The majority of the news coming out of the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks hasn’t been big-name signings, or outside free agents, but a focus on bringing in quality depth behind starters. Opting instead to build on a solid core, many of which already have a relationship built with head coach Bob Dyce, who was promoted after several years as a special teams coordinator. This is likely directly related to how last season went.
First, let’s look at the list of players that Ottawa has lost per CFL.ca’s free agent tracker:
LB Avery Williams released
QB Caleb Evans to Montreal
OL Darius Ciraco to Toronto
LS Louis-Philippe Bourassa to Montreal
DE Kwaku Boateng to Hamilton
LB Shaheed Salmon USFL Breakers
DB Antoine Pruneau retired
RB Brendan Gillanders retired
Still Free Agents:
WR Darvin Adams
WR Ryan Davis
WR RJ Harris
WR Shaquille Johnson
RB William Powell
OL Randy Richards
OL Ucambre Williams
DL Davon Coleman
Alright now that we have a good idea of which positions needed help let’s take a look at the names they have added in anticipation of the drafts. With wide receiver, offensive line, long snapper, and quarterback appearing to be a need.
Let’s look at the offensive line additions first:
OL Terran Vaughn, Saskatchewan
Terran Vaughn has spent three seasons with the Roughriders playing in a total of 32 games. Terran spent some time with the Colts early in his career, grading out fairly well overall but ultimately ending up released. He didn’t delay and headed to the CFL nearly right away. Beginning his time with the league in 2018, he didn’t play in 2021 due to injury but had developed into a solid piece of the Roughriders’ offensive line. He will attempt to help fill the shoes of Darius Ciraco who went championship-chasing in Toronto this offseason. With two more linemen on the market, I anticipate more moves on the offensive line.
RB Ante Milanovic-Litre, Edmonton
With the retirement of Brendan Gillanders, the Redblacks needed to bring someone in to help fill that role. That man ended up being Milanovic-Litre, whom they stole away from Edmonton. The former 4th round pick in 2017 stands 6’0 225 lbs and plays fullback/running back. After starting his career and spending 4 seasons with Calgary he moved on to Edmonton on a one-year deal in 2022.
Through five seasons he has collected 148 carries for 592 yards and 3 touchdowns, 41 receptions for 319 yards, 37 special teams tackles, 1 punt return, and 1 kick return. He is essentially a perfect replacement for the role Gillanders held while coming off of a career year in Edmonton. He managed 54 carries for 241 yards and 1 touchdown, 16 receptions for 89 yards, 9 tackles, and 1 kick return for 6 yards. He could develop a larger role on offense than Gillanders ever did, if William Powell doesn’t return it becomes even more likely. His viability on offense and special teams make him a very solid pick-up.
WR Shaq Evans, Saskatchewan
Selected in the 4th round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets in 2014, Evans has built a strong career north of the border after bouncing around the NFL for a few seasons. Evans has spent time with the Jets, Jaguars, Patriots, Cowboys, Roughriders, and now the Redblacks are his 6th franchise in 8 seasons. Along the way, he collected a CFL West All-Star, and CFL All-Star bid in 2019 on the strength of a 72-reception season. He managed 1,334 yards and 5 touchdowns, adding 3 carries for 12 yards as well. Since that season, however, over the past two seasons questions about drops have emerged.
Targeted 105 times in his last 17 games, he caught just 57 passes for 711 yards and 2 touchdowns. This is just a 54% catch rate. Evans is 31 years old and should be very happy with the career he has carved out despite it not being in the NFL. Hopefully, he can add to his legacy in 2023 with the Redblacks.
WR Lemar Durant, Hamilton
If Durant played in the NFL he likely would have been moved to tight end. Alas, this is the CFL, and he is allowed to stay at wide receiver as he is of the bigger bodies in the position. The 6’2 231-pound receiver who managed a 4.55 40-yard dash, 26 bench press reps, and a 36-inch vertical leap, saw interest from the Giants, and Seahawks initially but never was signed. He would go on to be selected in the second round by Calgary. He put up a strong preseason performance and latched on with the team.
Since that rookie season, Durant has dropped quite a bit of weight and now plays at 218 pounds. Spending four seasons in Calgary, two in BC, and then last season with Hamilton he has played in 85 games, collecting 195 receptions, 2,465 yards, and 14 touchdowns. Durant may not have the best hands in the world but holds a 66% career catch rate. He has had seasons in which he was targeted 87 times in 15 games, but he’s also had years like 2022. In 2022 with Hamilton he played in 11 games, seeing 20 targets a career low since he was a rookie. It will be interesting to see where and how he slots in this offense at 30 years old.
RB/WR DeMichael Harris
Harris is possibly the most intriguing addition this offseason. Harris came out of Southern Miss following the 2019 season. Having spent just two years at the school the 5’8 178 lb offensive weapon entered the 2020 NFL Draft following a 2019 season that saw him collect 147 touches for 887 yards and 8 touchdowns.
