Wednesday 29 April 2015

Cats Have Options in Wake of Watt, Gaydosh Injuries

Tuesday will not go down as a banner day for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The team lost defensive tackle Linden Gaydosh and receiver Spencer Watt for the season with a pair of Achilles' injuries.

Losing quality, National players is never a good thing, but Watt's injury is definitely more harmful to the Cats going forward. While Gaydosh is a good, young player, Hamilton employs about 637 Canadian defensive linemen, so finding someone to fill in for the former No. 1 overall pick won't be difficult. But it is Watt's injury that truly presents a conundrum for the Tabbies.

Watt was signed away from the Argos during free agency to replace Sam Giguère, who signed with Montreal. Watt was going to be a starter, paired with Andy Fantuz as one of Hamilton's two National receivers, but with the Simon Fraser product being lost for the entire 2015 season, the Ti-Cats will be forced to reconfigure things to reach the ratio minimum of seven National starters. It is safe to say that Fantuz, Peter Dyakowski and Mike Filer will start on offence, and that Ted Laurent, Courtney Stephen and Craig Butler will do the same on defense. That leaves one spot open, so what can the Ti-Cats do to make up for the loss of Watt?

(1) Start two Canadian defensive tackles

Seeing as Hamilton employs a ridiculous number of Canadians along the defensive line, perhaps the best place to begin is by starting Canadians at both interior defensive lineman positions. Brian Bulcke was a starter before being lost to injury last year, so it would be well and good for the Cats to simply just reinstall him next to Laurent and not worry. The problem there is that Bryan Hall played tremendously all last season, and really stepped up when Bulcke went down. So to allow Hall to be part of the rotation, but not the starter, means that the Cats would have to make changes elsewhere on the defence. Perhaps bringing in Frédéric Plesius when Hall comes in for Bulcke or Laurent.

While this is less than ideal, this is probably the safest route Hamilton can go. Bulcke is a proven commodity and should be a starter; Laurent is the defending East Division Most Outstanding Canadian. Both are starting-calibre players, and this might be the easiest change for Hamilton to make.

(2) Rejig the offensive line

In addition to point No. 1, this is also an easy path for the Ti-Cats to take. The Cats had to do a bit of ration gymnastics last year because of Peter Dyakowski's injury in the 101st Grey Cup, but Canada's Smartest Person returned late last year and looks to be ready to resume his old role at guard. The Cats started two Nationals along the line, so with Dyakowski back they can start three and problem solved, right?

Not so fast. Last year, after a disastrous Week 1 outing against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Ti-Cats made changes to their offensive line, one such move saw Brian Simmons move from tackle to guard. Simmons was named a division All-Star, should have been named a league All-Star and probably should have been the East Division nominee for Most Outstanding Lineman. CFL teams rarely start International interior offensive linemen, but rarely are they as talented as Simmons.

Sure, the team could move Simmons back to tackle, as he was excellent in the role as well, but that would then mean displacing one of the two man-mountains the team employs at tackle, Jake Olson (6'8", 315 lbs) or Joel Figueroa (6'6", 320 lbs.). While I am not as high on Olson as some, the former Central Michigan Chippewa did enough to warrant a second season to prove himself.

While I think replacing Olson with Simmons would work out just fine, I really do not like the idea of moving Simmons from guard back to tackle. This, however, might be the move the team has to make.

(3) Draft, and start, a rookie receiver

Many say that this year's draft is one of the most talented in years. One of the areas of strength is at the receiver position. LeMar Durant, Nic Demski and Addison Richards are all considered to be bright prospects and some even think they could start in Year 1. While drafting a receiver should be something Hamilton does, especially considering star slotback Andy Fantuz is in the final year of his contract, starting a rookie wideout is usually not a terribly good idea.

I don't think it is ridiculous to say that the aforementioned Fantuz was probably the most "pro-ready" receiver to come out of college but even he wasn't entirely ready to make significant contributions his rookie season. His 30 catches for 408 yards and three touchdowns didn't really wow anybody, and while Durant, Demski and Richards are enticing prospects, none of them are on the same level as Fantuz was coming out of Western.

While drafting one of the top receiver prospects is a solid idea on its own, it is not a good idea to expect one of them to come in and replace Watt in the starting lineup Week 1.

(4) Move Anthony Woodson to WR

This move might seem farfetched, but hear me out. The team signed Woodson to be a solid special teams contributor and a valuable Canadian asset, but it was unlikely that he was expected to see much time on offense, especially at running back (he was, in no way, jumping C.J. Gable, Nic Grigsby or Mossis Madu on the depth chart).

But during this week's mini-camp, Woodson has been working a bit at receiver and slotback. He also played a little there last year in Toronto after Andre Durie was injured. This means Woodson is not entirely unfamiliar with playing multiple receiver positions, so he could be a stop gap solution for the Ti-Cats in the wake of Watt's injury.

This is far from an ideal solution, but running backs have been converted into receivers in the past and had success. Durie might be the best example, but his current Argo teammate Anthony Coombs is making the transition and, going back a bit, former Tiger-Cat Archie Amerson became a darn good receiver after making the switch.

And Hamilton might consider this move to find a way to get Woodson onto the field, into the offense and replace Watt.

Hamilton is in a really unenviable position right now, trying to find a way to replace players who, especially in Watt's case, were going to be major contributors this season. Hopefully both will make a speedy recovery and we will see them in black and gold next year.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Chris Williams is Back in Black... and Red?

