons (92.2% on FGs).

The two Avery’s–Williams and Ellis–were two key components to the defenses’ front seven in 2020. Ellis was arguably the team’s top pass-rusher, while Williams was a consistent tackler at middle-linebacker.

Departures (2020 team)

Caleb Holley playing in 2019 for the Redblacks
Credit: AlaskaSportsHall.org
  • WR Dominique Rhymes (BC)
  • LB Kevin Francis* (BC)
  • DL J.R Tavai (BC)
  • WR Caleb Holley (BC)
  • OL Phillipe Gagnon* (MTL)
  • DL KC Bakker* (MTL)
  • DL George Uko (FA)
  • OL Stephane Nembot (FA)
  • DB Kishawn McClain
  • RB Jean-Christophe Beaulieu* (FA)
  • LB Nick McBeath (FA)
  • WR Jacob Scarfone* (FA)
  • DB Chris Randle (FA)
  • DB Jonathan Rose* (FA)
  • WR Nathaniel Behar* (FA)
  • QB Jonathan Jennings (FA)
  • DL Cameron Walker* (FA)
  • RB Greg Morris* (FA)
  • RB Mossis Madu (FA)
  • LB Jeff Knox (TOR)
  • DB Maurice Fleming (FA)
  • WR Seth Coate* (FA)
  • LB Nicolas Boulay* (FA)
  • LS Mike Benson* (MTL)
  • QB Will Arndt (BC)

Given the re-tooling nature of Ottawa’s offseason, the team was bound to take some free agent losses. Many players listed above were easy decisions not to renew given how thin this roster proved to be in 2019, but there were a few notable departures.

At the top of the list is Rhymes, Ottawa’s top pass-catcher last season. Despite being subject to a carousel at quarterback, Rhymes broke out, producing 65 total receptions and over 1000 yards, by far the highest on the team. In a league very-much dependent on a team’s perimeter talent, this represents a major loss for Ottawa.

On the defensive-side, losing a player like Tavai could hurt. He’s a player that has an impressive play-to-play motor, and always seemed to be around the ball last season. Add in the fact that he can rush the passer effectively, and Ottawa will miss him.

Adding to the team’s losses at receiver is the departure of Holley, who had a decent season as a depth-option last year. He has experience, being a four-year CFL veteran.

The last player I want to talk about is Knox, a linebacker that because of injuries, never truly got the chance to shine in Ottawa. In the past, he was a dynamic tackler on both defense and special-teams. The Redblacks will be left to wonder what could have been.

Free Agent Signings (2019 team)

Nick Arbucke (#9) playing for the Calgary Stampeders
Credit: StCatherinesStandard.ca The Canadian Press / Matt Smith
  • DL Cleyon Liang* (TOR)
  • WR Anthony Coombs* (HAM)
  • LB Don Unamba (EDM)
  • LB Christophe Mulamba-Tshimanga* (EDM)
  • DB Abdul Kanneh (TOR)
  • DB Dagogo Maxwell* (CAL)
  • OL Na’ty Rodgers (FA)
  • WR Jalen Saunders (FA)
  • WR Malcolm Williams* (WPG)
  • LB Dwayne Norman (CAL)
  • QB Nick Arbuckle (CAL) –TRADE

We have a lot to get to here, with even some of the non-highlighted players scheduled for significant roles this season.

Laing, one of the best Canadian players in the CFL, is an impact player at defensive-tackle that adds to a strong group on the national-side of the roster for Ottawa.

In our recent best CFL free agent signings article, I pegged Unamba as one of the most impactful. He is a multi-talented second-level defender, proving himself as both a coverage player and effective blitzer. The five-year CFL vet will be a great mentor for 1st-round pick Adam Auclair, and will slide in as the instant starter at strong-side linebacker.

