HAMILTON — Following a trip to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats now turn their focus to signing a number of star pending free agents.
While the team does have quite a few of their key playmakers under contract for next season — receiver Brandon Banks, linebacker Simoni Lawrence and running back Sean Thomas Erlington, to name a few — there are many key pieces with expiring contracts.
Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is the biggest name on the pending free agent list, along with receiver Bralon Addison, defensive linemen Dylan Wynn and Ja’Gared Davis and defensive back/returner Frankie Williams.
After making it all the way to the big show at the end of November and ultimately losing, do the Tiger-Cats try and keep what got them there, or will there be some roster shuffling to attempt to end the CFL’s longest Grey Cup drought?
Front Office/Coaching Staff
Though unconventional, having two men in charge, Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang, was the perfect fit for the Tiger-Cats in 2019.
Under their co-managerialship, the Tiger-Cats finished atop the East Division with a 15-3 record, were perfect at home, hosted the Eastern Final and made a trip to the Grey Cup.
There was chatter of Burke being interviewed for the Montreal Alouettes general manager position but it was reported that he turned down the offer to stay in the Hammer.
Fresh off winning Coach of the Year following his first season as head coach of the Ticats, Orlondo Steinauer will be back behind the bench next season. The majority of his staff are returning next year as well. Offensive coordinator Tommy Condell has expressed his interest in staying in Hamilton and special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold signed an extension just a few weeks ago.
The continuity in the front office and coaching staff will be imperative for the team as they hope to appear in a championship game for the second year in a row.
Pending Free Agents
The Tiger-Cats have yet to sign any pending free agents to new contracts, and the list is full of star power and playmakers. That being said, it’s only December and a lot can change before the free agency period opens in February.
The biggest name on the list is quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Prior to suffering a season-ending torn ACL following a non-contact play in July, Masoli led Hamilton to a 5-1 record. The team will have to decide on an extension or to let him hit the open market after backup QB Dane Evans took the starting role and led Hamilton to the Grey Cup.
Many other star players will be on the list for Burke and Allemang to put pen to paper, including star defensive linemen Ja’Gared Davis and Dylan Wynn, running backs Tyrell Sutton and Cameron Marshall and almost their entire defensive backfield (Tunde Adeleke, Mike Daly, Richard Leonard, Jumal Rolle, Frankie Williams).
Williams, who doubles as a returner and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player, will likely be a top priority. Breakout receiver Bralon Addison and reliable pass-catcher Luke Tasker are also both pending free agents.
Both Canadian running backs, Sean Thomas Erlington and Maleek Irons, are under contract for next season. If the team starts Thomas Erlington, as they did to begin the 2019 campaign before his season-ending injury, that would provide ratio flexibility elsewhere on the roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Jackson Bennett, who took snaps in the backfield, is also returning next season. Anthony Coombs, who slotted in as a hybrid receiver/running back, is a pending free agent.
Tunde Adeleke and Mike Daly, who both have started at safety, are pending free agents. Ted Laurent, who tallied five sacks and 16 tackles, has an expiring contract, as do receivers Mike Jones and Brian Jones.
The Tiger-Cat started four Canadians on their offensive line in their final game of the year. Three of those nationals, left guard Brandon Revenberg, right guard Darius Ciraco and right tackle Chris Van Zeyl, are returning, leaving only centre Mike Filer as a pending free agent. Backup right guard Kay Okafor is a pending free agent.
The biggest question on Hamilton’s roster is what they will do at quarterback. Dane Evans, who is under contract for the 2020 season, proved he has what it takes to be a starting pivot in the CFL after leading the Tiger-Cats to the Grey Cup. He took over for Jeremiah Masoli in Week 7 after the five-foot-eight, 228-pound pivot suffered a season-ending injury against Winnipeg.
Evans, still just 26 with plenty of room to develop further, ended the regular season with 3,754 yards and 21 touchdowns through the air and added three majors and 161 yards on the ground. Through six games, Masoli was ranked second in the league in passing touchdowns (nine), third in completions (125) and passing yards (1,576), and was tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns (four).
Now, Burke and Allemang have to decide whether to roll with the youngster Evans, or sign the 32-year-old Masoli to an extension.
Returning – Dane Evans, Hayden Moore
Sean Thomas Erlington began the 2019 campaign as the Ticats’ starting running back and it would be a safe bet to assume the same will happen in 2020. Before suffering a season-ending leg injury in Week 4, the 27-year-old tallied 33 carries for 224 yards and added 11 catches for 193 yards and a touchdown through the air. He’s under contract and, provided his recovery is complete, will likely be the starter when the season gets underway. Two other Canadians who saw action in the backfield, Jackson Bennett and Maleek Irons, will also return next season.
Tyrell Sutton and Cameron Marshall, who were signed following a number of injuries to the Ticats’ backfield, are pending free agents. In four regular season games, Sutton ran the rock 35 times for 203 yards and also hauled in all 11 passes thrown his way for 126 yards an a touchdown. He also started in the Grey Cup and rushed for 86 yards. Marshall, who started in the Eastern Final, also played in four regular season games and tallied 307 yards and two majors on the ground. Whether the American tailbacks are in Burke and Allemang’s future plans remains to be seen.
