February 24, 2017

Upgraded secondary elevates Ticats in the East

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

No disrespect, Ottawa, but the Hamilton Tiger-Cats might just be the early off-season beasts of the East.

Both of the top-ranked East Division teams of 2016 have been busy making moves the last few weeks, the REDBLACKS rebuilding their receiving corps, upgrading the linebacker position and trading for a backup quarterback; the Ticats focusing on what will be a revamped secondary in 2017.

But while there’s plenty yet to happen between now and the start of training camp, it’s the latter that stands out to me — the work that Ticats GM Eric Tillman and Head Coach Kent Austin have done on the Ticats’ defensive backfield.

» Ticats bolster secondary; sign Abdul Kanneh
» CFL mourns the passing of trailblazer Bernie Custis
» View 2017 Free Agent Tracker


Abdul Kanneh (right) gives the Ticats’ secondary a different outlook heading into 2017 (The Canadian Press)

Remember, it was only a couple of weeks ago when Abdul Kanneh was still an Ottawa REDBLACK and Emanuel Davis was a pending free agent. That spelled trouble for Ticats fans, especially considering the revolving door that was the team’s secondary a season ago.

Now they are both in the black and gold, primed to lead what looks to be the CFL’s fiercest secondary heading into the 2017 campaign.

“We certainly think that we’re addressing the situation as much as we can with good football players,” Austin said in an interview with Ticats.ca shortly after the two signings. “The last year was hampered a little bit with injuries — it’s our job as a staff to find other players that can play but to get those guys back and with the addition of Abdul, we feel like our secondary has improved quite a bit.”

It has, at least on paper. The opening day depth chart is far from locked in but what we know is that Defensive Coordinator Jeff Reinebold will have plenty of flexibility when it comes to the back end.

The return of national safety Craig Butler, who missed all of 2016 due to injury, allows Courtney Stephen to move back to his natural position at field corner.

Davis can remain in his familiar spot at field halfback while Kanneh, who plays multiple positions, likely makes the most sense at the boundary halfback position, giving the Ticats arguably the best halfback tandem in the CFL.


Kanneh, the newcomer who has earned a reputation as one of the league’s top boundary halfbacks, plays with a physical reckless abandon. That’s meant as a compliment.

“He’s aggressive,” Austin told the team’s official website. “He’s very confident. He brings an attitude to the secondary that I think will help us.

“He just has a lot of energy. He’ll hit, he has the ability to make plays. We have the ability with him to play more man coverage which will help us and we’ll be able to move him around if necessary.”

While there’s an opening at the SAM linebacker position vacated by the departed Rico Murray, candidates to play the corner position opposite of Stephen include Demond Washington, recently-acquired Ethan Davis and CFL sophomore Cassius Vaughn.

There’s been some talk of Butler playing SAM and there are plenty of configurations Reinebold could go with but you get the picture — the Ticats are in much better shape today than they were at any time in 2016.

So — how does that change the complexion of the CFL East Division?

Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca

Trevor Harris enters his first season as an undisputed starting CFL quarterback (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

Let’s be honest: No one was stopping Ottawa’s fearsome four at receiver and dynamic duo at quarterback last season. The REDBLACKS averaged 343.9 passing yards per game no matter who was under centre for them, far and away the number one-ranked passing offence in the CFL.

Things have since changed.

GM Marcel Desjardins has done an exemplary job of re-tooling his receiving corps. Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson are back while newcomer Diontae Spencer is an electrifying player and his former Argos teammate Kenny Shaw can often be seen running open.

On the other hand, losing Henry Burris hurts. Trevor Harris is a proven performer but is entering uncharted waters as the unquestioned starter of a Grey Cup-contending football team. If he falters, Burris won’t be around.

It’s obvious, at this point, that the CFL is becoming ever friendlier for passing offences. 15 receivers went over the 1,000-yard plateau last season while three quarterbacks eclipsed 5,000 passing yards — including Mike Reilly, who threatened to hit 6,000.

That makes the arms race between Ottawa’s pass-catchers and Hamilton’s defenders one to watch because just as valuable as the quarterbacks and receivers that make plays are the defensive backs that can prevent them. The latter, of course, are few and far between, but the Ticats have them.

Fan Poll
Who is your early pick to win the East in 2017?
Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Montreal Alouettes
Toronto Argonauts

I should stress, don’t discount the Ottawa REDBLACKS. Desjardins has proven quite adept when it comes to managing the salary cap, letting the right players walk and finding good value in their replacements. And don’t count out the Argos and Als, either. Both teams missed the playoffs but it’s been proven on countless occasions that turnarounds in the CFL can happen fast.

The defending champs are just that, until they’re knocked off, but ask me today? The Ticats have the edge.

Whatever happens, recent off-season developments could make for some interesting chess matches throughout the 2017 season.