The Ottawa Redblacks are entering 2022 having won only three of 14 games last season and six games in their last 32 in the last two seasons.
The Redblacks struggled significantly on both sides of the ball all season, particularly on the offensive line, at wide receiver, and at QB. The offensive line should be their biggest priority in free agency and in the 2022 draft – in which they have the second overall pick – especially with several of their offensive linemen like Nolan MacMillan and Mark Korte entering free agency.
After releasing Dominique Davis on January 13, the Redblacks signed former Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ QB Jeremiah Masoli on February 4. He spent most of his nine-year CFL career as a backup but since taking over the starting job for the Tiger-Cats in 2017 until he got injured in week seven of 2019, he has proven to be a talented dual-threat QB, who is very reliable for his team, and has proven the ability to lead his team to victories. He split time with Dane Evans in 2021 after the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19. In 12 games played in 2021, he completed 188/271 passes for 2445 yards, 10 TDs, and six INTs. He was very good in the Grey Cup, coming in relief of the injured Dane Evans, completing 20/25 passes for 185 yards, two TDs, and one INT despite not getting the start after a lackluster performance in the first quarter of the East Final.
Masoli should help solidify the Redblacks’ young QB room consisting of Caleb Evans, Devlin Hodges, and Taryn Christion. Matt Nichols is currently with the team, but his future is unknown.
The Redblacks’ wide receiver room could look very different in 2022. Kenny Stafford was released in January, Devonte Dedmon was released to pursue NFL opportunities, and R.J. Harris is a free agent and hasn’t resigned yet. However, the Redblacks resigned Nate Behar, an essential part of the Redblacks’ receiving core.
Let’s take a look at some free-agent wide receivers. Four names stand out in particular. Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ standouts Kenny Lawler and Darvin Adams, Hamilton Tiger Cats’ Jaelon Acklin, and Edmonton Elks’ Greg Ellingson.
Lawler was a factor in the Blue Bombers’ back-to-back Grey Cups alongside WRs Nic Demski and Darvin Adams, RB Andrew Harris, and QB Zach Collaros who will get paid this offseason. Lawler was a workhorse in 2021, catching 64 passes for 1014 yards and six TDs. He contributed a lot of big plays downfield and was also a factor in the short and intermediate passing game. He was excellent on second downs, converting for a first down more often than not. He has a good burst off the line, is very fast and agile, can break tackles with ease, is a great route-runner, has tremendous hands, and can always seem to get open.
Darvin Adams is also a dynamic receiver that contributed to his team’s both Grey Cup runs. 2018 was his best season where he had 61 receptions for 1028 yards and 10 TDs, but he was still productive in 2021 where he recorded 26 receptions for 441 yards and four TDs in 11 games. He is speedy and has a great burst off the line, is a great route runner, and is a talented outside receiver. He has the height to win 50-50 balls downfield and great hands to make contested catches and has the footwork to maneuver down the sideline. He’d be an asset to the Redblacks.
Jaelon Acklin is another fantastic option and has officially signed a deal with the Redblacks. He is a young receiver with a lot of potential. Last season, he caught 50 passes for 678 yards and four TDs. Almost a third of his yards (199) came after the catch. He is very fast, excels at getting open and separating from defenders. He is a solid route runner and has very good hands. He gets a lot of volume on offense and can always be counted on to make a big play, whether it is a first down, a touchdown, or a big play downfield. Once he has the ball, he has great field vision, can find holes to run through, and is extremely elusive. He can break tackles and avoid defenders for big plays downfield. He is a tremendous addition to the Redblacks, especially with Jeremiah Masoli – his QB in Hamilton – throwing him the ball, and will provide the big plays the offense needs.
Greg Ellingson would also be a great fit in Ottawa and has spent half of his career as a Redblack. While a return isn’t the most likely scenario, it is not farfetched either. In the last two seasons with the Elks, he recorded 133 receptions for 1857 yards and six TDs. In 2021, he had 47 receptions, for 687 yards and one TD in 10 games. Despite being 33, Ellingson has shown very few signs of slowing down. Ellingson was one of the few bright spots on a rather poor Elks’ offense in 2021. Despite not having the best year statistically, he shined no matter what QB was under center. He is still a perennial 1000 yard receiver, hitting the milestones five seasons in a row (2015-19). He is not only a tremendous receiver, with incredible route running, great hands, the ability to get open, make contested catches, shed tackles, and avoid defenders, but he is also a leader and a mentor to the younger guys. He would be a great addition to the Redblacks.
Montreal Alouettes star slot receiver Jake Wieneke, Saskatchewan Roughriders’ D’Haquille ‘Duke’ Williams, and Calgary Stampeders’ Kamar Jorden have all been re-signed by their respective teams but any of those guys would improve the Redblacks’ receiving core immensely if they decide to trade for them.
Wieneke had a dynamic season for the Alouettes in 2021 with 898 yards and 11 TDs – the most in the CFL – on 56 catches. He has incredible hands, is a great route runner, very reliable in the red zone, and is a monster in yards after the catch.
