Featured image from Joshua O’Connor
The last three calendar years haven’t been too great for the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks, and thats on all aspects. In 2019, to kickoff the year, the Ottawa Redblacks lost star players Trevor Harris, William Powell, Diontae Spencer, Greg Ellingson, Sir Vincent Rogers, Kyries Hebert and Rico Murray to other teams. They were then forced to find replacements for each one of them and other players lost in free agency, however it wasn’t easy to do so. Their replacements started the 2019 CFL season strong, going 2-0, beating both the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders, but only won one of the next 16 games down the stretch. Ottawa went 3-15 in the 2019 CFL season, and missed the playoffs for the first time since their first season in the CFL back in 2014. It was a bad year for the Redblacks, and R-Nation was not thrilled at all.
Then move forward to 2020, it looked as if the Ottawa Redblacks finally had it all together, and were ready to get back into the hunt for a Grey Cup, having hired an experienced offensive head coach in Paul LaPolice and signing a young quarterback with a lot of potential in Nick Arbuckle. Unfortunately though, that new look that the Ottawa Redblacks brought in was never seen by the public. A global pandemic shut down the 2020 CFL season and created a lot of change. With some details in contracts having to be figured out, the Redblacks moved on from 26 year old quarterback Nick Arbuckle, and signed veteran quarterback Matt Nichols for the future. Arbuckle hadn’t even suited up in red and black for a CFL game yet, but the Redblacks were already moving on from him, and it doesn’t look like that was the right move. Nichols had a couple of good seasons with Paul LaPolice in Winnipeg, but the start to his season with the Redblacks in 2021 wasn’t anything close to those seasons he’s had in the past. He started the first four games of the season, completing 56 of 86 passes for 476 yards and threw three interceptions before being sidelined for Dominique Davis. Davis then played in three games, throwing for 674 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for a touchdown of his own prior to a hamstring injury which opened the door for young quarterbacks Caleb Evans and Devlin Hodges who may have futures in Ottawa.
2021 ended up being full of both positives and negatives for the Ottawa Redblacks, but with a 3-11 record to close out the season, and owning the second overall pick in the next draft, it looks to have had more negatives than positives. That makes up of three straight years of negativity for Ottawa Redblacks fans. A 3-15 season, a cancelled season and a 3-11 season. The goal is to flip it all around for the 2022 CFL season, to have a winning record and compete for the Grey Cup, but how will that be done?
Well, ownership has already started making changes by bringing in general manager Shawn Burke, and there has been a lot of players brought back from the 2021 season, but what still needs to be done, is bringing in a new look. The team that was in Ottawa for 2021 finished the season strong. It was filled with young talent in players like Caleb Evans, De’Lance Turner, Ryan Davis, DeVonte Dedmon, Jakub Szott, Dino Boyd, Praise Martin-Oguike, Kene Onyeka, and Brandin Dandridge that made an impact, and having those young players back in 2022 with the addition of proven veterans would be a recipe of success for the Ottawa Redblacks.
Some spots where the Redblacks can definitely improve in during the off-season for the 2022 season would be at the offensive line, receiver, and edge rusher positions. In 2021 Caleb Evans was a large bright spot for the Ottawa Redblacks. Coming in as a 23 year old, playing his first snaps of professional football, ending up winning his first start and throwing for 1,279 yards, running for 345 and scoring 8 offensive touchdowns in 7 starts. It would be a big decision, but maybe the best decision to build around him for the 2022 CFL season. Spending less money at the quarterback position would open up the opportunity to bring in better, and proven talent at the positions of need. First, Burke and his front office should think about bringing back pending free agents Mark Korte, Nolan MacMillan, Kenny Stafford, Nate Behar, R.J Harris, Avery Ellis, Micah Awe, Abdul Kanneh, Randall Evans and Don Unamba, but then also put together a list of free agents across the league that would fit well in Ottawa and make a splash in the nation’s capital.
