Wednesday 27 February 2013

Cats Cut Rey Williams, Deal for Hasan Hazime

The Ti-Cats continued their defensive makeover by making a couple of moves today, cutting linebacker Rey Williams and making a deal with the Edmonton Eskimos.

As odd as it sounds to say about a two-time East Division all-star, I'm not really surprised that the Cats let Williams go. He's 32, and while not anywhere near the end age for a linebacker, the team did go out an acquire 24-year-old Simoni Lawrence and 26-year-old Marcellus Bowman in the off-season. Both Lawrence and Bowman have experience playing in the middle, so bringing them in made Williams expendable.

And don't be surprised if this isn't the only change to the linebacking corps. Both Markeith Knowlton and Jamall Johnson have been hampered by injuries the last couple of years, so I won't be shocked if one or both of them are also gone. I don't hope for it – if they are healthy, they are still among the league's elite at their positions – and I most definitely won't like it, but I won't be stunned if the team decides to let them go.

In the trade, the Cats get the rights to non-import defensive lineman Hasan Hamize as well as a 2013 second-round draft pick in exchange for Hamilton's 2013 second- and third-round picks. It's way too early to tell what this trade will accomplish, but one thing you can take from it is that the Cats are going to use a Canadian on the defensive line. The team signed Brian Bulcke and Shomari Williams in free agency, have Marc-Antoine Fortin on the roster from last year, and will hopefully have 2012 draft picks Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and Michael Atkinson in training camp. Add in Hamize and I think it's pretty clear where one of the seven starting Canadians will play.

Saturday 23 February 2013

It's About Time

It's been a long time coming, but Earl Winfield will soon be able to call himself a Hall of Famer.

After years of being passed over for other, mostly deserving, players, Earl Winfield was one of six men announced as part of the 2013 class of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

Joining Winfield is fellow Tiger-Cat Miles Gorrell, as well as former Argo Dan Ferrone, former referee Jake Ireland, former St. FX head coach Don Loney and former University of Alberta star Brian Fryer.

Those guys are all deserving, except Ireland, but for me, this is all about Winfield.

I have long called for Winfield's inclusion in the Hall of Fame and I an ecstatic that he will finally take his rightful place among the game's greatest players.

I will never understand why it took so long (Winfield retired following the 1997 season) for Winfield to finally get the call. The guy had the numbers – over 10,000 yards receiving, second-most punt return touchdowns in league history – and anyone who saw him play will attest to the fact that he was a difference maker. The only thing lacking from his résumé is a Grey Cup ring, and that might have been used against him, but that shouldn't have been. He entered the league in 1987, one year after the Ti-Cats won the Grey Cup, and left in 1997, two years before the team won their most recent championship. It's just bad timing that Winfield isn't a two-time Grey Cup champion.

But Winfield made an impact without winning a championship. He had perhaps the greatest Labour Day performance of any player in CFL history. No one will forget his 1988 game against the Argos. He was a special player and I always viewed him as a Hall of Famer. I'm glad those that decide these things finally came around to my way of thinking.

So a big congrats to all the 2013 inductees, but an especially big congrats to one of the greatest Tiger-Cats of all time, Earl "The Pearl" Winfield.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Unofficial: Ti-Cats Cut Nick Graham

I've gotten in trouble for using Twitter as a source before, but I think this one is pretty safe. According to his Twitter account, it sure sounds like Nick Graham has been released by the Ti-Cats.

At around 8PM tonight, Graham sent the following tweet out:
Now, as I said, I've jumped the gun because of Twitter before, but if this doesn't imply that the Cats have released him, then I don't know what it means. So let's operate under the assumption that the Tabbies have released Graham.

The Ti-Cats signed Graham last August after he was released by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In four games with the team, he picked up 22 tackles.

With all the moves the team made on the defensive side of the football over the last few days, it's no surprise that the team released someone. Graham wasn't overly impressive during his time with the Ti-Cats, and the team signed two defensive backs over the weekend, Evan McCollough on Friday and Deon Beasley on Saturday, s it just seems like Graham was the victim of the numbers game.

Monday 18 February 2013

Austin's Approach Shows These Aren't the Same Old Cats

It wasn't quiet, but it wasn't as loud as previous opening weekends of free agency.

