Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Chris Williams is Back in Black... and Red?

After two years of trying to find a job in the NFL, 2011 Most Outstanding Rookie and 2012 Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Chris Williams has returned to the CFL... with the Ottawa RedBlacks.

The RedBlacks announced this morning that they have inked the former all-star to a contract that will see him join a receiving corps that has the potential to be the league's deadliest.

Williams' signing is the latest in a long line of big free-agent splashes Ottawa made this offseason. They signed offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers, receivers Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli, while also trading for receiver Maurice Price. Ottawa went into the offseason looking to upgrade a league-worst offense and they have done just that. The addition of Williams now puts them in a very enviable position.

But with big signings comes big expectations, and the addition of former New Mexico State Aggie now puts even more pressure on a team that went just 2-16 during their inaugural season. For all of these moves to have been worth it, the RedBlacks MUST make the playoffs in 2015. Anything less, and heads will roll. There will be no excuses acceptable enough for ownership if Ottawa fails to be playing a game following the conclusion of the regular season.

Also, while Ottawa has done a tremendous job of upgrading their talent pool, they have spent a lot of money on very little production. Aside from Williams and Rogers, the rest of their acquisitions are long on potential, but short on actual results. Ellingson was on his way to a rookie of the year award in 2013 until injuries slowed him down. He also dealt with injuries in 2014, and it was his inability to stay on the field that ultimately led to his departure from Hamilton. Jackson had a great end to the 2014 season, but does one month of production mean he is ready to be the next Geroy Simon, or is he the next Chris Brazzell? Sinopoli accomplished very little during his time in Calgary, so who is to say he is ready to take a giant leap forward? Price looked poised to become Calgary's go-to guy, but injuries saw him lose his spot and he became expendable. The RedBlacks could possess the best receiving unit in the entire, but it is April and it all looks like upside at this time of year.

Another thing that cannot be overlooked is Williams' absence from the game. While he saw some playing time in the NFL, he hasn't really played all that much since the final game of the Tiger-Cats' 2012 season. It will be 966 days between CFL contests, and few players return from such an absence and regain their former form. None spring to mind off the top of my head, so while Williams could still produce over 1,000 yards receiving and double digit touchdowns, he would be bucking a trend.

That is not to say that this was a bad signing. Far from it. If Williams gets back to his 2012 form, the league needs to watch out. This guy can be a game breaker, and that type of talent doesn't come around very often. Williams could be the final piece to get the RedBlacks into the playoffs in Year 2.

As for the Tiger-Cat aspect, I bore no ill will towards Williams during his acrimonious split a few years ago and I bear no ill will now that he is in Ottawa. It is not like the team doesn't have an excellent returner/receiver already on the roster, and couple that with a pair of Grey Cup appearances, and I think the Ti-Cats are doing just fine.

Don't get me wrong, I would loved to have seen Williams back, but this isn't fantasy football, and employing both Brandon Banks and Chris Williams was never going to happen. And frankly, if Williams wasn't coming back here and was going to sign with an East Division team, I am happy it is Ottawa. Could you imagine how bad it would be if he *gulp* signed with the Argos?

Williams comes back to the CFL at a time when the game will be opening up for receivers and returners, so this might be the right time for him to make his return north of the board. He was an all-star receiver as well as an award-winning returner, so nabbing him to become the focal point of the offense was a good move by Ottawa.

Gifted, exciting players playing in the CFL makes the league better, and there are few more gifted or exciting than Chris Williams.

When a Cap Isn't a Cap

Late last week it was announced that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were the lone team to exceed the salary cap in 2014. This is Hamilton's first time over the cap, joining Winnipeg (2009) and Montreal (2007) as one-time offenders. The Saskatchewan Roughriders are the only other team to exceed the cap, having done so four times (2007, 2008, 2010, 2013) since its institution in 2007.

Now, the sum was small, but that still does not get the Ti-Cats off the hook for spending above the allowable amount. The team can say all they want about injuries and all-stars (and sure, going from zero league all stars in 2013 to three in 2014, and five division all-stars to 10, plus the slew of injuries probably did play a role), but it is still pretty inexcusable for the team to violate the league's cap.

But problem isn't just that teams go over; it is that they can go over in the first place. If the league wants to stop teams from going over, they should simply not let them. The NFL and NHL don't allow teams to exceed the cap, so the CFL could do the same. Otherwise, you will continue to see teams spend above the number. The penalties to do so, at least until you go $100,000 over, are simply not harsh enough. If the league really wants teams to not spend over the cap, either not allow them to or harshen the penalties. Neither one of those outcomes is likely, so where do we go from here?

