The Redblacks made many improvements in free agency this season, especially at quarterback offensive line, and wide receiver their three biggest needs.
Most notably, they signed former Hamilton Tiger Cats’ quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who won the CFL East Division Most Outstanding Player in 2018 and is the type of player who has a ton of upside, potential and both his teammates and coaches love his hard work, passion, and dedication to the game.
In addition, they’ve bolstered their wide receiving core by bringing back R.J Harris and adding a trio of talented receivers each with different skill sets in Jaelon Acklin, Darvin Adams, and Shaq Johnson. All three of these players have a combination of great hands, excellent route-running ability, speed, and ball-tracking ability.
They added a ton of talent and versatility to their offensive line by adding multiple o-linemen. Ucambre Williams is a Grey Cup winner who spent his entire five-year career with the Calgary Stampeders and has played right guard, right tackle, and center. Hunter Steward and Darius Ciraco are both versatile linemen who can create holes in the run game and can reset their footing and hand position well after bull-rushes from opposing defenders. They also acquired CFL veteran Randy Richards who is also a Grey Cup champion.
The Redblacks also brought back a key part of their Grey Cup-winning offense in running back William Powell, who is an excellent downhill runner, with tremendous speed, agility, and a great burst. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield which is a huge help.
The Redblacks improved at virtually every position on offense and they didn’t stop there. They revamped their defense and special teams too.
The Redblacks brought back safety Antoine Pruneau, who has been an all-star with the Redblacks since their inaugural year in 2014. They also brought in American defensive back Trumaine Washington and former Montreal Alouettes defensive back Patrick Levels who are both coming to Ottawa after career years. Monshadrik Hunter also joins the list of high-profile cornerbacks coming to the Redblacks adding to the depth consisting of Pruneau, Adbul Kanneh, Sherrod Baltimore, and Randall Evans who all resigned with the Redblacks.
They also added a few pieces at linebacker and at defensive line. This Redblacks team – on paper at least – is an upgrade at virtually every position on both sides of the ball from last season when they went 3-11 and struggled mightily on offense. After going 6-26 in the last two seasons, the Redblacks should expect to have close to double-digit wins next season.
With no dire needs after an excellent free agency period led by general manager Shawn Burke and head coach Paul LaPolice, the Redblacks were able to pick players on a “the best player available” basis in the 2022 CFL draft and they ended up with a pretty talented group of athletes including former Carleton Ravens WR Keaton Bruggeling who was one of two Ravens selected in the draft. They built on their several massive free-agent signings by adding even more depth and talent to their roster with their nine selections, most notably drafting a handful of linebackers (the position the Redblacks made the least improvement to in free agency) and more offensive linemen, a position you can never have too much depth at, especially on the blindside.
Here are all 9 of the Redblacks’ picks in the 2022 CFL entry draft:
1st round pick: Zack Pelehos, OL, University of Ottawa
2nd round pick: Cyrille Hogan-Saindon, OL, Laval
2nd round pick: Jesse Luketa, LB, Penn State
3rd round pick: Keaton Bruggeling, WR, Carleton
4th round pick: Daniel Valente, DB, Western
5th round pick: Woodly Appolon, LB, Tuskegee University
6th round pick: Subomi Oyesoro, LB, of the University of Calgary
7th round pick: Connor Ross, TE, St. FX University
8th round pick: Luca Perrier, RB, Laval
Pelehos is a physical blocker, whose size, athleticism, and mobility make him one of the better offensive line prospects in the draft. His talent is raw, in both the run and the passing game, but has the positive attitude, mentality, strength, agility, and all the other intangibles to be turned into a starting-caliber tackle or guard at the CFL level. His explosive performance at the combine made teams aware of his strength and potential.
Hogan-Saindon is another lineman with all the intangibles and the experience to be a high-level center. He makes great initial contact with defenders which allows him to open up holes in the run game and is a natural pass protector with his footwork. LaPolice said he is “big, athletic and can move… and is one of the most physical guys in the draft.” He will definitely compete for a spot on the Redblacks’ offensive line in the near future.
Luketa possesses a big frame, is physical, agile, has a great burst, and can track the football very effectively. He has an ideal skill set to rush the passer and stop opposing run games in the backfield before it gets started. He recorded 151 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, one interception, and one fumble recovery in four years at Penn State. He is versatile and can either play LB or DE. However, he was selected in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL draft and is not guaranteed to play in Canada.
Bruggeling wasn’t known as the guy who puts up huge numbers, recording only 35 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns with the Ravens, but he has the potential and skill set to be an impact wide receiver who can make a play when his team needs him. He performed extremely well at the CFL National Combine with a 4.55 forty-yard dash and 37.5-inch vertical jump and does all the little things right. The way he studies the game, the way he prepares for practices and games, reads defenses, runs routes and even blocks will be useful for the Redblacks.
Bruggeling believes his Carleton career really prepared him for the CFL.
“My career at Carleton has been an absolute grind. I think it has really had a hand in helping me develop,” Bruggeling said. “Nothing ever came easy, I always had to work for it.”
Bruggeling credits his teammates for his success at Carleton.
“My teammates are amazing, they’re the ones that really got me into the grind. They showed me what it meant to be a Carleton Raven,” Bruggeling said.
He is extremely thankful to all his coaches for trusting him and giving him the chance to step on the field to prove himself. His offensive coordinator Josh Sacobie has watched him develop over his time at Carleton and believes he will excel in the CFL.