The Ti-Cats, always in the running to make a splash come free agency, signed five free agents in the first three days players were able to sign elsewhere. But unlike in previous years, the team didn't go for the big-name, marquee signing. Instead of pursuing guys like Ricky Foley, Odell Willis or Brandon Whitaker (probably the three biggest names on the market), the Ti-Cats instead chose to sign Shomari Williams, Brian Bulcke and Evan McCollough on Friday, Deon Beasley on Saturday, and Marcellus Bowman on Sunday.

It's a shift in focus from the Bob O'Billovich era, when making a splash often meant opening the chequebook for former all-stars, which landed the team prominent players like Andy Fantuz and Avon Cobourne the last two years. Both solid signings, despite Cobourne being release after the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and ones that the team should not regret.

But bringing in big-name guys isn't what new general manager Kent Austin decided to do. Instead, the first-time general manager opted to sign quality players that fit the team's needs. Austin signed two defensive backs, two defensive lineman and a linebacker. Hamilton's biggest area of concern this off-season: the defense, especially the secondary and defensive line. In just three days, Austin brought in five starting-calibre players on a defense that needed an infusion of talent. If the mission was to improve areas of weakness, I'd say he accomplished that mission.

Adding two Canadians, Williams and Bulcke, that are capable of being starters can't be overlooked either. The Ti-Cats had ratio issues last year – remember when the team sat Markeith Knowlton because of ratio troubles last year? – and finding quality Canadian talent was a priority for the Cats. So far this month, Austin has brought in three potential starters in Williams, Bulcke and Greg Wojt (who they acquired in a trade with Edmonton). Add those three with Marwan Hage, Peter Dyakowski, Andy Fantuz, Dave Stala, Sam Giguère, Ryan Hinds and Kevin Eiben, and the Ti-Cats have some serious Canadian depth. And that list grows even longer if you add 2012 draft picks Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Frédéric Plesius, Michael Atkinson and Courtney Stephen, and the bevy of young offensive lineman like Pascal Baillaregon, Cody Husband, Mike Filer and Jason Mederios to the mix. The Ti-Cats could be the deepest team in terms of Canadian talent in the league.

And it's not that I think what O'Billovich did during his five-year run as general manager was wrong; his plan turned the Cats from terrible to competitive. But he couldn't get them from competitive to championship-calibre because too often those big moves left the Cats vulnerable in other areas. For example, after trading for Henry Burris and signing Fantuz in 2012, the Ti-Cats had one of the best, most explosive offenses in CFL history; however, the defense was a sieve and allowed 32 points/game. The Cats finished 6-12 and missed the playoffs. So while O'Billovich got the Ti-Cats on the path to success, his philosophy wasn't the right one to get the Ti-Cats over the hump. But Austin seems to get that you don't need to "win" free agency by getting the biggest, most expensive names. You win by adding players that fit the needs of your team and that is exactly what the Ti-Cats did this weekend.

Good teams don't usually need to make big splashes in free agency because they find a way to groom their own talent. Good teams use free agency to pick up quality players who are pieces to the puzzle. The Ti-Cats haven't been known to do that, opting instead for the flashy signing. While star players are necessary, they often come at a higher cost. No one will say that Williams or Bulcke or McCollough or Beasley or Bowman are stars, but they are high-quality players that fit the needs of the team.

My preference was for the Cats to make as little noise as possible this off-season, but that got blown up when the team fired George Cortez. But aside from that and the hiring of Austin, the Ti-Cats have mostly stayed out of the spotlight, making quiet moves instead of headline-grabbing ones. The Cats took a different approach this time, and by not "winning" free agency, they may have made the moves that will make them a winner come November.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Defensive Revamp Continues With Bowman Signing

The Ti-Cats spent Sunday remaking their defense even further by signing former Winnipeg Blue Bomber linebacker Marcellus Bowman to a contract.

Unlike all the other signings, this one isn't aimed at an area of weakness, but actually an area of strength. Bowman plays, mostly, weak-side linebacker, a spot on the Ti-Cats currently manned by one Jamall Johnson. Johnson is perhaps the best weak-side linebacker in the CFL, so it seems odd that the team would sign a player that plays his position.


Yes, I think it is entirely possible that Kent Austin could be making major changes to the Ti-Cats' linebacking corps. With Bowman and Simoni Lawrence (who was acquired from Edmonton as part of that five-player deal earlier this month) now on the team, the Ti-Cats could be looking to make changes to their most accomplished unit. Lawrence could push Rey Williams and Bowman could do the same to Jamall Johnson. And let's not forget that Markeith Knowlton missed 11 games last year and was replaced by multiple players, one of them current Ti-Cat Ricardo Colclough. It is possible, maybe even likely, that one or more of the feared trio could be out of Hamilton before the season starts.

