After the 2020 CFL season was canceled due to COVID-19, the 2021 season is set to start Aug. 5. The 2021 season will be abbreviated to 14 games instead of the usual 18, however, for the players, fans, and the league, the return of the CFL is a dream come true. For fans in the nation’s capital, they cannot wait for a chance to get the poor taste of 2019 out of their mouths.
The Redblacks finished the 2019 season with a 3-15 record, worst in the East Division. Their lackluster season was caused by several factors including a quarterback carousel, plenty of injuries, an offensive coordinator by committee, and a conflict between head coach Rick Campbell – who has been the coach since day one in 2014 – and general manager Marcel Desjardins among other things.
Before the 2019 season, the Redblacks made three Grey Cup championships from 2015-2019 and they won one in November 2016, beating the favoured Calgary Stampeders 39-33 in an overtime thriller.
How will they do this season after an extended break? First, let’s take a look at notable free-agent acquisitions, recent draft picks, and players who retired, traded, or signed elsewhere in free agency.
The Redblacks did lose several veteran players like wide receiver Brad Sinopoli, defensive lineman Ettore Lattanzio, offensive linemen Alex Mateas and Jason Lauzon-Séguin all to retirement. Evan Johnson was also traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. These players all played key roles in the Redblacks’ Grey Cup win and their three appearances.
However, the Redblacks added a lot of talent in the previous offseasons and drafts. Wide receiver Jalen Saunders – who is now on the retired list after being in a car accident in May 2021 – recorded 1,170 yards and four touchdowns for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2017, which was his best season in the league thus far. He will likely be able to play at some point this season, although he likely won’t be healthy for the season opener.
Grey Cup Champion quarterback Matt Nichols who was signed by the Redblacks in January of 2021 to replace Nick Arbuckle will likely start the season under center. Nichols is an excellent quarterback who is patient, has good pocket awareness, a strong arm, is accurate, and doesn’t make many mistakes.
Finally, the Redblacks also added ex. NFLers like Brandon Hitner to strengthen their offensive line and cornerback Dominique Hatfield to add to a secondary consisting of Sherrod Baltimore and Antoine Pruneau among many other notable names.
In addition, they also drafted pretty well in both 2020 and 2021 selecting guys like defensive backs Adam Auclair – brother of Super Bowl 55 champion Antony Auclair – and Alonzo Addae, defensive linemen Michael Hoecht and Reshann Davis, offensive linemen Jakub Szott, Connor Berglof, and Matthew Derks and linebacker DeShawn Stevens among others.
The Redblacks drafted pretty well and addressed some major weak spots like their defensive line, linebacker core, and their offensive line but should have probably drafted a few offensive skill players like wide receivers, slot receivers, and running backs in 2020 and 2021.
But, the Redblacks are starting to look more dangerous on offense. They are adding more skill players onto their roster through free agency and trades. Their running back core consists of Brendan Gillanders, Anthony Coombs, and Timothy Flanders. These guys aren’t exactly household names yet but have the potential to develop their talent with time and reps.
Their receiver core consists of R.J Harris, Nate Behar, Devonte Dedmon -who had a career year in 2019-, and Anthony Coombs. Throw in Jalen Saunders – who is a weapon when healthy – and QB Matt Nichols will have a lot of options to throw to this coming season. Saunders and Coombs, who is a deadly pass-catcher out of the backfield, will add a lot to the Redblacks’ passing game after the organization did not address the position in the last two drafts. Also, the young guys like Dedmon will only get better as time goes on.
Not to mention, the Redblacks still boast an offensive line with a lot of talent. A lot of key players like Jon Gott, Jason Lauzon-Séguin, and Alex Mateas have all retired and Evan Johnson was traded to Saskatchewan but they still have talent and depth with guards Nolan MacMillan and Jakub Szott, and tackles Mark Korte and Na’Ty Rodgers. The only glaring hole is at center after Mateas retired, but one of the guards will likely shift over to center at training camp. The Redblacks have a lot of talent and depth on the o-line, someone will fill the hole at the center position.
When the Redblacks’ offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo left the team in April 2019 to pursue an opportunity in the XFL after the Redblacks prevented him from the opportunity to interview for head coach, the team was forced to go with an offensive coordinator by committee which alongside the QB carousel, caused the lackluster performance in 2019. Offensive-minded Paul LaPolice – who has shown he can run an excellent offense in his stint at OC in Winnipeg – will call the offense as well as having the head coach responsibilities. This will significantly improve the Redblacks’ offensive production, efficiency and keep drives alive.
This is a young team, especially on offense. According to Oddsshark, the Redblacks are the worst-rated offense in the CFL. With so much youth, it will take time for this offense to develop into a threat for opposing defenses, however, this is a group with a lot of talent and potential and is very well-coached. It can exceed expectations.
Under new management by recently hired head coach Paul LaPolice – who has two Grey Cups on his resume as an assistant coach and after a long hiatus – the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19 – there will be some bug fixes and areas of struggle that need improvement throughout the season. The team will not be perfect. But they have a lot of potential to be a playoff contender and the talent to do so as well.
The Redblacks are not new to overcoming adversity, and neither is LaPolice who has a very long and impressive resume.