Saunders comes back to the CFL after a brief stint with the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL. In his two seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2017-2018) he was electric, with over 1900 receiving yards in 25 games before injuries took over. He brings some CFL experience to an Ottawa team that needs it at the position. Just need to hope for the best health-wise.

The most important offseason move for Ottawa though, is the trade for Arbuckle. Filling in for starter Bo Levi Mitchell last season in Calgary, the former Georgia State product started 7 games and won 4 of them while throwing for 11 touchdowns and running in another 4. He will no doubt be Ottawa’s assumed starter at the position and looks, on paper, to be an obvious improvement over what the team had last season behind center. Still, his experience in the CFL is a small sample size.

New CFL Arrivals

Via Cortrelle Simpson on YouTube
  • DB Corey Moore
  • DL Connor Flagel
  • DB Lashard Durr
  • WR Joe Walker
  • WR Cortrelle Simpson
  • DB Brad Muhammad
  • DB TJ Mutcherson
  • OL Darrell Williams
  • OL Tyler Catalina
  • LB Junior Joseph
  • DB Kalon Beverley
  • LB Delvon Randall
  • DL Pat Afriyie
  • DL Charles Williams
  • DB Jocquez Kalili
  • QB Taryn Christion
  • DB David Jones
  • DB Deshawntee Gallon
  • WR Jovon Durante

As they seek to quickly rebound from a poor 2019 campaign, the Redblacks added plenty of talent from outside the CFL this offseason. I would expect many of these players to not only make the team’s final roster, but to play a significant role with the Redblacks’ 2020 season.

Simpson seems to fit the bill. A former teammate of 2020 CFL Draft pick Dejon Brissett at the University of Richmond, the Redblacks’ offseason signing went undrafted in 2019 but spent last preseason with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In two seasons at Richmond, he played in 20 games, catching nearly 100 passes for just under 1700 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ottawa looks to be heading into 2020 with shaky-experience at receiver, so Simpson will likely be given every opportunity to play a role.

I wasn’t overly impressed with Ottawa’s offensive-line when reviewing some games from 2019, and that’s why I think Catalina is worth mentioning. He spent three off-and-on seasons on the roster of the Washington Redskins from 2017-2019, even starting some games at guard as a rookie. That experience gives Ottawa a capable-depth option should some of the unit’s struggles continue in 2020.

Lastly, I wanted to highlight a trio of defensive-backs. There’s nothing too specific to say about the three prospects as of now, but in general, I think the amount of signings at the defensive-back position says that Redblacks’ GM Marcel Desjardins isn’t completely comfortable with the group that remains from last season, when they allowed the 2nd most pass-yards.

2020 Redblacks’ Draft Class

Laval linebacker Adam Auclair (#2) plays against Western in Vanier Cup
Credit: The Montreal Gazette Mike Hensen/The London Free Press
  • 1st: LB/DB Adam Auclair, Laval (#6)
  • 2nd: DL Michael Hoecht, Brown (#10); LB Dan Basambombo, Laval (#19)
  • 3rd: None
  • 4th: OL Jakub Szott, McMaster (#29)
  • 5th: DB Terrance Abrahams-Webster (#38)
  • 6th: LB Brad Cowan, Laurier (#47)
  • 7th: DL Reshaan Davis, Ottawa (#56)
  • 8th: OL Ketel Asse, Laval (#65)

I loved what the Redblacks did with their 2020 Draft, securing a high-floor player in Auclair in the 1st-round, while taking worthwhile dice-rolls on players like Davis and Asse in the later rounds. These are a few of the selections I want to touch on.

Auclair, a hybrid linebacker/defensive-back body-type, was my favourite prospect in this entire class, and is the type of athlete that should be able to positively impact Ottawa’s special-teams right away.

Hoecht, the team’s 2nd-round pick, was the first of a run on prospects currently signed with NFL teams. He possesses rare quickness for a defensive-tackle, and would pair great with free agent signing Cleyon Laing along the Redblacks’ defensive-line.