But all this talk about which linebackers might be on their way out could be a bit premature seeing as Marcellus Bowman underwent knee surgery last week. Interesting that the Ti-Cats would sign him despite the injury.

Whatever come of this, you have to hand it to the Ti-Cats that they saw the defense was a problem and have gone about remaking it. The 2013 defense will look a lot different than the 2012 unit. We'll know in the summer if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Free Agency Day 2: Cats Sign One, Release One

The Ti-Cats were busy once again on Saturday, signing former Blue Bomber defensive back Deon Beasley and releasing running back Avon Cobourne.

Beasley comes to Hamilton following three seasons with the Bombers. His signing, coupled with the signings of James Patrick and Evan McCollough, means the Ti-Cats are very serious about rebuilding their secondary. It also means the team is probably going to go with an all-import defensive backfield. Those three, along with Dee Webb and Bo Smith will likely make up the team's secondary. Anything can happen between now and the start of the season, but it seems likely that the Ti-Cats will go with those five guys as their starters.

The release of Cobourne, once again, doesn't make sense to me. In fact, it might make even less sense this year than it did last year. I understand that the team has Chevon Walker under contract and expects Martell Mallett to return from injury, but neither of those guys are sure things. Walker played great, but also was a bit of a one-trick pony. Maybe he expands his game in his second year, but maybe he'll always just be a speed guy. Mallett is coming off an Achilles injury, so who knows if he'll ever be the same player again. Add in the fact that he hasn't played since 2009, and he remains a huge question mark.

I also understand that Cobourne will be 34 this year, which is ancient for running backs, but nothing Cobourne has done suggests he's passed his expiry date. Last year, at 33 and without a full off-season with the team, Cobourne rushed for over 700 yards, averaged close to six yards per carry and was every bit as effective as he was in previous years.

The Ti-Cats made a good move in adding Beasley, but a poor one in releasing Cobourne. It feels like one step forward and one step back.

Friday 15 February 2013

Ti-Cats Ink Trio on Busy Opening Day of Free Agency

Well, it was certainly a more interesting first day of free agency this year. Last year, the opening day was about as exciting as watching paint dry, but the start of free agency this year was anything but dull. And there was a lot of news on all fronts, especially when it comes to the Ti-Cats.

The Ti-Cats started free agency off with a bang by signing three players: linebacker/defensive end Shomari Williams, defensive tackle Brian Bulcke and defensive back Evan McCollough.

Williams and Bulcke add great Canadian depth to a team that needed it. They could also be starters on the defensive line, Bulcke at tackle and Williams at end, which could see the Ti-Cats adjust their ratio or have more flexibility should someone get hurt during the season. Williams is also an excellent special teams player and fills the void left by Yannick Carter (who remains unsigned).

McCollough's signing is one many thought was coming (including yours truly). McCollough is familiar with Orlondo Steinauer's philosophies from their days together with the Argos, the Ti-Cats needed reinforcements in the secondary, and scooping up McCollough hurt their biggest rival. McCollough, Dee Webb, James Patrick and Bo Smith is the start of a pretty good secondary. What was once a weakness might now be a strength.

Perhaps the best part of the three moves the Cats made today is that they brought in younger players. Williams is 27, while Bulcke and McCollough are just 25; all three are just entering the primes of their careers and could be Tiger-Cats for quite some time. I think the Ti-Cats are a better team today than they were yesterday.

In other news, the Lions re-upped Solomon Elimimian and Jovon Olafioye, while adding a nice booked for Keron Williams in former Eskimos d-lineman Julius Williams. The Als cut Jerald Brown and picked up Geoff Tisdale, while former Alouette Dwight Anderson left Montreal for Saskatchewan. The Riders also brought back linebacker Tyron Brackenridge, but saw Odell Willis leave Regina and sign with the Eskimos. The Argos brought in linebacker James Yurichuk, while also getting the pleasant surprise of Grey Cup MVP Chad Kackert returning. The belief was that Kackert would be off to the NFL (the team he was signing with was rumoured to be the New York Jets), but opted to stay in Canada and with the Argos.

