Saturday 31 March 2012

Wayne Finds Home... Giguère too?

A couple of pieces of Tiger-Cat news on this late Saturday morning.

It didn't take long for Wayne Smith to find a new home, as the former Tiger-Cat has signed with the Toronto Argonauts. Smith was released earlier this week, and it was only a matter of time before he found a new team.

And the man that has captured many Tiger-Cat fans imaginations for the better part of four years released a somewhat cryptic tweet that could signify he is ready to begin his CFL career. Sam Giguère posted on Twitter the simple message "I'm coming home" at 10:21AM. If the tweet has anything to do with his football career it can mean one of two things, in my opinion.

First, that Giguère has signed a deal to become a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, with the "home" in this case being Canada. He has been Hamilton's property since he was drafted in the first round, eighth overall, in he 2008 CFL Draft. Secondly, he has been traded to, and signed with, the Alouettes – which he has said he would like – and the "home" in this case is Montreal.

If Hamilton has signed Giguère, that would give them three potential starting, non-import Receivers, with Andy Fantuz and Dave Stala already in the fold. Having that amount of Canadian talent at one position would give the Tiger-Cats amazing ratio flexibility. Of course, the team is already plenty loaded at Receiver, so adding Giguère could pose a problem. In my opinion, the likely outcome of a Giguère signing in Hamilton would be the trade or release of Dave Stala.

If Giguère was dealt to Montreal, it will be interesting to see what Hamilton received as compensation. Bob O'Billovich has been pretty adamant that if Giguère comes north, he will do so in Tiger-Cat colours. That means any deal for Giguère, especially one to a division rival such as Montreal, would have to be substantial. Hamilton has no incentive to make a deal; they have been patient thus far with Giguère, so unless Montreal made a mind-blowing offer, I can't see how Obie would have been motivated to move off his previous stance.

If the tweet was CFL related, then the Sam Giguère saga will finally have an ending. Regardless of what that ending is, it will be nice that it is finally over.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Cats Sign Four, Release One

The Tiger-Cats made a slew of moves today, signing four 2011 draft picks and releasing veteran non-import Offensive Lineman Wayne Smith.

The Cats inked Offensive Lineman Pascal Baillargeon, Defensive Lineman Marc-Antoine Fortin, Fullback Tyrell Francisco and Linebacker Patrick Jean-Mary. Baillargeon and Fortin were third-round picks, while Francisco and Jean-Mary were fifth-round selections. All four will come to camp to compete for spots on the roster.

Hamilton also released former No. 1 overall pick Wayne Smith. Smith was a first-round selection of the Tiger-Cats in 2004, and spent three seasons in Black & Gold before spending four seasons in Saskatchewan and then returning to Hamilton last year. It's a little surprising to see the team release Smith because he is a valuable depth guy with his ability to play any position on the Offensive Line. Someone of Smith's talents will find another home in the CFL soon enough.

I would expect the Cats to do a little more tinkering with the roster as we get closer to the start of Off-season Voluntary Workouts next month.

Sunday 25 March 2012

The Value of Draft Picks

A lot has been made about which team won the trade that sent Odell Willis to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in exchange for the eighth and twenty-third overall picks.

The prevailing school of thought is that teams should not trade draft picks (or non-imports) for import players. Since the Riders did just that, the popular opinion is that they lost the trade.

With that in mind, I decided to look at the five drafts held between 2004 and 2008 – excluding the past three drafts because it is too early to tell if those players how good those players will be – to see if that widely held belief is correct. The evidence seems to point to a few great players, some good players, but mostly players that make their biggest contributions on Special Teams, if they do anything at all. In fact, the highest number of players end up not even playing in the league or have very short careers.

Quite a few solid players came out of the 2004 Draft, with Marwan Hage and Josh Bourke being the best of the bunch. Wayne Smith, Obby Khan, Luc Mullinder and Matt Kirk were also selected in 2004. Hage and Bourke are perennial All-Stars, but the others are not much more than depth players.

The noteworthy selections from the 2005 Draft were Jeff Keeping, John Comiskey, Tim O'Neill, Bryan Crawford and Brett Ralph. Good players, no question, but not great players.