Let’s skip forward to Asse, who was the biggest mystery of the draft. Speculated to be receiving NFL interest, the offensive-tackle out of Laval still hadn’t signed with an NFL club by the time of the draft and strangely took a massive tumble all the way until the 8th-round. This was a player that many had pegged as a 1st-round talent, so regardless of what you think of Asse, the risk-reward was certainly there in the 8th-round.

NFL Watch-List

  • S Anthony Cioffi (New York Jets)

Ottawa lost their best defensive-playmaker in Cioffi to the New York Jets, which is potentially a huge blow. Cioffi normally lined up at the ever-important strong-side linebacker position for the Redblacks, with the athleticism to jump out and cover slot-backs while sometimes being used as a blitzer. In the NFL he projects as a safety, and the Jets have one of the best in the league in Jamal Adams. It will be interesting to see if Cioffi sticks.

Projected Starters

Just a little clarification before we begin. CFL.ca recently released their annual series of Offseason Depth-Charts for every team, and unless I felt strongly otherwise, those were the selections I used for each team. This is simply because it is the most accurate projection we have as of yet.

Offense

*Denotes Canadian starter

The Redblacks underwent plenty of changes on the offensive-side this offseason, and that is reflected in this projection, with six new-starters.

The most unchanged aspect is upfront on the offensive-line, an area where Ottawa has consistently been stocking Canadian since coming back into the league in 2014. However, this group struggled mightily, at times, last season and due to their youth is relatively one of the worst in the league.

At left-tackle, Korte, who is still only 24, protected the blindside. In tough matchups, such as going up against Montreal defensive-end John Bowman, the first-year starter struggled against speed-rushes, giving up plenty of pressures. Still, this should improve with more experience. Beside him at left-guard is Johnson, another Canadian. He is a decent pass-blocker from what I have studied, but he isn’t much of a difference-maker in the run-game.

At center, Mateas is probably the team’s best and most experienced-lineman. The former #1 overall pick from 2014 has been as durable as they come and though he didn’t have the best season of his career last year, neither did the rest of the unit.

On the right-side, MacMillan at guard has been a steady performer for the club ever since entering the league in 2014. The former Iowa Hawkeye has spent six seasons with the Redblacks, and was the team’s 2019 nominee for both Most Outstanding Canadian and Most Outstanding Offensive-Lineman. He is joined by the lone American in the group in Rodgers at right-tackle. He is a newcomer to this unit, having last played in the CFL in 2018 with the Alouettes.

In the backfield, we have a few major changes.

Arbuckle is pin-holed for the starting quarterback position after performing well in a back-up role with Calgary in 2019, where he made often made smart, quick decisions. We will see if he can replicate that hot stretch. His running-back is scheduled to be Crockett, who took over the team’s running-game when on the field in 2019, but only played 7 games. With much of his 2019 competition leaving in free agency, the job appears to be his to lose.

The receiving group also has new faces.

The returning members of this group are Harris and Sinopoli, two of the team’s three top pass-catchers from last season. Sinopoli, a Canadian, had a down 2019 where he only went for 671 yards, but previously he produced four consecutive 1000 yards seasons, which also led him in winning two league Most Outstanding Canadian Awards in 2015 and 2018. Don’t be surprised if he becomes Arbuckle’s favourite target next season, though Harris is also talented.

The three newcomers, Flanders, Coombs and Saunders, have varying degrees of CFL experience.

Flanders is a veteran of the league but has rarely played a major role with any offense he has been a part of. He is, though, a converted running-back so don’t be surprised if the Redblacks orchestrate that aspect of his game as a change-up gimmick. Coombs, aside from being Canadian, is sort of the same story as a player that never really played a feature role in Hamilton but has positional versatility. The most proven player in this group is Saunders, a receiver that comes back to the league who we talked about earlier.

When you take a big picture look at this group, a potential pitfall is their general lack of experience, with the exception of a few veteran lineman.