Of the bigger named guys left, all that really remains are running back Brandon Whitaker, defensive end Ricky Foley and quarterback Adrian McPherson. It looks like Whitaker might have to accept a backup role somewhere (Toronto seemed like a logical landing spot, but with Kackert staying out, I don't see him going there; all the other teams seem set at running back). The same could be said of McPherson. The one team many think does need a starter, Winnipeg, has already said they aren't looking for one, so McPherson might go from the plum position of backup to Anthony Calvillo to backup somewhere else. Foley is probably the hottest commodity left, being that he's a Canadian at a position typically played by American, but him still being available tells me his stock has dropped dramatically after a pretty lacklustre stint with the Argos (2012 Grey Cup performance aside).

With so many players getting signed so early, free agency won't drag like it did last year. Most of the big names are signed, so now it's seeing who fits where amongst the few impact players remaining. It'll be worth keeping an eye on, but the opening day of free agency was much busier, and much more exciting, than anyone rightfully expected.

Ti-Cats Ready to Make a Free Agent Splash

If recent history is an indication, the Ti-Cats could be major players when free agency opens in less than an hour. The Ti-Cats got a jump by re-signing Brian Simmons and Bo Smith yesterday, but there are still a few players out there that might be of interest to the Tabbies.

Unlike in previous years, there isn't that one headlining player that will be available. Last year, Andy Fantuz was that guy. The year before, Avon Cobourne. (For the record, the Ti-Cats signed both.) The top guys this year are probably Ricky Foley and Odell Willis. Foley because he is a Canadian that plays a position, defensive end, traditionally manned by an American, and Willis because he is a premier pass rusher in a league that covets such players. That said, I hope the Ti-Cats don't pursue either. I think Foley isn't as good as people make him out to be; he's had one good season in his career and played alright in the Grey Cup, but since he signed with Toronto he has done mostly nothing. I'd be OK if Willis was brought in, but at the price he will likely command, I think the Ti-Cats could spend their money more wisely.

The two guys I think the Ti-Cats should aggressively go after are both on the defensive side of the ball: defensive back Evan McCollough and defensive lineman Brian Bulcke. The Cats were talking about remaking their secondary and adding McCollough would be a great way to do that. Plus, it hurts a division rival, which is always a good thing to do in free agency. Adding Bulcke would allow the Cats to play a non-import on the defensive line, which would help their ratio tremendously. He could fill the hole that has been on the team since Matt Kirk left a couple years ago.

There are other intriguing names out there, like Dwight Anderson, Deon Beasley and Adrian McPherson. Anderson or Beasley would fill a need in the secondary and might be targets should the team fail to land McCollough. McPherson wants to be a starter, but the only team looking for one (Winnipeg) has already dismissed the idea of bringing anyone in. The Ti-Cats are in the market for a veteran backup, so I am curious where McPherson lands and if he lands in Hamilton.

Some quality Canadians will also be available, like former No. 1 overall pick Shomari Williams and safety Cauchy Muamba. I have a feeling that Muamba will either return to BC or sign with Winnipeg to play with his brother, Henoc. Williams, who moved to linebacker last year, could be pursued by a number of teams and I wouldn't be surprised if the Toronto native is picked up by the Argos.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Ti-Cats Sign Simmons, Smith

Less than 24 hours until the madness that is free agency is set to begin, the Ti-Cats inked deals with two key veteran players. Offensive tackle Brian Simmons and defensive back Bo Smith will both be returning to the Ti-Cats after signing contract extensions that will keep them in Black & Gold through the 2015 season.

Simmons has spent the last two years with the Cats and has become one of the team's best offensive lineman. Last year was a banner year for the former Oklahoma Sooner, giving up just one sack and getting called for just three penalties all season. Simmons's signing means the Cats will bring back all five starting offensive linemen from last year. With the recent addition of Greg Wojt and the numerous youngsters coming to camp, the Ti-Cats have an embarrassment of riches along the offensive line.

Smith was a guy that I was very hard on just a few years ago, but I have since changed my opinion completely on him. Ever since he returned from a tryout with the New York Jets, Smith has been one of Hamilton's best defensive backs. I have grown to really like Smith and feel he has the talent to be one of the league's best. Smith will be a key component of a rebuilt secondary and his experience will be invaluable.

With Smith and Simmons both re-signed, that leaves only Yannick Carter, Jonathan Hood, Chris Rwabukamba and Marcell Young left unsigned.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Stephenson Staying Put

The Ti-Cats announced yesterday that they have re-upped running back Daryl Stephenson. Had he not re-signed, Stephenson would have been a free agent next Friday.

Stephenson proved to be a valuable cog in the Ti-Cat machine last year. He scored his first two CFL touchdowns in 2012 and contributed mightily on special teams. is one of those glue guys that all teams need to have.