The 2006 Draft was probably the best draft in recent memory with Jay Pottinger, Andy Fantuz, Ricky Foley, Jon Cornish, Peter Dyakowski, Étienne Boulay and Dominic Picard being selected in the first three rounds. But 2006 looks to be an outlier in regards to high-quality talent.

With the exception of Chris Getzlaf, the 2007 Draft once again produced good players and special teamers, but no stars. Jabari Arthur, Tad Crawford, Chris Van Zeyl, Yannick Carter, Donovan Alexander and Calvin McCarty are the type of players that were selected. Decent players, and valuable cogs on their teams, but not the same calibre as a guy like Odell Willis.

The 2008 Draft was top heavy, with Dylan Barker, Dimitri Tsoumpas, Keith Shologan, Brendon LaBatte and Shea Emry going in the first seven picks. After that, it was players like Greg Wojt, Aaron Hargreaves, Jason Arakgi, Jonathan Hood, Marc Beswick, Don Oramasionwu, Mark Dewit, Pierre-Luc Labbé and the two best players taken after the first round, Paul Woldu and Luc Brodeur-Jourdain. All of them are decent players, and there are some very good players in this list as well, but not many of them would be worth trading a player the calibre of Odell Willis.

Those five drafts show that trading draft picks, especially those that come after the first round, is not a losing proposition. The best players tend to be steady, solid players (mostly on the Offensive Line) and Special Teamers; however, the CFL Draft has produced very few All-Stars, especially with players picked in later rounds.

Also, with the draft being such a crap shoot, only 40 players out of a possible 252 selected between 2004 and 2008 have become steady contributors. That means with the trade, Winnipeg has about a 16 per cent chance of picking someone who will help them over the long term.

The point of this was not to devalue the CFL Draft, but to perhaps open some eyes as to the overvaluing of draft picks. We are told that team should not trade Canadians for imports, but with a little more than a one-in-ten chance of getting a difference maker in the draft, the idea doesn't hold up. Missing out on the next Josh Bourke would hurt, but the chance of that happening is very slim. Based on these numbers, trading draft picks for proven import players is the not the risk it is made out to be.

Friday 23 March 2012

Cats Sign Congi

The Tiger-Cats now having a Training Camp kicking competition with the team announcing the signing of former Saskatchewan Kicker/Punter Luca Congi.

Congi, who spent six years in Saskatchewan, missed all of last season with a knee injury and was replaced by Chris Milo. Saskatchewan released Congi in December.

Congi will battle it out with untested second-year man Josh Maveety to see who will replace the Justin Medlock. Should Congi not win the kicking job outright, he could stick with the team as their Punter.

This is a good signing by the Cats; they needed to bring in a proven player to compete for the job with Mavetty, if only as insurance. Should Congi win the job, the team would have amazing ratio flexibility – something they have lacked in recent years with an import player holding at least one of the kicking jobs (Medlock, Nick Setta and Eric Wilbur) – with a non-import performing both kicking duties. This is the silver lining of losing Medlock to Carolina.

If Congi can come back from the injury that cost him his job and 2011 season, he could be a great asset to the Cats. At worst, we'll know that whoever wins the kicking job in Training Camp is the best man for the job.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Webb, Collins Sign Extensions

The Ti-Cats have given contract extension to Defensive Backs Dee Webb and Milt Collins that will keep them in Black & Gold through the 2014 season.

Both players came to Hamilton via separate trades last fall; Collins was acquired in a deal with Calgary in late September, while Webb was brought in last October in a deal with Toronto.

Hamilton's Secondary was the focus of much attention last season, and the team never seemed to get it right. But near the end of the year, there looked to be some potential. While Collins did not get much of a chance to show what he could do (he appeared in only one regular-season contest), Webb did impress in spots. Hamilton now has seven guys – Bo Smith, Woodny Turenne, Loyce Means, Carlos Thomas, Marcell Young, and the re-upped Webb and Collins – to battle it out for the four remaining spots in the starting Secondary.

Hamilton's Secondary was thought to be a primary concern going into free agency, and the team did nothing to address it. That means they are happy with the group they have. Hopefully a full off-season together, and what looks to be a fierce Training Camp battle, will allow for the unit to gel early in the season.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Tebow the Tiger-Cat

Since being installed as the starting Quarterback for the Denver Broncos last October, no player has been more polarizing than Tim Tebow.