Set to become a free agent in February around the league would be receivers Bryan Burnham, Duke Williams, Brandon Banks, Lucky Whitehead, Markeith Ambles, Ricky Collins Jr, Kenny Lawler, Darvin Adams, Steven Dunbar, Reggie Begelton, Josh Huff, Rasheed Bailey, DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Jake Wieneke, Greg Ellingson, and Kyran Moore. Each of those names, and some others would be big name pickups to add to the core Ottawa already has in place, and could have in place with R.J Harris, Ryan Davis, Jordan Smallwood, Nate Behar and Kenny Stafford. Offensive linemen Nolan MacMillan and Mark Korte are also pending free agents for the Redblacks, so bringing both of them back would be a great start for Shawn Burke’s rebuild of the offensive line. He can also sign offensive linemen Stanley Bryant, Brett Boyko, Tony Washington, Derek Dennis, Justin Renfrow, Kay Okafor, Josiah St John, Jemarcus Hardrick, Brandon Revenberg, Sean McEwen, Ryker Matthews, Cameron Jefferson and other CFL offensive linemen if they become available on February 8th when free agency opens.
The Ottawa Redblacks need to have players that help both Caleb Evans and De’Lance Turner for 2022 if those are the players they want in the backfield. Both of them shined when given a chance in 2021, but was hit hard with injuries and inconsistency up front to their offensive line. If they have a solid line in front of them, and if Evans has weapons around him, the young duo could have a very special season in 2022.
As for the defensive side of the ball. A lot went right in 2021. The defence played their hearts out every week of the 2021 CFL season and kept the team in games when the offence couldn’t. With Abdul Kanneh, Micah Awe, Don Unamba, Avery Ellis, Davon Coleman, Stefan Charles, Randall Evans and Antoine Pruneau’s contracts all expiring come February, there will be a lot of big decisions to make for Mike Benevides’ guys, but what decisions will be the right ones?
Every great defence needs a good pass rush, good linebacking support and a good backfield. Right now under contract is Praise Martin-Oguike, Cleyon Laing and Kene Onyeka on the line, Avery Williams, Shaheed Salmon, Dwayne Norman, Adam Auclair and Dan Basambombo at linebacker and Sherrod Baltimore, Brandin Dandridge, Ranthony Texada, and Treshaun Abrahams Webster in the backfield for the 2022 CFL season. As it stands, Shawn Burke has some work to do. He will need to ensure that the pass rush improves, while he adds towards the linebacking core and the secondary. Bringing back Micah Awe would be crucial for the linebacking core, as he and Avery Williams combined for 165 tackles in 2021. Both Abdul Kanneh and Randall Evans should also be considered as must re-signs for Burke after the impacts they both made in Ottawa in 2021, but there are also a number of free agents available for him to sign that can make the Redblacks team better on defence for 2022 that he may consider.
In February, pass rushers Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat are set to become free agents in Winnipeg. If they are not able to afford them both, one will be on the market for another CFL team to sign. Ottawa, with just 30 sacks in 2021 is in need of a pass rush that can support their secondary. One of the Bombers’ stars would be a big sign for the Redblacks, and as would be other pending free agents Kwaku Boateng of Edmonton, David Menard of Montreal, A.C Leonard of Saskatchewan, Shawn Lemon of Calgary and Cordarro Law of Toronto.
Linebackers Jameer Thurman and Darnell Sankey are to be free agents from the Calgary Stampeders, while Toronto’s Henoc Muamba, Dexter Mcoil, and Cameron Judge, Hamilton’s Simoni Lawrence and Jevon Santos Knox, Winnipeg’s Adam Bighill and Kevin Brown, Saskatchewan’s Larry Dean, Deon Lacey and the Herdman twins all become free agents as well alongside Elks’ Derrick Moncrief. Linebacker is not a place of need for the Redblacks if they lock up Micah Awe, as they would still have Avery Williams, Jerod Fernandez, Adam Auclair, Shaheed Salmon and Dwayne Norman with him, however without Awe one or two of those names should be on a whiteboard at TD Place with a circle around it.
At defensive back, like the linebacking core, if everyone is re-signed, it is not a place of need, but with Abdul Kanneh, Don Unamba, Randall Evans and Antoine Pruneau still unsigned, it wouldn’t hurt to look at some playmakers like Jonathan Rose, Tunde Adeleke, Royce Metchie, DaShaun Amos, Mercy Maston, Alden Darby, Robertson Daniel, and Jonathan Moxey in free agency. Sherrod Baltimore and Brandin Dandridge who are already under contract for 2022 are proven playmakers in Ottawa and can be lock down cornerbacks, but you need more than two good backs in the CFL, as it is a passing league.
2021 officially comes to an end tonight, and 2022 will begin on Saturday. It has been a tough couple of years from 2019 through 2021, but will 2022 be any different? A few decisions from the front office will decide exactly that very soon.