Stephenson emerged as a multi-purpose threat for the Ti-Cats on offense. He could play as a fullback, halfback or tight end, and did so with such efficiency that the team felt comfortable dealing Darcy Brown to Edmonton last September.

I'll be interested to see what role Stephenson plays under new head coach Kent Austin. Clearly Austin values what Stephenson brings to the table, and as a former Hec Creighton winner and the CIS' all-time leader in career rushing yards, I feel that he hasn't yet tapped his full potential. I don't expect huge things from him this season, but I'd like to see him build off what I thought was a very good 2012 season.

With Stephenson locked up for the next three years, the Ti-Cats need to work on getting a couple more of their pending free agents inked to deals before free agency begins on February 15.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Cats Score Big in Deal With Esks

It turned out to be a pretty eventful Tuesday for the Tabbies, now didn't it?

Just a few hours after announcing that Jeff Reinebold would be the team's new special teams coordinator, the Ti-Cats went out and completed a five-player trade with the Edmonton Eskimos, bringing offensive lineman Greg Wojt, linebacker Simoni Lawrence and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to Hamilton in exchange for linebacker Nathan Kanya and the rights to offensive lineman Carson Rockhill.

The best player that went either is Wojt. Wojt is a proven commodity and a bona-fide starter, so getting him while not giving up a starter themselves is a great move. Wojt was a West Division all-star in 2011 and has experience at both guard and tackle (though his natural position is guard). Adding Wojt means the Cats have the potential to start four Canadians on the offensive line, which would give the team tremendous ration flexibility.

The addition of Lawrence means there is a bit of a logjam at linebacker. Lawrence played some middle linebacker last year for the Eskimos when J.C. Sherritt was injured, so one has to wonder if this deal spells the end of Rey Williams' time with the Ti-Cats. The odds seem to be against Williams returning for a third season, despite being named an all-star his first two years in Black & Gold. Lawrence is eight years younger than Williams and comes much cheaper. While I like Williams, Lawrence might be a wiser investment. I suspect that No. 9's time with the Ti-Cats will be coming to an end.

Masoli is interesting because of his collegiate pedigree at the University of Oregon. He ran Chip Kelly's fast-paced spread offense and that type of training could translate to CFL success. Masoli will be in a battle for a quarterback spot with fellow second-year player Dan LeFevour. If the Ti-Cats decide not to bring in a veteran to be Henry Burris' backup, Masoli could enter the 2013 season as Hamilton's No. 2 quarterback. I like Masoli's potential to be a decent starting quarterback in the future.

What the Ti-Cats gave up isn't insignificant, but they are definitely parts that they could afford to send elsewhere. Kanya is a very good special teamer, but he was likely never going to be a starter for the Cats, so using him in a deal to get two potential 2013 starters and possibly a future starting quarterback isn't a big loss. And while Rockhill is considered a tremendous prospect, the Cats have a lot of non-import offensive linemen in the pipeline, so sending Rockhill to Edmonton doesn't cripple them long-term along the offensive line.

From all angles, this trade is a good one for the Tabbies. They were able to get quite a bit and didn't give up a lot. If everything works out, the Ti-Cats are a better team today than they were yesterday.

Cats Hire Reinebold

The Ti-Cats announced today that they have hired Jeff Reinebold as the team's new special teams coordinator.

This is the first piece of news since the Cortez firing/Austin hiring that I completely disagree with. Reinebold has nothing on his résumé that leads me to believe he'll be anything other than mediocre at this position. Last year, Reinebold was the defensive coordinator in Montreal and that unit was not great by any stretch of the imagination.

But perhaps the worst part of this is that last year's special teams coordinator Jim Daley was not retained. Daley, whose hiring was criticized and even laughed at (especially by the fans in Saskatchewan), coached what was easily the best special teams unit in the entire CFL. Luca Congi, Josh Bartel and Chris Williams all earned division all-star nods under Daley's guidance, and Williams was named the league's 2012 Most Outstanding Special Teams player. Daley did a remarkable job last season.

Keeping Daley would have been a smart move, but I understand that a new head coach will want to pick his own coaches. That said, replacing him with Reinebold just makes no sense to me. The last time he coached special teams was in 1995 with the Edmonton Eskimos, and he just hasn't been anything other than a mediocre coach at any of his previous stops. I am not impressed with the hire at all.

I hope Reinebold proves me wrong, but I won't be holding my breath. Sooner or later Austin was going to make a move that I didn't like and today ended up being that day.