His supporters bring up his intangibles, mainly how he has won at every level he has played. His detractors point out his lack of polished skills, mainly how he is an inaccurate passer. Both sides have their points, but I think it is too early to tell what kind of player Tebow will be; two seasons and 13 starts does not a career make.

But the Denver Broncos have decided to move on from Tebow, having signed four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning to led the team. That means Tebow's football future lies somewhere other than the Colorado capital.

One of those places could be Hamilton.

Sportnet's Arash Madani tweeted that Tebow's CFL negotiation rights belong to the Tiger-Cats. It's highly unlikely that Tebow will play in the CFL; there should be plenty of suitors for the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner who helped guide the Broncos to an improbable AFC West division title and first-round playoff upset of the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011.

But should Tebow find his NFL opportunities not to his liking, he could end up coming to Hamilton. Tebow is not unfamiliar with the CFL, as it was none other than Montreal Alouettes Head Coach Marc Trestman that worked with Tebow prior to the 2010 NFL Draft. Also, former players like Matt Dunigan and Doug Flutie have been asked about whether Tebow could be a success in the CFL.

Tebow becoming a Tiger-Cat now or at any time in the future is extremely slim, but it is fun to think about what "Tebowmania" would look like north of the border.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Introducing Canada's Smartest Person

Peter Dyakowski is about to become a lot more recognizable. The starting Guard for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats has been named Canada's Smartest Person.

Dyakowski took part in the CBC program and finished first, defeating three other competitors to take home the crown. Dyakowski finished first during the preliminary challenges with 46 points. He went on to defeat Mississauga's Laura Suen in the finals.

Dyakowski did excellent in all six categories, but it was his come-from-behind victory in the finals that will be what is remembered most. His size hurt him initially when he stumbled out of the gate but he made his time up during the math portion and then steamrolled through the rest.

He was quiet dominant throughout the competition and is very deserving of the title. Whenever he is announced prior to Hamilton Tiger-Cat home games he can deservedly be introduced as Canada's Smartest Person.

Congratulations Peter. Job well done.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Baggs Cut

Sometimes the writing is on the wall long before anyone sees it, and the news that Stevie Baggs has been released is actually not a surprise. In fact, not to long ago I openly wondered (third-to-last paragraph) if Baggs would be the next big-name player to become a former Tiger-Cats. This is one of those times I didn't want to be right.

For Head Coach George Cortez to say that this was not a financial decision is ludicrous. While last season was far from a banner year for Baggs, and regardless of what Cortez says to the contrary, Baggs was not put in a position to succeed by former Defensive Coordinator Corey Chamblin. He didn't go from the player we saw at the end of 2010 – where in seven games he amassed five sacks, three fumbles recoveries, one interception and two touchdowns, and was named the Defensive Player of the Month for October – to the neutered player we saw for much of 2011 in one off-season.

But Baggs can now add his name to the others on the long list of highly questionable, and in some cases downright idiotic, decisions the team has made over the last eight months.

Baggs still has a lot left to give and whichever team lands him will be getting not just a great football player but a great human being. I wish him the best of luck in the future, and I imagine that we'll be seeing Shakespeare making more plays in the not-to-distant future.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Concerns About Special Teams a Tad Overblown

In the wake of Justin Medlock's departure to Carolina, there appears to be some concern regarding the makeup of the Ti-Cats' Special Teams unit. That seems reasonable considering that Medlock was probably the best Kicker the Ti-Cats have employed since Paul Osbaldiston, and he will be difficult to replace.

Losing Medlock was the second big blow to Hamilton's Special Teams this off-season, the other being kick returner Marcus Thigpen signing with the Miami Dolphins. That means that Hamilton's two best weapons on Special Teams will not be with the team come season's kickoff.

On the surface, losing two All-Star calibre players is something to worry about, and whoever comes in to replace both of them will have big shoes to fill. But prior to landing in Hamilton, no one knew who Marcus Thigpen was. When he was signed late in Training Camp in 2010, it wasn't met with great fanfare. It wasn't until he exploded on the scene in Week 1 against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers – returning the opening kickoff, and late a missed field goal, for a touchdown – that Thigpen became a household name. Not to diminish what he did, but finding a replacement might not be as hard as people think.

