April 16: One week away from Mini-Camp!

April 17, 2018 - 9:15am

The deadness of the CFL off-season has never hit home so much as it does now, with nothing but crickets as CFL teams prepare for the CFL draft on May 3 and the NFL draft which will dictate the CFL draft choices before then.

The CFL combine and week has come and gone in Winnipeg and now CFL teams have to face the question of which players do they choose that are good enough to help their team but not that good to escape to the NFL and possibly never come back to Canada?

How CFL teams read those tea leaves, and perhaps ponder the possibility of a starting Canadian quarter back changing the ratio in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, could spell the difference between a Grey Cup winner and a team desperately trying to hang onto relevence in its particular marketplace.

Henoc Muamba, released by the Riders for salary cap reasons, was picked up by Montreal for a three year deal. It’s likely Muamba got somewhere around $200K for his services, with a fair chunk guaranteed. The Riders let him go because his production versus the dollars they were paying him did not exactly equal out. And the Riders likely wanted to spend their dollars on Canadian talent that could make similar contributions.

Muamba as a linebacker is a ratio buster, which means he should be getting good money. Whether that money is in the $200K neighbourhood is a question up for debate. When compared to Alex Singleton of the Stampeders, Muamba was solid, but not spectacular. Sam Hurl, who the Riders signed as a potential replacement, is likely better suited for a safety spot due to his body type which is not built for the heavy traffic a middle linebacker has to face.

The Riders might look at a combination of Canadians at the middle linebacker position, likely situational specialists with Hurl alternating with Cameron Judge and perhaps Brabndyn Bartlett, who you might recall the Riders picked in the 2017 supplemental draft.

Montreal will be getting a good look at how say, Josh Freeman handles the quarterback duties starting Monday at that team’s mini-camp. Montreal made a bit of a splash in free agency, poaching some free agent defensive backs from Calgary and having Muamba perhaps leaves Montreal able to start nothing but Americans at the receiver position.

Calgary has been going through some pains recently with Roy Finch currently in legal trouble in Oklahoma following a run-in with police. Add to that Deron Mayo announcing his retirement and Dan Federkiel announcing his retirement following testing for a high amount of testosterone, and the Stampeders will be putting their scouting prowess to the test this year.

As teams start to turn their thoughts towards mini-camps which helps to week out prospects prior to training camps, teams are continuing to trim their rosters. Ottawa released receivers Kenny Shaw, Quincey McDuffie and Joshua Stangby which came as a bit of surprise. Shaw and McDuffie had some pretty good bursts of speed and Stangby had seen some consistent action in spot duty. But with teams now reducing their roster sizes in preparation for training camp and with the draft coming up and free agent camps starting to pay off, teams are getting a better idea of what their rosters may look like and while receivers like Ottawa’s had their moments, they also had periods where they did not produce compared to what they were getting paid for.

Ottawa did some rearranging of their coaching staff, bringing in Noel Thorpe, formerly of Montreal, to take over from Mark Nelson on defense. Ottawa again enjoyed a sub-500 season which could be blamed on their defense, or their offense’s inability to big plays when needed. Thorpe was known for running some innovative schemes and the trick for Ottawa is having a similar style of athletes to who can be fast and rangy and mean.

Off the field Ottawa has been doing exceptionally well to the extent that Jeff Hunt will be stepping down as team president after this season. Hunt is part of the group that  brought football back to Ottawa and has made the off-field fan experience there one of the best in the CFL. Hunt sees himself more as the entrepreneur type than a nuts and bolts team leader and with the team running well off the field, he is free to look at new challenges.

Certainly the bar that Ottawa set will make things interesting for the rumored Maritime franchise who after some brief flurry of off=field excitement after the Grey Cup, has also fallen into radio silence. One of the keys to Ottawa’s success was having their field area a combination of football, shopping and entertainment and the Martimes are looking to follow a similar blueprint.

The biggest challenge for the Maritimes is getting a stadioum and the proposed ownership group is likely looking at presenting local government with a combination of field, housing and entertainment in return for say, tax incentives. Stadium funding has become trickier in these days of governments facing questions as to their role should be in economic development and the case for stadium funding has become more problematic when looking at various facilities across Canada.  While Ottawa’s and Saskatchewan’s stadium projects have done well, Winnipeg and Hamilton are examples of what can go wrong with a too ambitious completion schedule and then things get sloppy and not done right.

Ottawa is not the only team losing players prior to the opening of training camp. John Chick announced his retirement from the Edmonton Eskimos, all but guaranteeing that team will be going through a youth movement on the defensive line. Chick, who played for the Riders and Hamilton prior to his trade to Edmonton last year, will go down as one of the great all-time Riders and would be a cinch for the Rider Plaza of Honour and likely Hall of Fame.

Speaking of which, following reports that Kent Austin had yet again not been nominated for the CFL Hall of Fame, someone managed to get his name up for consideration. Austin has moved from last year being the VP of Football Operations and Head Coach to now being a consultant, likely the last stepping stone before Austin likely heads south of the border for a US College job.

Austin’s return to the CFL in Hamilton was initially successful with two Grey Cup appearances and one should have won against Calgary, before last year imploding on a 0-8 start before he stepped aside in favor of June Jones. Jones managed to get a respectable 6-4 out and a potential playoff run from that team but the initial hole was too big for the Cats to get out of.

The tension between Austin and Zach Collaros resulted in both of them not really being on the sideline and Austin seemingly losing the respect of the Tiger-Cat dressing room.  Looking at some of the footage of Hamilton games last season, Austin was smart enough to realize his approach was no longer working with the team, but not smart enough to be able to make the changes to recreate himself.

Austin is a high intensity coach who demands a lot, which is good to bring players up to a new level, but he has no patience for players unwilling or unable to play at the standards he had himself as a player years ago. One of the big questions this season is if a change of scenery for Collaros will help bring his game back to the level he enjoyed when he first started under Austin, or if Collaros was the beneficiary of a system Austin brought in and after his knee injury, was simply not the same quarterback.

The Riders may have hedged their bets on Collaros even in the process of making him the highest paid quarterback in team history by also extending Brandon Bridge for another season. If Collaros has truly lost it, then Bridge will be asked to step in, and if he succeeds, the Riders will cut their losses on Collaros and go with younger and more mobile quarterbacks.

We will get our first look at Collaros April 24-25 as the Riders have their mini-camp in Florida. It’s just a first look and really doesn’t mean anything because in reviewing the games Collaros played last year with Hamilton, the lack of pass production had Collaros forcing a lot of passes, overthrowing receivers and throwing into coverage.

The constant pressure is worrisome, especially when you consider that Bridge got a lot of work last season because Kevin Glenn was unable to handle pressure behind Saskatchewan’s not so great line. If the offensive line does not improve from last season, then Collaros will be operating as he did last year, forcing passes and overthrowing receivers in an effort to not get hit.

So the Riders first exhibition game is May 27th, which means we are closer to the start of camp than we are from the end of last season. But while that is cause for celebration, the CFL should be asking itself what it can do to build fan interest throughout the year, much like how the NFL does with its free-agency, combine and draft extravaganzas.

Because hey, hasn’t this winter been here long enough?


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