Less than two months until CFLFA, what has to be done in Ottawa before the market opens

Last off-season, during CFL Free Agency, the Ottawa Redblacks were very active and a lot changed in the nation’s capital. From the front office itself, with the general manager hiring of Shawn Burke, all the way down to the signings of big time players like Jeremiah Masoli, Jaelon Acklin and Lorenzo Mauldin, the Redblacks very clearly got better during the off-season last year. With Free Agency opening up once again in less than two months on February 14th, there’s a lot of questions surrounding the Redblacks and how they will approach the market after they were so aggressive last year.

One difference between this year’s off-season compared to last year will come from the coaching perspective. On December 2nd the team announced that they hired special teams coordinator Bob Dyce as their next head coach. Since then, Burke and the rest of the front office have focused well on bringing back the special teams unit from the 2022 season. They’ve already re-signed both Richie Leone and Lewis Ward, everybody’s favourite kicking duo in the CFL, as well as Ty Cranston, Marco Dubois, Jackson Bennett, Nigel Romick and Justin Howell, who, all Canadians, can play special teams. To continue to re-sign the special teams unit, some players that are still un-signed that have proven themselves on the special teams unit in Ottawa, and in their respective positions would be both DeVonte Dedmon and Shaheed Salmon. Dedmon should be a no-brainer for the Redblacks to bring back, and to prioritize. He was unbelievable in 2021 when he won the CFL’s special teams player of the year award, and broke a record for the fastest player to reach 5 kick return touchdowns in just 15 games. After getting him back from the NFL where he spent time with the Miami Dolphins, the Redblacks should never let him walk to another CFL team. With receivers Ryan Davis, Darvin Adams, Tevaun Smith, Shaquille Johnson, RJ Harris and Nate Behar all hitting the open market if not re-signed, Dedmon can also play a large role on the Redblacks offence for new offensive coordinator Khari Jones.

Like Dedmon, Shaheed Salmon has been a big playmaker for Bob Dyce’s special teams unit since he came to Ottawa in 2019, but in 2022 he also proved himself as a linebacker. In 2019 and 2021 he mainly played special teams, making 12 special teams stops and forcing two fumbles in just 17 games, but in 2022 he made 23 defensive tackles, 15 special teams tackles and forced three turnovers, including an interception from his linebacker position. While he has played lights out on special teams, with a new regime on defensive with coordinator Barron Miles coming in, the Redblacks should bring back Salmon to play a large role on defence as well.

Speaking of defence… there are some big decisions to be made by Shawn Burke and the front office when it comes to what looked to be the Redblacks best unit in 2022.

The biggest name of them all would be Lorenzo Mauldin. He was the defensive player of the year in 2022, and the Redblacks most outstanding player. There is no doubt that he will be searching a big contract following a 17 sack season, and the major question that Redblacks fans want to know would be, “will that contract come from Ottawa?” But unfortunately there is no telling what the answer would be. The Redblacks have 31 other free agents that they will have to make decisions with, and while Mauldin may be coming off of a big season, and fans don’t want to see him walk, there are other options that the Redblacks do have. As pass rushers the Redblacks’ free agent list also has the names of Kwaku Boateng, and Praise Martin-Oguike on it, along with interior linemen Cleyon Laing and Davon Coleman. In 2022 Kwaku Boateng did not play, but was one of the big free agency acquisitions that the Redblacks made in attempts to improve the defence. Praise Martin-Oguike had 3 sacks and a forced fumble in just 9 games played this season in limited action, giving him a total 7 sacks in 18 games with the Redblacks over two seasons. Mauldin of course will be plan A for the Redblacks when it comes to their pass rushers, but with others hitting the market, and the salary cap in mind, a plan B may be in mind as well in the capital.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, star linebacker Avery Williams is also a pending free agent, alongside the entire secondary. Sherrod Baltimore, Brandin Dandridge, Money Hunter, Abdul Kanneh, Antoine Pruneau and Damon Webb are all set to hit the market on February 14th. Of course, there are still some defensive backs on the roster. Some younger guys like Alonzo Addae, Hakeem Bailey, Douglas Coleman and Darius Williams may find themselves in larger roles come 2023, and with Justin Howell and Ty Cranston also brought back, they may see the defensive playing field more, but with big names on the Redblacks list of free agents, there are some decisions to make. Baltimore is a fan favourite around the city, and really came on for the 2022 CFL season, making several pass breakups, and making plays when the defence needed them. Going into the 2023 season, with a new coaching staff, bringing back Baltimore would do the team a lot of good to keep familiarity, and a proven player in the secondary. Two other players that would bring that would be Dandridge and Hunter. Money Hunter comes off of a 4 interception season where he didn’t even play the entirety of the season but found himself tied for third with the league lead of interceptions. With a bit of time spent with Barron Miles in Montreal it would make sense to see Hunter back in Ottawa for 2023, and it would also make sense to see Brandin Dandridge back as well.

Dandridge’s case is very similar to DeVonte Dedmon’s. He was very close to making it onto the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs roster during the NFL pre-season, and ended up coming back to Ottawa. Unless they are losing him to an NFL team, with the big play potential he has on the defensive side of the ball, the Redblacks would look silly if they let Dandridge walk and make plays against them in 2023.

As mentioned, Abdul Kanneh, Antoine Pruneau and Damon Webb are also among the Redblacks free agents. All three made large impacts for the Redblacks in 2022, and can all be seen brought back, especially Kanneh and Pruneau given their familiarity and veteran presence while still being able to play at a high level, but right now with the long list of free agents, its unsure where they would play in Miles’ system with all of the uncertainty around other positions as well.

While the defence will be figured out, and pieced together to fit Barron Miles’ system, the offence will have to be pieced together now for Khari Jones’ system as well.

Jones was the head coach and play caller of the Montreal Alouettes over three seasons. He saw a lot of success with Vernon Adams in his system, and with Jeremiah Masoli in Ottawa, with a similar playing style as Adams, Jones’ offence may work very well in the nation’s capital, but it needs to be complete. Going into Free Agency, the Redblacks’ offence has Jeremiah Masoli, Tyrie Adams and Dustin Crum under contract at quarterback, running backs Devonte Williams and Jackson Bennett (re-signed) under contract, receivers Jaelon Acklin, Siaosi Mariner, Justin Hardy, Quan Bray, Marco Dubois (re-signed), Keaton Bruggeling, Savon Carver and Tyrice Richie under contract and offensive linemen Dino Boyd (re-signed), Jacob Ruby, Zack Pelehos, Uzoma Osuji, Cyrille Hogan-Saindon and Justice Powers all locked up for 2023, so there is a good start at least to the off-season, but with a lot of pieces still left for the puzzle there will clearly be some work to do in the front office. Among all of the free agents ready to hit the market from Ottawa, some that the Redblacks should make efforts to bring back would definitely include offensive linemen Hunter Steward and Darius Ciraco, and receivers Darvin Adams, Ryan Davis, and at least two of the three Canadian playmakers, Nate Behar, Shaq Johnson and Tevaun Smith.

With 31 free agents ready to hit the market still from Ottawa, it is clear there is a lot of work to do in the front office to flip the organization from 4-14 to a successful 2023 campaign. It won’t all be done via re-signing players, but as Free Agency opens on February 14th, expect the Redblacks to go after talent across the CFL to get better.

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