The team already has two players in-house that could fill-in for Thigpen: Chris Williams and Terry Grant. Williams might not have to do as much in the receiving game this season with the acquisitions of Terence Jeffers-Harris and Andy Fantuz, so that could free him up to do more in the return game. Grant, if he comes back healthy, will be the backup to new Running Back Martell Mallett. With limited playing time expected for him on Offense, Grant could contribute as a returner.

Replacing Medlock will be a lot harder; kickers who are good nine out of 10 times and have great long-distance accuracy don't fall off trees. But despite the fact that it will be very hard to find someone who was as good as Medlock, it is possible. We haven't seen apparent heir to the throne Josh Maveety do anything, so it's entirely possible he can be the next, great Canadian Kicker.

But losing Medlock does have one positive, which is that the Ti-Cats will have greater roster flexibility if, as expected, they employ one or two Canadians in the kicking game. That doesn't make up for losing Medlock – not having the flexibility, but having an automatic three points whenever you hit your opponents 50-yard line, is preferable – but it does soften the blow somewhat.

When proven players leave, there will always be concerns, and Hamilton lost two of those players in Thigpen and Medlock. But the Cats have some capable players already on the roster who can step up and fill the vacancies left by those two. The concerns being expressed are valid, but they might be a tiny bit overblown.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Bounties in the CFL? You Betcha!

The scandal that has engulfed the National Football League regarding bounties being placed on opposing players by members of the New Orleans Saints has reached Canada. Adriano Belli and a pair of unnamed current CFL players have come out and said that similar bounty programs can be found in the CFL.

What is happening in CFL locker rooms differs from what occurred in New Orleans because that involved a coach, Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams, being at the forefront and that doesn't seem to be the case in the CFL.

Players pooling cash is nothing new; I specifically remember the Edmonton Eskimos Secondary talking about a pool they had where the first person to get an interception would receive the payout. The Esks went nearly half a season back in 2010 without registering a pick, and this was there way of having a little fun with it.

I don't have a big problem with players pooling money together, even if it is doled out to those who lay vicious hits on a Quarterback, Running Back, Receiver, etc. I don't think any person can say they didn't get excited when Jamall Johnson laid that bone-jarring hit on Buck Pierce last season. It was one of the highlights of the year. Would it surprise anyone if we later found out that the Ti-Cat Defense put a bounty on Pierce? Would it make the hit less spectacular? The answer to both those questions is no. Pierce has an injury history, so it makes sense for teams to target him. It was done legally, and if Johnson won himself a few extra dollars because of it, I don't see the problem.

But where bounty pools step over the line is if the payout is given for intentionally injuring an opponent. Football is a violent game without adding the intent to injure into it. The Johnny Sears hit on Steven Jyles last season is where a vicious hit crosses the line. The aftermath also crossed the line, when Rob Murphy and Taylor Robertson both vowed revenge for the hit. It is impossible to know whether the Bombers had a bounty of Jyles, but I think it can be reasonably assumed that the Argos were putting one on Sears. That type of stuff has no place in the game.

Concerns over player safety are at an all-time high, and the CFL is doing everything it can to make the game safer. That's a noble cause, and one worth pursuing. But no matter what the league does, football will always be a violent game. Hits like Johnson's will continue to make highlight reels, and players across the league will pool money together to give extra incentive to make those hits. We may not like the idea of bounties being placed on opposing players, but we all still get out of our seats when hits like Johnson's or Carlos Thomas's on Geroy Simon get made, and as long as that is the case, players will have a reason to want to make them.

Medlock Signs With Carolina

The long and winding road that is Justin Medlock's career took another turn today as the Kicker signed with the Carolina Panthers.

Last season – his one and only with in Hamilton – Medlock was superb for the Cats. He finished second in points, second in field-goal percentage and his accuracy from long distance (50-plus yards) was unparalleled. Medlock was twice named Special Teams Player of the Week (Weeks 3 and 17) and was the Special Teams Player of the Month for July.