“[Bruggeling is] a smart young man who’s gonna do well at whatever he does in life. He leads by example on the football field, is easily coachable, is adaptable to multiple schemes, and is very humble and kind to all his teammates,” Sacobie said.
“He also possesses all the skills of a wide receiver like physicality, explosiveness, lower body strength, ability to gain yards after the catch, tracking the ball in the air, and his high vertical allows him to go up to make a play on the ball and win 50/50 balls,” Sacobie added.
Valente is a 2021 U Sports first-team All-Canadian who had a productive season at Western in 2021 recording 27 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, one pass knockdown, and one sack en route to a Vanier Cup victory. He is undersized but is athletic, agile, has a good burst off the line of scrimmage, is fast enough to run with the best wide receivers, has a good ball tracking ability, and can help on special teams too.
Appolon has the potential to be a run-stopping linebacker and a pass-rushing linebacker with his size (6’4”, 225 lbs), athleticism, physicality, and speed. He has confirmed that he will be going back to school next year, however, he brings a special set of intangibles to the linebacker core that teams always look for. He has the potential to be a contributor on defense and special teams for years to come.
Oyesoro set a new career-high in 2021 with 33 total tackles in six games. He is being projected as a special teamer in the CFL who will also be a depth player on defense, however, Redblacks’ general manager Shawn Burke said in a press conference that he has some potential which I don’t think he’s reached yet, especially with the University of Calgary struggling to get wins this season, something that doesn’t happen a lot.
Ross’ physicality and 6’1”, 250lb frame will allow him to be a good blocking tight end, but he can also occasionally slip off the line of scrimmage, run crisp short routes, and catch passes. He recorded 24 receptions for 207 yards in 30 games at St. FX. His intangibles are raw and need to be developed but he is versatile and can also play fullback. He creates gaps for his running backs and is good on special teams with significant long snapping skills according to Burke. He will likely mainly be used on special teams where the Redblacks are running a little thin.
Perrier is a physical downhill runner, who has great speed and agility, can cut very well, has great spatial awareness, and knows where the running lanes will open up. He has a winning mentality after playing in Laval’s successful program and recorded 284 rush yards on just 29 carries – an outstanding 9.8 yards per carry in 2021 – and scored three TDs. He also contributes on special teams as a punt returner and a kick returner. Burke said the Redblacks have depth at running back with William Powell, Brendan Gillanders, and Jackson Bennett, but having another back who’s ready to play in case of injury is always good.
Between the Redblacks’ excellent free agency period where they made huge improvements on offense and defense and their well-rounded draft where they added even more depth to their roster, filled in roster spots in positions of need with players who have a lot of talent and potential, and selected various players in several different positions to give them the ability to play several different ways on offense and defense to keep opponents constantly guessing their game plan, the Redblacks look like they will have a much better season than last year.
“[The draft] was a great night for the organization,” said GM Shawn Burke in a post-draft press conference. “We think we serviced all three sides — offense, defense, and special teams — so we’re excited.”
In addition, Marcel Desjardins’ 2021 draft focused on selecting players who will be ready to play in 2022 and beyond. He did this knowing many student-athletes were unable to train after COVID-19 canceled the entire 2020 U-Sports season. That strategy may pay dividends with their first and second-round picks, linebacker DeShawn Stevens and defensive back Alsonso Addae. Both players have the potential to compete for starting spots on defense and special teams this year. If they make the team, they will contribute immediately, but it is still possible they sign with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent and never come north of the border.
Finally, let’s take a look at the Redblacks’ schedule and predict a record and where they will finish in the East Division.
I am optimistic the Redblacks will improve significantly from last season, however, I am not naive. This team is not going to go 16-2 or 15-3 like the 2019 Hamilton Tiger-Cats or the 2016 Calgary Stampeders.
This team is significantly improved on both sides of the ball and on special teams too, but the team hasn’t had a lot of time to practice together and develop chemistry. They will have their training camp to do so, which will help a lot, but it won’t equate to a team that has been training and playing together for over five years.
The Redblacks play the Toronto Argonauts three times, the Montreal Alouettes four times, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats three times. They play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers twice, the BC Lions twice, the Edmonton Elks twice, and they play the Calgary Stampeders and the Roughriders only once.
I predict they will split 2-2 with the Alouettes, win twice against the Argonauts, and win once against the Tiger-Cats. I see the Redblacks losing both times to the Blue Bombers, beating the Lions and Elks both times, and they will beat the Stampeders and the Roughriders.
If all goes to plan, they will finish 11-7, which realistically, should give them a good chance of winning the East Division.
However, I believe the Tiger-Cats will finish 12-6 and win the East Division. The Redblacks will come in second with an 11-7 record, the Alouettes third at 9-9, and the Argos last at 7-11. The Redblacks will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Alouettes. They will win a thriller before ultimately losing to the Tiger-Cats in the East Final.
I recognize that this is a huge improvement for a team that has struggled mightily on offense the last two seasons and that has only won six games in their last two seasons. However, the Redblacks’ offense has improved at every position. They will score more points and sustain longer drives to give the defense more rest. The defense has also improved markedly too. It may seem far-fetched, but it is possible. Paul LaPolice is a Grey Cup-winning head coach after all and Shawn Burke knows what it takes to build a winning team.
In the West, the Blue Bombers will finish first place with a 13-5 record, the Stampeders second at 12-6, the Roughriders third at 10-8, the Lions fourth at 6-12, and the Elks last place at 5-13.
No matter how the season ends, the Redblacks have a bright future and will be exciting to watch.