Defense

*Denotes Canadian starter

On defense, there are talented starters in each unit, but as a whole, there are also question marks at each level.

On the defensive-line, Ottawa is projected to start the murky combination of Mason and Ellis at the end spots. Both players had solid sack production last season, yet they were also major contributors on a unit that got absolutely torched against the run. The loss of J.R Tavai in free agency opens up a full-time starting spot for Mason.

At defensive-tackle, the returning Wakefield and the prize free agent signing of Laing make an intriguing combination. Wakefield was solid statistically in 2019 but once again, he played a major roll on the team last season that was consistently bullied by opposing offensive-lines in the run-game. Having Laing should help though, as the Canadian has typically been a strong run-defender while providing excellent pass-rush upside from the inside.

Moving to linebacker, there is potential to grow into a very good unit. The veterans, Williams and free agent addition Unamba, are two players with a good amount of CFL experience. Williams led the team in tackles last season, while Unamba is a fantastic coverage linebacker, a role he masterfully played last season in Edmonton. Fernandez draws in as the team’s full-time starter at middle linebacker, where he excelled when he was actually healthy in 2019.

The team’s secondary returns three starters in the middle of the field in Tindal, Pruneau and Baltimore. All three players have had their moments with the club, but struggle for consistency. They are joined by the corner tandem of Hayes–a returning rotational player set for a promotion–and Kanneh, a long-time CFL veteran who returns to Ottawa after originally leaving the club in 2016 after several high-level years. This group doesn’t provide the depth that you typically look for in such a perimeter-dependent league, but if the returning veterans can sure-up some of the holes in the back-end and play more consistently, this unit is good enough.

Overall, the defense has some potential. This team was bad at stopping both the run and pass last season, but, if key signings like Unamba and Laing achieve the desired impact, this defense could patch those deficiencies in a hurry.

Special Teams

There is more to get excited about with Ottawa’s special-teams than your typical CFL outfit.

Leone and Ward comprise perhaps the best punter-kicker duo in the entire CFL, with the former leading the league in punting yards (2nd in average), and the latter being absurdly accurate in place-kicking duties.

Meanwhile, Dedmon was on pace to be the CFL’s top-return man in 2019, but injuries limited him to five games. He produced a striking 33.9 yards per kick-return (along with a touchdown), while notching a 15.4 yard average on punt-returns (and, another touchdown). Both figures were the highest in the league. If he stays healthy, Ottawa has a certified weapon to add to their already-strong special-teams group.

Final Word

So there you have it folks, our review of the offseason for the Ottawa Redblacks. Ottawa had the worst record in the CFL last season, and though I wouldn’t raise expectations too high, they will certainly be in better shape than they were in at this point last season at many key positions.

Much of this season will be riding on a few key components. Here are the ones that stick out, which I have been alluding to throughout this article.

Plenty will depend on Arbuckle duplicating his savy, smart decision-making style that made him largely successful in Calgary last season, as Ottawa often didn’t receive consistency at the sport’s most important position in 2019.

However, how Arbuckle performs will also be greatly dependent on the gelling of the team’s offensive-line, a unit that consistently had breakdowns for last year’s quarterbacks, especially off the edge. This unit needs to improve all-around if they are to give the offense a chance to be successful against some of the league’s better defensive-lines.

On defense, my eyes are on Laing and Unamba. Laing not only has to provide his usual interior pass-rushing, but also sure-up the teeth of this defense against the run. Unamba will play the important role of strong-side linebacker for this defense, and will need to play up to the potential he showed in Edmonton for this group to trend towards a league-average or above unit.

Overall, Ottawa’s free agent additions made a great deal of sense. I’m excited to see how this team shapes up, as on a roster appearing this wide-open, there are sure to be some breakout stars.

I wouldn’t necessarily expect this team to make the playoffs next year, but if things fall into place, they will certainly push rivals Hamilton and Montreal more than they did last season.

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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