And maybe we, as fans and followers of the CFL, need to change our attitudes towards the cap. For starters, we should probably stop referring to it as a salary cap. It isn't one. There is no cap on salaries in the CFL, similar to how there isn't one for NBA or MLB teams. Yes, there is a number in all three leagues that teams are not supposed to spend above, but all three leagues allow for teams to exceed that number provided they pay a penalty. When the Yankees or Lakers overspend, no one really kicks up much of a complaint. Sure, you get the outcry of them trying to buy a championship, but it isn't like the teams that overspend always win. In fact, only Saskatchewan has won the Grey Cup in a year they overspent, doing so twice (2007, 2013).

I am as guilty as anyone of ranting and raving when a team spends above the allowable amount, but perhaps I was wrong. Maybe we need to accept the CFL's Salary Management System for what it is (a luxury tax) and not what we want it to be (a hard cap) and start looking at it through an NBA or MLB lens as opposed to an NFL or NHL one.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Podskee Wee Wee, Episode 5

A new commish, some potential rule changes, Bakari Grant staying in Hamilton and the Argos finally maybe landing at BMO. It is all discussed in the latest episode of Podskee Wee Wee.

Like I say every time, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking the button down below and if you can, leave a rating or comment. Hit the blog's comment section and fire off your criticisms and leave a question for possible inclusion on the next episode.

So here is Episode No. 5 for your listening pleasure.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Fans Rejoice! Bakari Grant is Back

One of the longest-tenured Tiger-Cats is returning for at least one more season after the team announced this afternoon that receiver Bakari Grant has signed a new contract.

The pact is reported to be for one season, which means Grant will once again be free to test the market next offseason. It also allows him to make more money next season should he have a big season in 2015, while also giving the team some flexibility going forward.

The Oakland native has spent all four years of his CFL career with the Ti-Cats, hauling in 207 passes for 2,535 yards and 12 touchdowns, with a single-season best 69 catches and 947 yards in 2013 leading to an East Division All-Star selection. Grant likely would have notched his first 1,000-yard season had he not sat out the final game of the 2013 season (due to the Tiger-Cats having locked up second in the East).

The signing of Grant more than likely ends Hamilton’s acquisition of CFL veterans. I cannot see the team dipping into the free agent pool again, and anyone else signed will likely come from their negotiation list and/or US tryouts.

Grant is a hugely popular player amongst Tiger-Cat fans. He is a hardnosed, unselfish, intense player, one who is unafraid of doing the little things to help the team win, and players like that are always loved by Tiger-Cat fans. Grant also works a ton in the community, and even spent the offseason between the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Hamilton instead of heading home to California. These types of things endear players to the fans of their teams and you can see why reaction to the signing has been universally positive.

After four seasons and two heartbreaking Grey Cup loses, fans want to see big No. 84 finally lift the Cup with the Ti-Cats. Hopefully, for all involved, 2015 will be that year.

The Next Canadian Superstar?

Many experts feel that Simon Fraser product Lemar Durant is not only far and away the best draft-eligible receiver, but the overall most talented player available in the 2015 CFL draft class. That includes all eligible Canadians in both the NCAA and CIS, such as NFL bound studs Tyler Varga from Yale and Brett Boyko from UNLV.

The last time that I can recall a Canadian pass catcher receiving such hype was when University of Western Ontario legend Andy Fantuz was selected with the third overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Despite being the best CIS receiver of all time, Fantuz was selected third overall behind defensive end Adam Braidwood and linebacker Jay Pottinger.

Similarly to Fantuz, Durant will likely not be drafted first overall due to the importance of offensive and defensive lineman in the player ratio. Teams typically start three or four national offensive lineman versus two Canadian receivers, while the offensive line position is also without a doubt far more vital to a team’s success than a good receiving corps, particularly the Canadian players on the line.

It's also often considered perhaps a risky pick when clubs decide to use their first round draft pick on a receiver. While being selected in the first round does not mean that the receiver is expected to have a career as successful as Fantuz's or Chris Getzlaf's, it is expected that they develop into a solid starter at some point during their career.

From 2007 to 2014, 11 receivers were taken off the board in the opening round of the draft. The combined average yards-per-season for all 11 is a mere 246 yards. Meanwhile, Andy Fantuz has averaged a whopping 757 yards per season which included a 1,000 yard campaign in 2010.

While Durant's college career was impressive when he was in the lineup, it was not nearly as good as Fantuz's for reasons I'll touch on soon. Although from what I've seen on tape, I think he possesses the skill set to match the former Hec Crighton winner's production in the professional ranks and become the next Canadian superstar.

