Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Roster Report Card: Ottawa Redblacks


Another off-season has come and gone. The annual draft, mini-camps and roster transactions have all been completed as teams look to begin training camp. Some teams look much better on paper, while others lost some key players and do not. So how does your team look on paper? Today, I take a look at the new and improved Ottawa Redblacks football club.

* denotes National player
# denotes 2015 draft pick

Quarterbacks: B

Starter: Henry Burris 
Reserves: Thomas DeMarco, Danny O'Brian, Brock Jensen
Ottawa's playoff hopes may solely rely on one position: quarterback. Henry Burris wasn't put in a position to succeed last season in terms of play-calling, protection and receivers, but GM Marcel Desjardins addressed those issues and gave the 40 year-old Burris and his accuracy woes no excuse not to succeed in 2015. If his age forces him to give up the starting duties to Thomas DeMarco, the direction of this team could trend up or fall south. I wouldn't take the latter, as DeMarco has looked good since his days in BC. Nonetheless, the Redblacks will be hoping to get one more year out of their starting Hall of Fame signal-caller. 

Running backs: B-
Starter: Chevon Walker 
Reserves: Jeremiah Johnson, Akeem Shavers, Torrance Hunt, Guillaume Bourassa*

Ottawa's run game will be in good hands during the team's sophomore season. Chevon Walker played like an elite 'back before he broke his arm, while Jeremiah Johnson out of Oregon averaged a tremendous 6.3 yards per carry on 38 attempts. With Mike Gibson out as offensive coordinator and former Grey Cup winning quarterback Jason Maas in, Walker won't have to worry about getting under 10 carries per game as he did when Gibson called the plays. I have high expectations for this group behind a revamped offensive line. 

Receivers: A+

Starters: Chris Williams, Maurice Price, Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson, Marcus Henry
Reserves: Brad Sinopoli*, Khalil Paden, Matt Carter*, Scott MacDonell*, Jamill Smith, Jake Harty#, L.J Castille, Michael Campbell, Lanear Sampson 

Marcel Desjardins identified his receiving corps as a weak group on the 2-16 Redblacks roster and wasted no time bringing Henry Burris new weapons. Newcomers Williams and Price are established CFL pass-catchers, while Jackson, Sinopoli and Ellingson each have tremendous upside. Ottawa parted ways with inconsistent starters Wallace Miles, Kierrie Johnson and Dobson Collins while keeping their best receiver of 2014, Marcus Henry. When a team invests as much money in receivers as Ottawa did, success is expected, and this elite group must deliver.

Offensive Line: B+

Starters: LT SirVincent Rogers, LG Jon Gott*, C Alex Mateas#, RG J'Michael Deane*, RT Nolan Macmillan*
Reserves: Matthew Albright*, Colin Kelly, Hugo Desmarais*, Anthony Barrett*, Aaron Wheaton* 

On paper, Ottawa's starting five looks as talented as your average group in the CFL. 1st overall pick Alex Mateas should make an impact immediately, while Jon Gott is one year removed from an All-Star season. SirVincent Rogers and Canadian Nolan Macmillan will be expected to start at tackle, and if they can build on decent 2014 seasons remains to be seen. Macmillan showed promise as a rare Canadian tackle in his rookie season and would pay huge dividends for Ottawa if he can stick on the outside. J'Michael Deane seems serviceable but remains a question mark, as does the poor depth behind the starting hogs. Injuries to starting lineman could play a huge part in the Redblacks season if they pile up as they did in 2014. Overall, I feel this group has promise to be a fearsome offensive line should Mateas, Deane, Macmillan and Rogers to prove their worthiness while staying healthy. 

Defensive Line: B-

Starters: DE Justin Capicciotti*, DT Keith Shologan*, DT Chase Baker, DE Jonathan Williams
Reserves: Moton Hopkins, Justin Phillips*, Connor Williams*, Zack Evans*, Kalonji Kashama*, Andrew Marshall*, Marlon Smith, Eric Harper, Vincent Desloges*, Nigel Romick*, Forrest Hightower, Matt Acree

Ottawa's defensive line as a whole is far from spectacular, but defensive end Justin Capicciotti most certainly is. Capicciotti was the lone bright spot along the D-line in 2014, where the Redblacks finished last or second last in every category applicable. After finishing dead last in quarterback sacks with 37, they are still without a second effective defensive end as Jonathon Williams' 292 pound frame is best suited as a tackle. National DT Keith Shologan will hopefully return to his 2013 form while I think rookie free agent signing Chase Baker will take over the other defensive tackle spot from Moton Hopkins. An underwhelming group on paper, I don't expect this front four to improve nearly as much as some of Ottawa's other positions.