2019’s Most Outstanding Player, Brandon Banks, is set to return to the Ticats next season. Banks was sensational for Hamilton last season, hitting career-highs in receptions (112), receiving yards (1,550) and touchdowns (13). The 31-year-old continued to show off his versatility, scoring in three different ways; receiving, rushing and via kick return. He also led the league in games with 100-plus receiving yards (eight), yards after catch (657), and receptions of 20-plus yards (21).
Bralon Addison, the other half of the Tiger-Cats’ one-two punch at receiver, is a pending free agent. Addison had a breakout year in 2019 and, like his teammate Banks, hit career-highs in a number of statistical categories including receptions (95), receiving yards (1,236) and touchdowns (7). Addison was also a threat out of the backfield, carrying the ball 36 times for 218 yards and a touchdown. Locking up Addison will likely be high on Hamilton’s to-do list before the free agency period opens in February.
Luke Tasker is also a pending free agent, and despite the 28-year-old missing most of last season due to injury, the Black and Gold will probably want to lock up their reliable pass-catcher. The Ticats could look to target a Canadian receiver in free agency, with just two under contract (Marcus Davis and David Ungerer III).
Led by the 2019 Nissan Titan Most Outstanding Lineman, Chris Van Zeyl, the Tiger-Cats offensive line helped guide the league’s most prolific offence. Hamilton led the CFL in net offence (7,125), touchdowns (57) and offensive points (28.2 per game).
Only two offensive linemen, Mike Filer and Ryker Mathews, are pending free agents but Burke and Allemang will likely want to sign both to new contracts. Filer dressed in all 18 regular season games at centre and started in both the Eastern Final and the Grey Cup. Mathews started 15 games at left tackle and was named an East Division All-Star for the first time in his CFL career.
The defensive line will be a high priority for the Tiger-Cats heading into free agency as all four starters are pending free agents.
Ted Laurent, Ja’Gared Davis, Dylan Wynn and Julian Howsare all hold expiring contracts. Wynn is probably No. 1 on the list to get under contract for the 2020 season after the 26-year-old racked up 44 defensive tackles and 11 sacks. However, Davis and Laurent were also key for the Tabbies on their way to a franchise-record win total. Davis tallied 54 tackles and 13 sacks while Laurent collected 16 tackles and got to QBs five times.
Hamilton was one of the best in the business for generating pressure in 2019, sacking opposing pivots 54 times, just two less than the league-leading Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Roughriders (tied at 56). There is likely no need for Burke and Allemang to go searching in the free agent pool if they can sign their starters from last season.
Only one starting linebacker, WILL linebacker Simoni Lawrence, is poised to return in 2020. Lawrence is coming off the best season of his CFL career, amassing 98 defensive tackles, four sacks and three interceptions. The 30-year-old also broke a CFL record for the most tackles in a single game (17) against Winnipeg in Week 16.
Middle linebacker Justin Tuggle and SAM Rico Murray are pending free agents. Both thrived in Mark Washington’s defence in their first year in Tiger Town. Murray tallied 50 defensive tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown while Tuggle hit a career-high in tackles (80) and added a sack and an interception.
Michigan State’s Chris Frey Jr. dressed in five regular season games and notched three defensive tackles, two special teams tackles and a sack. Lukas Korol appeared in six games and registered two special teams tackles. Jay Langa missed 10 games due to injury, appearing in three and tallying three special teams tackles. All three are back on the roster in 2020.
Quite a few of the Tiger-Cats’ starting defensive backs are pending free agents. Other than shutdown cornerback Delvin Breaux Jr. and halfback Cariel Brooks, the rest of the secondary that started in the Grey Cup are pending free agents. Those with expiring contracts include safety Tunde Adeleke, who enjoyed the best year of his career, collecting 52 tackles and two interceptions, and Richard Leonard, who was a staple at halfback, tallying 55 tackles, four interceptions and a touchdown.
Dual-threat Frankie Williams, who started at corner and was the team’s primary returner, may be the most important piece to lock up this off-season. He was named 2019’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player after leading the league in punt return yards (949) and tallied 10 returns of 30-plus yards and a touchdown. He also added 1,071 yards and a major score on kickoff returns. Not only an integral piece of a successful special teams unit in Hamilton, Williams also contributed on defence, totaling 50 tackles and an interception.
Halfback Jumal Rolle and safety Mike Daly are also pending free agents. As a team, the Ticats were third-best in the CFL for interceptions (22) and turnovers forced (44). Bringing back many of the ballhawks on their free agent list will be necessary for the Ticats and co. to keep that going next season.
Returning – Delvin Breaux Jr., Cariel Brooks, Maurice Carnell IV, Will Likely III, Tevin Mitchell
With kicker/punter Lirim Hajrullahu returning in 2020, the Tiger-Cats only have one piece of their special teams unit to lock up. As stated above, Frankie Williams is a pending free agent and made a major impact on specials. It would be surprising if the Ticats don’t offer him a deal before the free agency period opens in a few months.
Free Agents – None