Durant was originally recruited by the University of Nevada, but transferred to Division II Simon Fraser after redshirting his freshman year with the Wolfpack. He then utilized a medical redshirt in year two to treat juvenile arthritis in his knee, which has not bothered him since he took a year off to treat it in 2011.

Nevada was hoping Durant would return to be an asset in an offence that was centred around some quarterback named Colin Kaepernick. In fact, Nevada coaches even told Durant he would compete for a starting job as a redshirt freshman with Rishard Matthews, who's currently a wideout for the Miami Dolphins. However, he opted to return home and officially start his collegiate career with his high school coach and friends at Simon Fraser, which had just entered the NCAA ranks.

Durant had an incredible freshman year, recording 91 receptions for 1,318 yards (120 YPG) with 17 touchdowns in 11 games. After starting quarterback Trey Wheeler left to pursue bigger and better things in Division I, Durant caught 29 passes for 389 yards and five touchdowns in only four games during his sophomore season while playing with two struggling quarterbacks, which ultimately led to the Clan becoming a very run heavy offence during Durant's final two seasons. Simon Fraser's quarterbacks led the conference in interceptions while Durant missed seven games with an ankle injury; the only sport-related injury of his athletic career.

Durant looked to get back on track in his junior season, but had another case of bad luck as he contracted infectious mononucleosis (mono) and missed another four games. In 23 college games, the Coquitlam, BC native had 175 catches for 2,392 yards and 28 touchdowns, which averages out to 7.6 catches per game, 104 yards, and 1.2 touchdowns. He was named Simon Fraser's offensive MVP in 2012, was a three-time 1st-team All-Conference selection, was named an All-American in 2012 and was selected by Beyond Sports College Network in 2014 as the No. 1 draft sleeper for the 2015 NFL draft. While Durant's stats on paper under these circumstances are quite impressive, it's his game on film that really blows me away.

You don't have to be an expert scout to recognize Durant's raw talent. His highlight tape is essentially six minutes worth of entertainment featuring the 23-year old burning cornerbacks down field.

Durant is a bigger receiver at 6'3”, 231 pounds, and has great speed for a receiver of that size with a sub 4.5 40-yard dash time. Durant has a large catching radius and maximizes his vertical leap and physicality when fighting for the jump ball. Durant's freakish athleticism, size, speed and big-play ability have me sold that he can immediately be a respectable deep-threat and red-zone target in year one in the CFL.

In order to be labelled as "Fantuzable," Durant will have to find success in the CFL quickly and average around 600 yards with three touchdowns per season for his first three years.

The last rookie national receiver to start a good chunk of games was Edmonton's 2012 first-round pick Shamawd Chambers, who started 11 games, missing time due to injuries, and chipped in 390 yards and two touchdowns.

While Chambers was a first-round pick himself, he was nowhere near the prospect Lemar Durant is. Chambers' best season at Wilfrid Laurier University was his senior year when he recorded 652 receiving yards in eight games, good for 13th overall out of all CIS schools.

Chambers was fortunately put in a good situation to step up mid-season after injuries piled up in Edmonton. He had time to learn and adjust to the professional game before being thrust into the starting lineup for 11 starts. Despite him being far more prepared physically than Chambers, the same is likely to occur for Durant.

With that being said, I do believe there are a couple teams where Durant could beat the odds and start early on as a national rookie. One team that comes to mind is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who hold the second overall pick.

Winnipeg's starting inside national receiver is Julian Feoli-Gudino, who had zero career catches in two seasons before registering a mere 240 yards in 2014. The Laval product's three seasons of experience likely mean he has a good understanding of CFL coverages and can find soft spots in zones better than Durant (not that Julian has really proved any of that to be true), yet the latter has given me no reason to believe that he would not be able to learn quickly, like many international rookie receivers do during their first season. Feoli-Gudino, a fifth round draft pick in 2011, is not nearly as talented as Durant and cannot do anything, skill-wise, that Durant can’t do right now.

The 400 yards Fantuz accumulated during his rookie season is certainly doable for Durant, and I expect him to breakout in year two with around 600-700 yards.

As far as I am concerned, Durant is the best draft-eligible receiver since Fantuz in 2006. The former SFU Clan and Nevada Wolfpack member is reportedly viewed as the best player available in the best draft class in a very long time; far better than that of 2007 when a certain bust named Chris Bauman was selected with the top pick by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Durant was even viewed as a legitimate mid-to-late round future NFL draft pick after his incredible freshman year.

This kid is special, and I'm completely confident that he can follow in the footsteps of CIS-great Andy Fantuz.

I guess there's just something about football players named Durant.