Losing Medlock is a blow to the Tiger-Cats, as they once again have to start over at Kicker. Whoever takes the reins in 2012 with be the fourth Kicker in four years for the Tabbies.

That "whoever" looks to be Josh Maveety. Maveety spent all of last season on the Hamilton's Practice Roster.

The team will likely need to acquire a Punter, and the belief was that the team would go after Burke Dales in free agency if Medlock left. Dales, however, is already off the market, having signed in Edmonton.

That doesn't leave the team with a lot of options, but they do have a few. They could let Maveety punt, as they did Medlock, but most who have seen Maveety punt have said it is not his strong suit. They could draft a Punter in May, but there is no guarantee that would work out (remember the Justin Palardy fiasco back in 2010). They could also make a trade, and if the team goes that route, both Calgary and Montreal look like potential trade partners. Each team has multiple Canadian Kickers on their roster, with Calgary having Rene Paredes and Rob Maver, and Montreal having Sean Whyte and Brody McKnight.

Regardless of what the team does in the kicking game, whoever fills in at Kicker and Punter will have big shoes to fill. Medlock was the best Kicker in the CFL last season (sorry, BC Lions fans, but Medlock was just as good as, and maybe even better than, Paul McCallum) and it will be hard to replace his production. Hopefully the Cats can do so adequately.

Monday 5 March 2012

Auggie Hangs Up His Cleats

After an eight-year career, seven spent with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Auggie Barrenechea has decided to call it a day.

Barrenechea began his career as a Middle Linebacker, but made the move to Fullback last season. He didn't play much on Offense, but he was a valuable Special Teams contributor and a highly respected locker room leader. Barrenechea was always a fan favourite, and was one of the team's most popular players during the dark days on the mid-2000s. He left in 2008 for one season in Edmonton, but came back to the Tiger-Cats in 2009 and played the remainder of his career in Black & Gold.

Barrenechea was the type of player you could always cheer for. A scrappy player who may not have been the most talented, but always looked to be one of the hardest working. His switch to Fullback in 2011 epitomized the type of player that Barrenechea was, unselfish and always willing to do whatever he could to help the team.

It will be nearly impossible to replace all that Auggie brought to the team, and it is too bad that he will leave the game without a Grey Cup ring. But who knows, maybe he can be talked out of retirement just like his good buddy Ray Mariuz was last year.

But if this is truly it for Barrenechea, thank you for everything you did for the team and the community. Your presence will be missed and best of luck in your post-football life.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Reviewing Scoring Plays Among Suggested Rule Changes

While they still need approval, three new rules should be in place for the start of the 2012 season; two regarding helmets coming off during play and one in which all scoring plays will be reviewed.

If you watched games last season, especially in the first half of the year, you saw helmets pop off at an alarming rate. It seemed that not a quarter would go by without a helmet flying off. The league has decided that enough is enough and have put forth two rules that will hopefully curb lost helmets. The play will now be whistled dead should the ball carrier lose his helmet. In addition to that, any non-ball carrier that loses their lid will be ineligible for the remainder of that play. Should they continue to play, their team will be penalized 10 yards for illegal participation. If they are hit by an opposing player after losing their helmet, the opposing team will be penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness.

It is a good rule, and one that I hope will help eliminate helmets flying off. The only issue is that there is some leeway – meaning judgment – on helmets that pop off while players are blocking or being blocked. I don't like when rules can be interpreted differently by different referee crews; from one game to the next the calls could vary drastically. Rules need to be pretty straightforward with little room for interpretation so that the chance of a blown call is kept to a minimum.

The other change is one that I have been calling for since mid-October, so to say I am happy to hear that the league will be adopting the NFL-style automatic reviews on all scoring plays is an understatement. Scoring plays decide games, and getting those right is the most important thing the league can do. I do hope that the league will expand the rule to include all plays in the end zone, but if they do not, that is not a big deal. I noticed that NFL referees were much more inclined to rule a play a touchdown and let replay handle it than they were to call it otherwise which would not allow for a replay. I would expect the same to happen in the CFL.

You have to hand it to the CFL, they are not afraid to alter or change the rules of the game to ensure a better product. These potential changes are all a step in the right direction.