February 17, 2011
For most CFL teams, making one big splash in free agency is enough. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats certainly did that Wednesday, luring import running back Avon Cobourne away from Montreal with a reported $125,000 deal and also signing import defensive back Daniel Francis. However, general manager Bob O'Billovich didn't stop there; the team went on to sign import linebacker Renauld Williams and Canadian offensive lineman Wayne Smith, both former Saskatchewan Roughriders. Today, the Tiger-Cats continued their spree of acquisitions, bringing in Canadian fullback/running back and former Hec Crighton winner Daryl Stephenson (pictured above carrying the ball against Hamilton Aug. 7) from Winnipeg.
In some quarters, this sort of heavy activity in the free agency market might be seen as odd, especially for a team that did pretty well last season. The Tiger-Cats weren't the most consistent team, finishing 9-9 and losing to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, but they did wind up second in the East Division and showed flashes of being able to challenge Montreal. Moreover, as Perry Lefko points out, they haven't exactly had the best track record with big-name free agents (Casey Printers, anyone?). Free agency involves plenty of risk, and the Cobourne signing in particular could go badly wrong; they're paying big money to a 32-year-old back and likely dumping a man (DeAndra Cobb) who picked up almost 200 more rushing yards last season.
From another standpoint, though, there's plenty of method in the madness. Steve Milton and Drew Edwards of The Hamilton Spectator both have good takes on the Tiger-Cats' moves so far. Milton's focus is on how the depth Hamilton stockpiled before free agency made some of their departing guys, like Chris Bauman and Jermaine Reed, quite expendable. That allowed them more room to go after potential upgrades in free agency. Edwards sees the addition of Cobourne as providing leadership and an ability to run the ball consistently, which Cobb wasn't always the best at; he also views Williams as a way for the team to get younger in the linebacking corps, likely replacing Otis Floyd as the starting middle linebacker.
It's up for debate if all of Hamilton's moves are really upgrades (and the loss of players like Geoff Tisdale could come back to haunt them), but they're definitely trying to put some pieces in place to challenge Montreal for East supremacy. Despite delivering promising moments at times, the status quo didn't get that done, so making some moves might be a good idea. However, in a league that sees plenty of change from year to year, there's no guarantee that the Tiger-Cats will even be able to hang on to their place in the East's pecking order. With a resurgent Toronto and a Winnipeg team that was better than their 4-14 record last year, Hamilton will have plenty of competition to deal with.
Meanwhile, after a quiet start to the free agency period, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are beginning to make moves of their own. Today, they signed non-import offensive lineman George Hudson, a 34-year-old who spent the last five years with Hamilton. Hudson's a long-time CFL veteran, starting his career with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2000 and joining the Ottawa Renegades in 2002 before heading to Hamilton. He struggled with injuries last season, but can be effective when healthy, and the offensive line is one of the best places to have CFL veterans in place; so much of successful line play is about cohesion and communication rather than raw talent, and the Riders should be able to develop that pretty easily with all the experience they have up front. Moreover, they now have three guys who started on Hamilton's offensive line in 2009; Hudson, Dan Goodspeed and Alex Gauthier (who the Riders grabbed off waivers before free agency started). The experience those guys have playing together should definitely help build some chemistry up front.
The Riders also made another intriguing addition Thursday, bringing in import defensive back John Eubanks (pictured at right covering Saskatchewan's Chris Getzlaf in a Nov. 7, 2009 game). After a successful college career with the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, Eubanks went on to a stint with the NFL's Washington Redskins. He then joined Winnipeg as a free agent in 2009, was cut by them and later signed with Calgary. Eubanks put up 36 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble in 11 games for the Stampeders, but apparently wasn't brought back by them for 2010. Part of that's probably thanks to the incredible talent Calgary had in the secondary last season, particularly with league all-star corners Dwight Anderson and Brandon Browner (who have both since left Calgary, for Montreal and Seattle respectively). Still, Eubanks doesn't seem to have been able to catch on in the CFL during 2010; it's unclear if he played football anywhere else (if he did, his Wikipedia page doesn't have it). He's only 27, so he definitely has time to make an impact still; we'll see if he does that in Saskatchewan.
Out east, the Montreal Alouettes continued to make splashes of their own Thursday. They stole the free agency headlines on Day One with the acquisition of Anderson (which led to some pretty humourous comments from Cobourne on Twitter and some even better responses from Anderson). As I said in an interview on Calgary's FAN 960 yesterday, I think Anderson's going to be a huge addition for Montreal's secondary, which was one of the team's biggest weaknesses last year.
Day Two's moves by Montreal weren't quite as grandiose, but they're still notable. The Als brought back import linebacker Ramon Guzman and added two free agents, import running back Yvenson Bernard (from Winnipeg) and Canadian safety Tad Crawford (from B.C.). Those look like further solid decisions from Alouettes' general manager Jim Popp. Crawford should further shore up the Montreal secondary. Bernard didn't get many carries in Winnipeg last year behind Fred Reid, but he averaged an impressive 6.3 yards per rush on 53 attempts in 2009. He also had a great college career at Oregon State, and he's only 26. At worst, he'll be a solid addition to the depth they have at running back; at best, he might make the decision to part ways with Cobourne look like an awfully good one.