Building a Roster

Interesting article in the Hamilton paper The Spec today about Austin’s apparent blue print for building a roster.

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Based on what they've done in the first week of Canadian Football League free agency — or what they've not done, to be more exact — it would appear the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are set to enter the next phase of their player-development plan.

The strategy involves surrounding the current core of established Ticat players — many of whom are locked into long-term contracts with healthy but not outrageous price tags — with several as-yet-unknown players produced by a revamped player personnel system.

If it works, it has the potential to keep the Ticats among the league’s elite for years to come. If it doesn’t, they could be in some trouble as soon as this season.

Kent Austin has been laying the groundwork since the day he was hired as vice-president of football operations in December 2012. During his first two off-seasons, Austin has used free agency to secure a young franchise quarterback in Zach Collaros while also spending heavily to upgrade the team’s Canadian talent, signing the likes of defensive linemen Brian Bulcke and Ted Laurent, as well as safety Craig Butler. All three were proven players when they arrived and have continued to perform at a high level as Ticats.

At the same time, Hamilton has also spent on a number of American players as well, re-signing free agent linebacker Simon Lawrence and extending offensive lineman Brian Simmons, as well as acquiring defensive back Brandon Stewart and kicker Justin Medlock. They’ve then used the opening weeks of both the 2013 and '14 regular seasons to bring through dozens of players, looking for the right combination to close out the season (with spectacular results, given their two consecutive Grey Cup appearances).

Some of those finds are now being rewarded as Austin invested in return man Brandon Banks, receiver Luke Tasker and extended defensive end Eric Norwood before 2015 free agency began. So far, the team’s free-agent pickups have been limited to a couple of Canadians, receiver Spencer Watt and running back Anthony Woodson: not big names, necessarily, but proven performers and key pieces in Austin’s offensive scheme that fit nicely into the overall plan.

That’s far different from the approach utilized by Ottawa and Winnipeg, the two most active teams in free agency, thus far. Both teams have added a number of American players from other teams while also investing salary-cap space to largely unproven Canadians who they hope will develop into bona-fide starters.

Both teams are better for the acquisitions, but the question is whether paying American players and unproven Nationals make sense. Having to pay through the nose for Canadians is a sign the draft hasn’t gone particularly well and the good CFL teams seem to be able to find quality American players through scouting and development to avoid paying them in free agency.

And that’s what the Ticats are trying to do, too. While they do have clear holes to fill, particularly at American receiver and defensive back, the club has thus far been willing to let a number of their own free agents walk away, including receivers Greg Ellingson and Bakari Grant, while not investing in others.

So, who will replace the departed starters, including corner Delvin Breaux, who signed in the National Football League? Most likely players you’ve never heard of. Yet.

During his time at the helm, Austin has overseen a complete revamp the Ticats’ scouting and player-evaluation process. He’s also completely remade the team’s negotiation list, stacking it with players that fit into his offensive and defensive systems. While we’ve already seen some of the talent produced by the new setup, the vast majority of it is just now coming through the pipeline.

If it works, the Ticats will soon employ the same model used by perennially competitive CFL clubs: well-paid core players surrounded by an endless supply of high-quality, low-budget American talent. It isn’t the singular model for success — it’s possible to buy a good team for a short time — but it may be the only way to maintain competitiveness over the long-term.

The only potential flaw: if the players the personnel system produces aren’t good enough to contribute at a high level. If that happens, the holes in the Ticats lineup will become glaringly apparent in a big hurry.

Given Austin’s track record, thus far, however, that seems unlikely: just about everything he’s tried so far has worked, and worked well (it’s hard to argue with two straight Grey Cup appearances). If this last piece of the plan falls into place, Hamilton may be in position to contend for that elusive trophy for the foreseeable future.

Austin has been doing a great job. He has been competitive since arriving and entirely revamped the team, is flush with young talent and has a pile of draft picks this year. With all the drafts, they could easily be sacrificing a couple at some point to trade up in a future draft or obtain a vet. Great spot to be in.