After two years of trying to find a job in the NFL, 2011 Most Outstanding Rookie and 2012 Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Chris Williams has returned to the CFL... with the Ottawa RedBlacks.

The RedBlacks announced this morning that they have inked the former all-star to a contract that will see him join a receiving corps that has the potential to be the league's deadliest.

Williams' signing is the latest in a long line of big free-agent splashes Ottawa made this offseason. They signed offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers, receivers Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli, while also trading for receiver Maurice Price. Ottawa went into the offseason looking to upgrade a league-worst offense and they have done just that. The addition of Williams now puts them in a very enviable position.

But with big signings comes big expectations, and the addition of former New Mexico State Aggie now puts even more pressure on a team that went just 2-16 during their inaugural season. For all of these moves to have been worth it, the RedBlacks MUST make the playoffs in 2015. Anything less, and heads will roll. There will be no excuses acceptable enough for ownership if Ottawa fails to be playing a game following the conclusion of the regular season.

Also, while Ottawa has done a tremendous job of upgrading their talent pool, they have spent a lot of money on very little production. Aside from Williams and Rogers, the rest of their acquisitions are long on potential, but short on actual results. Ellingson was on his way to a rookie of the year award in 2013 until injuries slowed him down. He also dealt with injuries in 2014, and it was his inability to stay on the field that ultimately led to his departure from Hamilton. Jackson had a great end to the 2014 season, but does one month of production mean he is ready to be the next Geroy Simon, or is he the next Chris Brazzell? Sinopoli accomplished very little during his time in Calgary, so who is to say he is ready to take a giant leap forward? Price looked poised to become Calgary's go-to guy, but injuries saw him lose his spot and he became expendable. The RedBlacks could possess the best receiving unit in the entire, but it is April and it all looks like upside at this time of year.

Another thing that cannot be overlooked is Williams' absence from the game. While he saw some playing time in the NFL, he hasn't really played all that much since the final game of the Tiger-Cats' 2012 season. It will be 966 days between CFL contests, and few players return from such an absence and regain their former form. None spring to mind off the top of my head, so while Williams could still produce over 1,000 yards receiving and double digit touchdowns, he would be bucking a trend.

That is not to say that this was a bad signing. Far from it. If Williams gets back to his 2012 form, the league needs to watch out. This guy can be a game breaker, and that type of talent doesn't come around very often. Williams could be the final piece to get the RedBlacks into the playoffs in Year 2.

As for the Tiger-Cat aspect, I bore no ill will towards Williams during his acrimonious split a few years ago and I bear no ill will now that he is in Ottawa. It is not like the team doesn't have an excellent returner/receiver already on the roster, and couple that with a pair of Grey Cup appearances, and I think the Ti-Cats are doing just fine.

Don't get me wrong, I would loved to have seen Williams back, but this isn't fantasy football, and employing both Brandon Banks and Chris Williams was never going to happen. And frankly, if Williams wasn't coming back here and was going to sign with an East Division team, I am happy it is Ottawa. Could you imagine how bad it would be if he *gulp* signed with the Argos?

Williams comes back to the CFL at a time when the game will be opening up for receivers and returners, so this might be the right time for him to make his return north of the board. He was an all-star receiver as well as an award-winning returner, so nabbing him to become the focal point of the offense was a good move by Ottawa.

Gifted, exciting players playing in the CFL makes the league better, and there are few more gifted or exciting than Chris Williams.

When a Cap Isn't a Cap

Late last week it was announced that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were the lone team to exceed the salary cap in 2014. This is Hamilton's first time over the cap, joining Winnipeg (2009) and Montreal (2007) as one-time offenders. The Saskatchewan Roughriders are the only other team to exceed the cap, having done so four times (2007, 2008, 2010, 2013) since its institution in 2007.

Now, the sum was small, but that still does not get the Ti-Cats off the hook for spending above the allowable amount. The team can say all they want about injuries and all-stars (and sure, going from zero league all stars in 2013 to three in 2014, and five division all-stars to 10, plus the slew of injuries probably did play a role), but it is still pretty inexcusable for the team to violate the league's cap.

But problem isn't just that teams go over; it is that they can go over in the first place. If the league wants to stop teams from going over, they should simply not let them. The NFL and NHL don't allow teams to exceed the cap, so the CFL could do the same. Otherwise, you will continue to see teams spend above the number. The penalties to do so, at least until you go $100,000 over, are simply not harsh enough. If the league really wants teams to not spend over the cap, either not allow them to or harshen the penalties. Neither one of those outcomes is likely, so where do we go from here?

And maybe we, as fans and followers of the CFL, need to change our attitudes towards the cap. For starters, we should probably stop referring to it as a salary cap. It isn't one. There is no cap on salaries in the CFL, similar to how there isn't one for NBA or MLB teams. Yes, there is a number in all three leagues that teams are not supposed to spend above, but all three leagues allow for teams to exceed that number provided they pay a penalty. When the Yankees or Lakers overspend, no one really kicks up much of a complaint. Sure, you get the outcry of them trying to buy a championship, but it isn't like the teams that overspend always win. In fact, only Saskatchewan has won the Grey Cup in a year they overspent, doing so twice (2007, 2013).

I am as guilty as anyone of ranting and raving when a team spends above the allowable amount, but perhaps I was wrong. Maybe we need to accept the CFL's Salary Management System for what it is (a luxury tax) and not what we want it to be (a hard cap) and start looking at it through an NBA or MLB lens as opposed to an NFL or NHL one.