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Steinberg's MMQB: The four horsemen

I’m really impressed with the work done by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in free agency.

Like every other team, the defending East Division champions have said goodbye to players from their 2019 squad, including receiver Bralon Addison (NFL’s Minnesota Vikings) and defensive back Richard Leonard (Calgary Stampeders).

Crucially, though, the Ticats have retained the services of four cornerstone defensive linemen: Ja’Gared Davis, Ted Laurent, Dylan Wynn, and Julian Howsare.

Hamilton boasted a ferocious line last season and it was a driving force in the team’s franchise record 15-3 record and Grey Cup appearance. Following Adrian Tracy’s mid-season injury, the team’s starting four consisted of Davis and Howsare on the end, with Laurent and Wynn in the interior. That foursome accounted for 35 of Hamilton’s 54 sacks in 2019, which was the third highest total in the league. Knowing all four were pending free agents, retaining the lot is quite the coup from this Tiger-Cats’ football operations staff.

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Wynn was the closest of the bunch to leaving and was set for all kinds of interest had he hit the open market. But, after Hamilton determined a potential blockbuster signing of Willie Jefferson, the near-consensus top potential free agent in 2020, wasn’t going to materialize, ensuring Wynn’s return became priority.

Wynn had a breakout first year with the Ticats that included a career-high 11 sacks, which is a bonkers number from the inside. To have that type of athleticism and speed in the middle is an incredible asset to possess. When you combine threats like Hamilton has off the edge to Wynn’s dominance inside makes the group infinitely more difficult to block.

Lining up beside Wynn almost all season was Laurent, one of the league’s most consistent defensive tackles over the last decade. Laurent’s sack totals might not jump off the page as much as what we saw from Wynn or Davis, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an extremely important member of Hamilton’s front four.

The power Laurent carries in his six-foot-one, 299-pound frame is terrifying and he opens up an insane amount of time and space as a result. And, perhaps most important, Laurent is somewhat of a unicorn: an elite defensive tackle with a Canadian passport. Those don’t exist in high numbers, which makes Laurent a true ratio buster every week.

Much like Wynn, Davis took his decision for the coming season close to the wire and decided to re-up with the Tiger-Cats the day before free agency opened. This guy was an absolute beast in his first year with Hamilton; Davis finished with 13 sacks and three forced fumbles and solidified his status as one of the CFL’s most feared pass rushers. Some wanted to make sure Davis’s dominance wasn’t just a product of being in Calgary. Well, his first year in black and yellow dispelled that myth emphatically.

Finally, in Howsare, the Tiger-Cats retained one of the league’s best kept secrets. With two years under his belt, Howsare has flown under the radar, but looks ready to explode in 2020. Howsare is explosive, speedy and, at 27 years old, seems like he’s just getting started. Knowing the defensive line he’s a part of, don’t be shocked if Howsare is having a breakout season himself a few months from now.

Hamilton had the league’s most feared defensive line in 2019 and it was a huge reason why they were playing for the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw in November. Knowing they’re bringing back all four of Davis, Howsare, Wynn, and Laurent, I can’t see how that’ll be changing this season.

Big man on campus

With no disrespect intended to other unsigned free agents, there’s just one game changing talent still up for grabs. Receiver Derel Walker is weighing his options almost a week into free agency, and why wouldn’t he? Walker was the one true franchise-altering talent available on offence this year, which allows him the luxury of picking his spot.

We’ve heard Walker linked to the BC Lions and, more recently, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Regardless of where he chooses to sign, Walker’s presence instantly transforms an offence. He’s one of maybe a handful of receivers opposing defences have to specifically game plan for. Walker’s blend of breakaway speed and physicality makes him one of the league’s most unique talents.

Don’t let those 2019 numbers fool you when it comes to Walker, either. The Argos utilized their number one offensive weapon in curious fashion, as there were weeks where he’d see less than five targets. That never computed for me and I’m not sure what the reason was, but I do know a player like Walker should routinely be around double-digit targets on a weekly basis.

When Walker was utilized like Toronto’s most dangerous weapon, he was dominant. We saw him go off for 188 yards and 203 yards against Winnipeg (Week 5) and Hamilton (Week 12), respectively. Those were two of the CFL’s best defensive units last year, which shows you what this guy is capable of when he’s fed the ball; Walker had 28 combined targets in those two games.

I know every game is unique and a team can’t focus on involving only one player. In saying that, I can’t see how getting Walker six or fewer targets on seven different occasions makes much sense. I can’t see that mistake being replicated this season, which means Walker projects to have an outstanding season, wherever he signs.

For me, the most intriguing landing spot is a reunion with quarterback Mike Reilly in BC. Walker established himself as an elite receiver in his first two CFL years in Reilly’s offence in Edmonton. 2016 saw Walker and Adarius Bowman combine for almost 3,500 yards with the Eskimos and I can see similar things happening with the Lions.

In Bryan Burnham, BC already has the league’s best possession receiver under contract. The prospect of Walker and Burnham lining up side-by-side at the X and Y spots, respectively, is a tantalizing prospect. I’m not saying that’s how the Lions would utilize those two, but it’s definitely in the realm of possibility.

2020 free agency was dominated by defensive game-breakers like Willie Jefferson, Cleyon Laing, and Dylan Wynn and lacked the same type of truly elite talent on the offensive side. That excludes Walker, however, and whatever teams that signs him will end up with one of the biggest prizes of the winter.


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