Ottawa Redblacks' CFL off-season priorities are many: 'We'll set the bar higher'

Ottawa Redblacks' CFL off-season priorities are many: 'We'll set the bar higher'

The financial realites of a salary cap league began to hit the Ottawa Redblacks like a sudden temperature drop, as they gathered for one last time on Tuesday.

The CFL is the league where one cannot tell the players without an app that updates on roster churn. After Year 1, it was evident there would be upgrades all over the roster. After the charmed run to a Grey Cup trip, Ottawa will be parting with some key pieces.

"We have lot of good people here and a lot of good talent," said middle linebacker Damaso Munoz, one of the defensive starters who can become a free agent in February. "Hopefully this fire burns until next season.

"It's been a lot of ups and downs — a lot hard work, a lot of growing, a lot of a lot of things," added Munoz, who signed with Ottawa midway through 2014 after a stint with Tampa Bay in the NFL. "We have something special here and it's up to management to keep it together. That's the way it is in this league. There's a lot of turnover and until the GMs make the signings, we never know.

"The only thing you can do about it in the off-season is work and train hard and pray about it and be with your family, You never know. There's always curveballs."

The CFL hasn't released a full list of free agents. Ottawa has many core players under contract, but the frontline defenders who could go FA include Munoz and fellow starting linebacker David Hinds, along with three nationals along the defensive line, Keith Shologan and Zack Evans in the interior and team sack leader Justin Capicciotti as a rush end. Offensively, it could be daunting to keep secondary-stretching boundary wide receiver Chris Williams. Left guard J'Micheal Deane is also a free agent while 2014 first overall pick Alex Mateas is waiting in the wings.

"I haven't had a chance to think about that because I've been so focused on the playoff run, but I'll definitely have to discuss with my family and agent about my future," said Capicciotti, one of 12 players claimed in the 2013 expansion draft that has been with Ottawa for its whole two-season run. "I love it here it in Ottawa. I love the fans, the atmosphere, the coaching staff, and the locker room they've built. It's very unknown right now, but I do love it here and this is a place I would definitely like to be here.

"It's rare to see guys stay in one place for too long in this league."

Since established Canadian talent is always at a premium in the CFL, retaining nationals would figure to be a priority. Ottawa doesn't have as much cap space for 2016 as it did last winter.

"There's not a lot of Canadian players out there for us to go find if we lose some of ours, but at the same time there has to be a balance," general manager Marcel Desjardins said. "We're not going to be able to keep everybody. That's impossible. We just have to find the right balance of salary versus the ratio versus the player. It's not an easy process.

"Part of our equation is going to be the cap — A, the cap and B, the need," Desjardins added. "We don't have to do as much going into next year so we'll have to make smart decisions instead of targeting a bunch of guys once.

"The starters would be the priority and then go from there. I don't think we have a glaring weakness like we did going into last year."

The Grey Cup turned on Edmonton controlling the line of scrimmage on each side of the ball. Quarterback Henry Burris frequently had to check down to running back William Powell instead of being able to play Air Raid with his quartet of 1,000-yard receivers, Williams, Greg Ellingson, Ernest Jackson and Brad Sinopoli. On the offensive line, the Edmonton right-side combo of guard Matt O'Donnell and tackle Justin Sorensen each made a case to get the top Canadian award that went to wide receiver Shamawd Chambers.

"We need to show up next year as better players and coaches," head coach Rick Campbell sid. "We'll get over the disappointment and come back hungry. We'll set the bar higher

"I think it is a healthy to have higher expectations," Campbell added. We wanted to turn this into a place that was good to play and win football games. We set a foundation for that.

"I'm not surprised we turned a corner although I can't say we expected to finish in first place and be in the Grey Cup. We had a good core group and just needed to add some pieces."

Ottawa's first two Canadian college draft picks, guard/centre Alex Mateas and receiver Jake Harty, who was a terror on special teams in the postseason, will likely have expanded roles next season.


The big off-season question, though, is how many stalwarts can be retained. Whatever the winter folds, being part of a rising resonates for players such as Munoz, whose formative football years included helping Rutgers University go from doormat to a team that was bowl-eligible and eventually moved into the Big Ten conference.

"I love this organization," the Miami native said. "Building something is something just made by God for me, I don't know. I've just always been part of building something. I think I just want to continue building it until we win a championship."

Similarly, watching Capicciotti break out over the past two seasons was a treat. The Toronto native had great mentoring from another Canadian-born sackmaster, defensive line coach Leroy Blugh. One of the more enjoyable moments of the season was Aug. 30, when the Redblacks had 11 sacks against Saskatchewan during a game where Blugh was honoured at halftime for his induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

"I've never had a relationship with a coach quite like the relationship I've had with him," Capicciotti said. "It's been special ever since he was coaching me in Edmonton." 

"It's been a rough loss but it's a special year," Capicciotti added.

"It's been fun to come to work here every day. You can't complain when you get that in football." 

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.