Linebackers: C+

Starters: SLB Antoine Pruneau*, MLB Travis Brown, WLB (OPEN)
Reserves: James Green*, Jordan Verdone*, Damaso Munoz, Justin Cudworth, David Hinds, Malik Jackson, John Kanongata'a

Unfortunately, I have no idea who will replace team M.O.P. Jasper Simmons at weak side linebacker and frankly, no one in the reserves stands out to me. However, I can guarantee Travis Brown and 2014 first round pick Antoine Pruneau will start again in their sophomore seasons. Pruneau's fantastic rookie season has him looking like a potential superstar while Brown's stats were more than serviceable. Ottawa's trade for Maurice Price could hurt the team more than originally expected with no starting-calibre international depth in place behind the departed Jasper Simmons. 

Secondary: B-

Starters: CB Jovon Johnson, HB Jerrell Gavins, HB Brandyn Thompson, CB Abdul Kanneh, S Jermaine Robinson 
Reserves: Fred Gaines, Brandon McDonald, Korey Lindsay, Hugo Lopez*, John Stevenson, Jacques Washington 

I really like the pieces Ottawa has in place and feel like their secondary will be one of their strongest positions this season. Continuity wise, all of the Redblacks' starters started multiple games in 2014; they will only be without Canadian safety Eric Fraser, who was in and out of lineup down the stretch. Starting at corner will be Jovon Johnson, the 2011 Most Outstanding Defender and lone veteran of the group, who has likely done his share of mentoring Jerrell Gavins, Brandyn Thompson, Abdul Kanneh and Jermaine Robinson; all rookies in 2014 who showed tons of potential. When you have a group this inexperienced playing behind a shaky defensive line, the team's numbers in their inaugural season don't look great, but individually, Gavins and Thompson put up great statistics while Kanneh looked good in limited action late in the year. Depth could be an issue, but as far as the starters go, Ottawa's secondary could breakout in 2015. 

Special Teams: C+

Kicker: John Mark*, Zack Ramirez
Punter: Trey Barrow 
Returners: Chris Williams, Jamill Smith, Abdul Kanneh 

One of Ottawa's biggest losses this season was K/P Brett Maher, who was severely injured before mini-camp and was cut. The Redblacks will now observe as Canadian Johnny Football competes with internationals Trey Barrow and Zack Ramirez for a roster spot. Maher's injury could end up a blessing in disguise, as Mark or Ramirez may emerge as a better kicker while punting averagely. In the return game, Ottawa's big free agent acquisition Chris Williams will handle the punt return duties. The former Ti-Cat has returned 6 touchdowns in his CFL career and is the most explosive player of the last decade. 

Final Analysis: 

The on-field product is far and away better than it was in Ottawa's inaugural season; GM Marcel Desjardins really worked some magic this off-season. The two most improved positions- receiver and offensive line- were the teams worst in 2014 and are now suddenly their best. Desjardins' best move may have been the hire of offensive coordinator Jason Maas, who will take advantage of Ottawa's talented running backs while working with Henry Burris. 

As far as Canadian talent goes, the Redblacks are beginning to look good in terms of the depth behind their starters. Pruneau, Mateas and MacMillan are stars in the making while left guard Jon Gott was an All-Star in 2013 and defensive tackle Keith Shologan is a proven starter. Having free agent acquisition WR Brad Sinopoli come off the bench is a testimony to the seven solid national starters in place and will also help Burris out even more having five American wideouts on the receiving end of his bullets.  

At the end of last year, the average position grade for this 2-16 team likely would have been a C+. Seven months later, the Redblacks have assembled a scary offence on paper and an improving defence on the other end. 

If I'm an Ottawa Redblacks, I'm getting my season tickets renewed ASAP.

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