As the February 11th free agency deadline nears, CFL.ca is breaking down each team’s potential needs, wants and wish lists. Today we take a look at last year’s East representatives in the Grey Cup, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
You would be foolish to believe that Hamilton won’t make a splash and even more foolish to try and predict who they will knab come free agency. For a number of years, the Ticats have been arguably the biggest players in the free agent game and early indications are that the theme remains early in 2014.
Never afraid to roll the dice, the Ticats went out and made Zach Collaros their new starting quarterback after his release from Toronto and promptly dropped veteran Henry Burris after he led them to a berth in the Grey Cup just three months ago. Collaros was the mid-season saviour for Toronto last year when Ricky Ray went down. His poise and athletisicm showed Hamilton GM/Head Coach Kent Austin enough to make him the new leader in an offence that already boasts the likes of Andy Fantuz and CJ Gable.
Forcing another to jump ship?
Last off-season the Ticats took Evan McCollough out of Toronto. Could Pat Watkins follow?
Making free agency all the more intriguing for a team as aggressive as Hamilton is the fact that their list of players unsigned is second only to BC for the shortest in the league.
Priority no. 1 has to be retaining linebacker Simoni Lawrence. The energetic defender not only became a playmaker on the field but a leader off of it in his first season with the Ticats. Undoubtedly their most surprising yet consistent player on that side of the ball, Lawrence posted 52 tackles and three interceptions after being let go by Edmonton before the season started.
Another linebacker, Jamall Johnson, has been a captain in Black and Gold but age and salary could play a factor in Hamilton’s ability to re-sign him. They also owe it to their defensive line to try and keep Torrey Davis grounded. A hulking interior lineman returned from injury and was a menace to opposing offences in the second half of last year.
The work done so far: The aforementioned acquisition of Collaros and release of Burris was just the latest in a list of transactions in Tigertown. The club brought back import kicker Justin Medlock, released veteran Dave Stala and locked up DB/LB Rico Murray. The team also granted Luca Congi his early release after the addition of Medlock and non-import K Brett Lauther made his expendable.
Potential Departures: Again, the Ticats have a short list. Right now, the only players outside the aforementioned star defenders that could walk are long snapper Kevin Scott and DB Marc Beswick. Beswick has been Hamilton’s top special teams cover-man over the last few seasons and can’t be overlooked as one of the sleeper pickups in free agency should he test the market.
Who may be on the radar?: There is no confirmation on what Collaros is making but given the release of a big-ticket in Burris, one could assume that the ‘Cats have a bit of cap room to play with. That, along with their propensity to go out and grab some of the top free agents on the market in recent years, it is fun to at least play the guessing game.
If they are looking to make a splash, cornerback Patrick Watkins could be an option in a secondary that is a ball-hawking DB away from being perhaps the most feared, young group in the league. Watkins’ familiarity with defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer is well-documented and given the 45-minute trek between Hamilton and Toronto the idea of getting a good deal without having to necessarily go to a ‘new’ place could be attractive for Watkins should he not sign in Toronto – not unlike the Evan McCollough signing from a year ago.
Offensively, the ‘Cats may find Jock Sanders to be a good fit. Should he not re-sign with the Riders, the versatile playmaker is tailor-made for Kent Austin’s offence which has been known to attack the boundary and stretch the field out. He is a speedy slotback that could help compliment an already potent group of receivers and assist in the return game while helping spell and add insurance for Gable.
A pressing need for Hamilton is on the offensive line where long-time centre Marwan Hage has left a void after becoming property of Ottawa via the Expansion Draft. Established o-linemen that may be available could be Michael Ola (MTL) and Wayne Smith (TOR) but none of them are true centres so a shuffling internally would have to take place.