Monday, 22 December 2014
Ti-Cats Look to Remain Class of the East
Times are good in Hamilton. The team has a new, world-class stadium to play in, has been to the Grey Cup in back-to-back years and has the type of stability and structure both on and off the field that many teams would envy. It truly feels like we are in a golden era of Tiger-Cats football.
But all is not perfect in Steeltown. Those back-to-back Grey Cup appearances both ended in defeat, the most recent of which in as heartbreaking a manner as any championship game loss in sports history. And the team has 17 players scheduled to hit the open market in February, nine of which started in the Grey Cup. It could be another offseason of big changes in Hamilton.
The biggest potential problem could be at receiver. Four of the five players that started the most recent Grey Cup for the Ti-Cats are not under contract for next season. Of those four, Brandon Banks and Luke Tasker are the two the team would desperately like to have back. Both have chances at the NFL – Tasker recently had a workout with the Green Bay Packers – but both have also said they want to return to Hamilton. We all know what Banks brings to the table. The guy is a threat to score any time he touches the ball, and that playmaking ability will be tough to replace. The team has Terrell Sinkfield and Quincy McDuffie, two players who won special teams player of the week honours in 2014, in house, but as good as both players are, they are not Banks. If the team loses Tasker, I could see them trying to bring back Greg Ellingson. The speculation is that Ellingson will head to Ottawa to reunite with former Ti-Cat teammate Henry Burris, but a return to Hamilton should not be ruled out. The team would obviously love to have both Tasker and Banks back, but they do have options if both players are wearing a different jersey in 2015.
Both Sam Giguère and Bakari Grant saw diminished roles in 2014, but produced when called upon. Giguère was especially effective when asked to fill in for an injured Andy Fantuz at the tail end of the season. Grant has always been a favourite of yours truly, and his willingness to get his nose dirty and do the little things has endeared to him to many Tiger-Cats. As much as having both of them back would be preferable, I could see them finding homes elsewhere.
Should the Ti-Cats need find receivers, they will find more than a few on the free agent market. John Chiles of Toronto would be an excellent addition. He has battled injuries for most of his CFL career, but when healthy he has shown the ability to make plays and would be a fine addition to Hamilton's receiving corps. S.J. Green remains unsigned, but I would be stunned if he is not back with Montreal next season. The one intriguing possibility, though not technically a free agent, is Edmonton’s Fred Stamps. Stamps, who was a forgotten man in the Eskimo offense for large chunks of the season, had his worst year statistically since his first campaign with the green and gold way back in 2007. Stamps seems resigned to not being back with the Eskimos in 2015 and if he wants to try and add that illusive Grey Cup ring to his impressive résumé then Hamilton might be the place for him.
The team is going to lose Delvin Breaux to the NFL. His two seasons in black and gold were nothing short of spectacular. He became the very definition of a lockdown corner, and with his size and speed, NFL teams must be salivating at the prospect of adding him to their defense. Obviously, Breaux would be welcomed back with open arms, but it would be truly shocking if he is not plying his trade south of the border next season. Whether the team looks in house to replace him – someone like Emmanuel Davis or perhaps moving Brandon Stewart from halfback to corner – or goes the free agent route, replacing Breaux won’t be easy, but the team will have to find a way to do it.
Breaux isn’t the only stud defensive player the team could lose. The team’s Most Outstanding Rookie nominee Taylor Reed and sack master Justin Hickman are both not under contract for next season. While Reed will best be remembered for the flag he drew to negate Brandon Banks’ potential championship-winning punt return, he had a stellar first season in the CFL. He finished fourth on the team in tackles, third in sacks and was the defensive player of the week in Week 12. It is a shame that many will boil down his whole season to just one play, because Reed truly was a difference maker in a talented Tiger-Cat linebacking corps and he should be retained.
While Hickman wasn’t the force in 2014 that he was in 2011 – he recorded just one sack in the eight games he played, including the playoffs – he still helped make Hamilton’s defense one of the league’s best in the second half of the season. The team recently inked fellow defensive end Eric Norwood to an extension, and pairing him with Hickman over a full season is an enticing proposition. Hamilton’s defensive line was one of the best, if not the best, in 2014 and having Hickman for a full season would make them even better.
Fixing the offensive line should also be a high priority. Three former starters – Tim O’Neill, Greg Wojt and Marc Dile – are all currently free to test the waters and I’m not sure any of them will be back. Wojt missed the entire 2014 season with an injury, Dile has had a hard time staying healthy for most of the last two seasons, and O’Neill is 35. Having Peter Dyakowski healthy next season will surely help, but the team needs to be better upfront. Whether they find that help in the draft or via free agency – there are some good offensive linemen available, like Saskatchewan’s Ben Heenan and Toronto’s Tyler Holmes – the team needs to make sure their offensive line is a formidable unit in 2015.
There could be a lot of changes for the defending East Division title holders, but that won’t diminish the championship expectations that the team will face in 2015. Frankly, the Tiger-Cats are the class of the East Division, and a third straight trip to the Grey Cup is not out of the realm of possibility. If they can find the right players to fill the void left by departing ones, this team will itself playing on the final Sunday in November.