Before getting a chance in the NFL, Williams tore up the CFL in 2018, leading the league in both receiving yards (1579) and TDs (11). He is a great receiver with his downfield speed and great route-running.
Kamar Jorden had a great season for the Stampeders. He is a dynamic wide receiver and has the height to win 50-50 balls downfield and is very sure-handed. He can make big catches whenever his team needs him. He recorded 53 receptions, 767 yards, and four TDs in 2021.
Any of these free agents would be a huge addition to the Redblacks’ offense. But signing or trading for more than one talented receiver would work wonders for this offense. They would fit in well with R.J. Harris, Nate Behar, Terry Williams, and Daniel Petermann, among others.
Let’s take a look at the offensive line now. Offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan – a Grey Cup Champion in 2016 and an East Division all-star in 2019 – and Mark Korte are both free agents. Korte is likely not coming back after rejecting $200,000 to stay, but MacMillan still is a possibility.
There aren’t a lot of big-name free-agent offensive linemen available for the Redblacks to sign, but there are still are quite a few reliable linemen with talent. A few talented offensive linemen that are available include B.C Lions’ Hunter Steward or Peter Godber, Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Tavita Eli – who was an anchor in both Grey Cup Championships and helped contribute to Andrew Harris’ rushing title in 2019, – Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Cameron Jefferson, Calgary Stampeders’ Justin Lawrence, and Montreal Alouettes’ Mathieu Gerard. The Redblacks could also resign Nolan MacMillan and Tyler Catalina.
Another route the Redblacks could take is to trade for an offensive lineman. Blue Bombers’ Stanley Bryant, Tiger-Cats Brandon Revenberg, and Stampeders’ physical and agile center Sean McEwen have all been resigned but the Redblacks could be willing to part ways with some draft capital or players in positions they have extra depth at to improve their offensive line.
There are also a lot of very skilled offensive linemen in the 2022 draft, two of which are ranked one of the 10 best players in the draft like Zach Fry from Western University and Noah Zerr from the University of Saskatchewan.
The Redblacks are solid at the runningback position with Brendan Gillanders and Timothy Flanders as their physical, powerful, downhill runners and Anthony Coombs as your second-down back, who catches passes out of the backfield. They have also brought back Roughriders’ running back William Powell, who spent three fantastic seasons with the Redblacks from 2015-17. In that span, he recorded 2835 rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs and was a factor in the receiving game too. He only got better in Saskatchewan, recording 1826 rush yards and 15 rushing TDs (including a career-high 12 in 2019). He will provide a spark to the Redblacks’ rushing attack and make this offense more dynamic and two-dimensional.
However, if the Redblacks get the chance to sign another free agent running back to make their offense even more dynamic like Blue Bombers’ RB Andrew Harris – a Grey Cup MVP and a powerhouse, downfield runner with speed, power, and ability to break tackles, – Tiger Cats’ Jackson Bennett, an ex Ottawa Gee-Gee, or Tiger Cats’ Sean Thomas Erlington, the Redblacks have to pounce on it.
The Redblacks’ defense was solid last season despite their 3-11 record. Their offense struggled a lot because their offensive line could not block; they gave up 53 sacks, the most in the CFL. As a result, the QBs had no time to throw and the receivers had no time to run their routes and get open. As a result, the offense went two and out a lot and the defense was on the field for the majority of every game, which is why they gave up so many points.
The Redblacks are pretty loaded in the secondary with guys like Abdul Kanneh, Justin Howell, Antoine Pruneau, Randall Evans, Sherrod Baltimore, De’Chayvon Hayes among many other young guys. If they do sign someone to add depth to the secondary, Trumaine Washington would be a great fit. He excelled in the otherwise poor Elks’ secondary leading the league with five interceptions, one of which returned for a TD and he is physical and good in man coverage. He would be a good fit in the Redblacks’ secondary reuniting with DC Mike Benevides, who used to coach in Edmonton.
However, they ranked in the bottom three in the CFL in sacks, only registering 30. If they can add another linebacker or defensive lineman, it would help increase the productivity of their pass rush and help cause more turnovers to help out their young offense. Tiger Cats’ DL Ja’Garred Davis – a run-stopping machine who can also rush the passer recording 39 tackles and six sacks in 2021, – Stampeders’ LB Darnell Sankey and Elks’ Kwaku Boateng – who would be a great fit in Ottawa because he would re-unite with DC Mike Benevides – among others are great options to add to the Redblacks’ already strong front seven consisting of Avery Williams, Nigel Romick, Frank Beltre and Cleyong Laing that is well-coached under DC Mike Benevides.
The Redblacks have a lot of work to do this offseason, in free agency – which officially begins on February 8 – and in the 2022 draft, but if they can address their major needs at OL, WR, and DL and make some improvements in other secondary positions of need like LB, RB, and DB, the Redblacks can compete for a playoff spot under head coach Paul LaPolice. Building a team takes time, but LaPolice showed it was possible, transforming the Blue Bombers into Grey Cup contenders from 2016-19. Also, the Redblacks went from last in the league in 2014 to Grey Cup finalists in 2015, so a quick turnaround is possible.