According to Oddshark, the Redblacks are also the worst defensive team in the CFL. However, these numbers are from the 2019 season where they struggled immensely in almost every major category. They ranked last in yards against per game with 415.4 and points allowed per game with 31.3. Not only could they not stop their opponents on offense, but they also struggled to take the ball away and disrupt their opponents’ rhythm finishing last in the league with only 12 interceptions and second last in the league with 28 sacks.
This defensive core has a lot of talent and has gone through a major overhaul since we’ve last seen them take the field. It is also well-coached and they’ve adapted their scheme to better fit the personnel they have.
Their defensive line, secondary and linebacker core all boast a lot of talent and have developed chemistry together at training camp this summer.
The Redblacks will now run a base 4-3 defensively and their front seven has the talent and athleticism to cause opposing offensive lines a lot of nightmares if they get going.
Veteran Avery Ellis is back with the team at defensive end alongside Frank Beltre. They both can rush the passer, get off blocks and stop the run. Davon Coleman brings a high football IQ and a veteran presence to the defensive tackle spot and Cleyon Laing is a veteran with NFL experience, quickness, strength, and excellent burst off the line.
The Redblacks have a lot of depth at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker with guys like Avery Williams, Adam Auclair, Jerod Fernandez among others but will have to show that their depth can be used to generate sacks and turnovers as well as limit the opposing team’s rush offense; something they were unable to do effectively and consistently in 2019. Their slot linebacker spot needs to be addressed before the season starts, either by trade, a free agent signing, or one of their faster middle or weakside linebackers could transfer to slot linebacker to cover faster slot receivers.
Their secondary is also filled with talent and could surprise a lot of people this year. Their cornerback room is filled with experienced leaders like Randall Evans and De’Chavon Hayes on the outside and Sherrod Baltimore and Corey Tindall in the slot. Their safety group is also quite notable with longtime Redblack Antoine Pruneau and Justin Howell playing free and strong safety respectively. This group has caused a lot of havoc for many CFL offenses in years prior and can again this season.
This defense could be a top 3 unit this season led by veteran defensive coordinator Mike Benevides who previously had success during stops in Edmonton and BC. This defense is talented on paper from top-to-bottom, the question is will they be able to produce more than they did in 2019 and get crucial stops for their team.
Not to mention the Redblacks have one of the best special teams units in the entire league. Placekicker Lewis Ward is one of, if not the best, placekickers in the CFL. Between 2018 and 2019, Ward set a professional football (includes both CFL and NFL) record with 69 consecutive field goals made. The previous record was Adam Vinatieri with 44. He finished the 2018 season making 51/52 field goals, registering an outstanding 98.08 percent efficiency, and has the longest field goal in Ottawa football history (Redblacks, Renegades, and Roughriders) with a 56-yard boot in a 33-12 loss against the Tiger-Cats in October 2019.
Also, Richie Leone is an incredible punter who can always help out his defense by flipping the field. In 2019, when the offense could hardly ever get going, he punted 132 times totaling 5179 yards, averaging 48.4 yards per punt.
Finally, Devonte Dedmon is a threat on both the punt and kick returns, with his speed, agility, explosiveness, and elusiveness. In 2019, he returned 38 punts and kickoffs, collecting 881 total yards and two TDs. That’s beyond impressive. In 2021, he will only improve his skill set and production.
To conclude, after evaluating their roster, coaching staff, notable trade and free-agent additions, draft picks, and departures, let’s take a look at their schedule for the 2021 season and predict their record.
Their schedule is interesting as they have two of their three byes before week eight. That’s not ideal in a normal season but perhaps in a condensed 14 game season with a diminished training camp and no preseason games to scout young talent and make any final roster and schematic changes, it will give LaPolice and his staff time to adapt and make any necessary adjustments to the scheme or the roster.
Their week 15 bye will be crucial to rest up for a potential playoff run or a week 16 matchup against the Montreal Alouettes which could play a role in who wins the East Division and the East Division standings.
The Redblacks do not play an East Division opponent until a week five clash with the Alouettes but they will finish their season playing seven of their last nine games against East Division rivals. Even if they start their season slowly, they have the chance to control their own destiny entering the playoffs.
They will open the season in Edmonton against the Edmonton Elks and will faceoff against many familiar faces like quarterback Trevor Harris, wide receiver Greg Ellingson, and Elks’ head coach Jamie Elizondo. They will be looking to start the season strong with a win to put the rest of the league on notice.
Their home opener will be in week three against the BC Lions. It will be the first live sporting event with fans (except the Ottawa BlackJacks) since the Ottawa Senators played the New York Islanders at the Canadian Tire Center on March 5, 2020. R-Nation will surely mark their calendars for that day.
The Redblacks play six games against the West Division. They will play twice against the Elks, twice against the BC Lions, once against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and once against the Calgary Stampeders.
They play eight games against their East Division rivals. They will play the Alouettes four times, the Toronto Argonauts twice, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats twice.
They will not play the defending Grey Cup Champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers unless they meet in the playoffs.
I believe the Redblacks will finish 8-6, for second place in the East Division behind Hamilton, and make the playoffs. They will meet the Elks in the East Semifinal game, where they lose a thriller.
This will be a very interesting season for the Redblacks. Coming off a lackluster 2019 season, they have limited expectations to be successful but they possess the talent on both sides of the ball to be a playoff team. I am very excited to see it all unfold.