The former JUCO product who also ran track had shown enough that he had NFL interest and chose that rather than returning to school with the extra eligibility COVID provided. He would fall out of the draft, but sign with the Colts out of camp. Given the unique circumstances surrounding this season, he went from an undrafted rookie, and final cut/practice squad player, to going on to play in 7 games and playing 82 offensive snaps. In that short time on the field he managed to see 10 targets, he caught everyone, and 6 carries. He would collect 79 yards through the air, 46 yards on the ground, and 1 tackle while playing 27 special teams snaps.
Since then he spent the past two seasons trying to latch on long-term with the Colts. He just kept barely missing final cuts and ending up on the practice squad. Now he takes his game north, to a league that should suit his dual-threat ability well.
DL Michael Wakefield, Montreal
Wakefield is a defensive end on the field, weighing in at 6’3 268 pounds, he once entered the pro ranks over 20 pounds lighter. After a slow start in college, Wakefield put up two very solid seasons to close out his college career at Florida International University, collecting 81 tackles and 16 sacks. This led to some NFL interest, and he would spend the 2016 offseason with Washington attempting to make an impression. Ultimately he was released in the final cuts, and not re-signed to the practice squad.
He didn’t delay his CFL career as some players do. In 2017 he would sign with Ottawa for the first time where he would spend the 2017-2020 seasons. Following the COVID year, he signed with Montreal. Three seasons with Montreal later…he returns to where his CFL began. His time in Ottawa just so happened to coincide with new head coach Dyce joining the team as special teams coordinator in 2016. Wakefield left a lasting impression on Dyce after his time on his units, and now he looks to his damage for Dyce’s defense.
LB Jovan Santos-Knox, Hamilton
With the Redblacks releasing Avery Williams and losing Salmon to the USFL, it was expected that the Redblacks would address linebacker in free agency. We just weren’t exactly sure how. Now we know that they targeted Santos-Knox who was voted as a CFL East All-Star in 2022 for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. This came after playing in 17 games and collecting 105 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 interception. If you’re looking for a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, similar to an Avery Williams Santos-Knox certainly fits that bill.
The Redblacks needed to fix their run defense, a unit that was ranked 7th in every major category: yards per game (105.5), attempts per game (20.6), and touchdowns 22. Saying 7th out of 9 really doesn’t quite give you the full grasp on the defensive ineptitude in the run game. Three teams in the league allowed more than 14 touchdowns on the ground, all of which allowed 22 or more, only four teams allowed 100 yards or more per game, and only three teams were run against 20 times or more per game. Signing Santos-Knox is simply the first in many steps to dramatically improve in these three categories.
LB Gary Johnson Jr., Saskatchewan
If Santos-Knox is your Avery Williams, Johnson Jr. is your replacement for Shaheed Salmon. Salmon was never really a starting linebacker, however, he was a tremendously valuable role player, and special teams, contributor. His career mirrors Gary Johnson Jr. quite well:
Salmon has played 35 games collecting 27 defensive tackles, 27 special teams tackles, 1 interception, and 4 forced fumbles.
Johnson Jr. has played in 14 games so far in three seasons. He was able to collect 14 special teams tackles, 9 defensive tackles, and 1 sack.
The former Texas Longhorn had a highly productive final season in College and looked like he could be a valuable pass rusher, and an asset in run defense, that year he had 90 tackles, 16.5 for a loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 recovery. That’s a player worth bringing in to play special teams and see if he can help correct this run defense even if it’s just situationally.
DB Cariel Brooks, Hamilton
Brooks has spent is entire professional career playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Brooks has often times been the best defensive back on the field for Hamilton and he was a huge signing for Ottawa. Playing in 70 games for the Ti-Cats, Brooks intercepted 12 passes, and forced four fumbles, while amassing 205 tackles. Brooks originally signed with the Arizona Cardinals, where he bounced on and off the practice squad for two years.
He got his first opportunity in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts. Originally signed in March, he was released in June sitting on the open market for a little over a month until Hamilton signed him to their practice roster. During that 2017 season, he played in 11 games but flashed enough to earn another chance in 2018. He would have a career year collecting 57 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles. In 2019 he didn’t produce as many turnovers but he logged his first sack. After a season away due to COVID he returned in 2021 playing in just 12 games he collected his second sack and added 5 interceptions to his career total. A number that hasn’t moved since.
The Redblacks are taking a chance that the 31-year-old former CFL All-Star can return to form in 2021 after a down year in 2022. The bigger question with the veteran is: Can he stay healthy for a full season? If he can manage this alone he will likely be at least a short-term upgrade for Ottawa.
The Redblacks roster building this season is a stark contrast to the spending spree the team went on last off-season in what looked like a race to build a super team. Rather than going out and signing the best possible player at every position and spending endless amounts of money at each position, the Redblacks played it conservatively. Understanding they can add talent without having to overspend, they made smart, calculated decisions when it came to who to let go, and how to replace them so far. This off-season has to be considered a win so far for Ottawa, especially if Brooks can return to his 2021 All-Star form, and Santos-Knox can repeat his 2022 performance.
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